Into the Blue
“In times of crisis,” wrote Frank O’Hara, “we must all decide again and again whom we love.” For the poet, it was the actors in his adored movies: “Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck, / Sue Carroll as she sits for eternity on the damaged fender of a car / and smiles.” For me, it’s the assembled cast of Blue Note Records. It all starts with founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, turned on to jazz in 1930s Berlin, who came to New York and, after seeing the From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, decided to record two boogie-woogie pianists they admired, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.
From that single session in 1939 grew an inimitable label devoted to jazz “with a feeling,” as they described it. Blue Note moved from swing into bebop, then fell into its role, for about 10 years, as the defining label of hard bop. From there it expanded convincingly into the avant-garde, but its core remained the 1950s into mid-’60s recordings, perfect statements that show mid-century America at its finest, chock full of soul and style. Over its first three decades, before the label was sold in 1971, Blue Note produced dozens and dozens of brilliant recordings that captured and conveyed something rare and glorious: a creative explosion, coherently expressed and gorgeously documented. The cover designs of Reid Miles came to define the Blue Note aesthetic, their sophisticated layouts somehow perfectly composed complements to the music. Add in engineer nonpareil Rudy Van Gelder, bringing warmth and depth to the mix and creating the signature sound of the label, and the core cast is set.
As for the players, their names tend to throw me into an O’Hara-like swoon. Decades of listening to their recordings has not cooled my ardor, and any day of the week I am likely to be calling on them to redeem me, in a general and specific sense. Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Jimmy Smith, Bobby Hutcherson, Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock … the list goes on and on. The extra spark heard from these musicians on their Blue Note sessions also comes with a perfectly logical, as well as endearing, explanation: Lion and Wolff paid for two days of rehearsal for nearly all the sessions, and also brought good, home-cooked food for everyone. With the players relaxed and ready, they were able to go deeper, to breathe into their compositions and fully inhabit them. The results are astonishing in their passionate clarity.
I am hardly alone in my dedication to Blue Note. Among their devoted fans around the world are two filmmakers who made brilliant use of the label’s special vibe and history. Swedish director Kasper Kollin made the heartfelt and tragic I Called Him Morgan, which draws on interviews from Blue Note mainstays Jymie Merritt, Billy Harper, Larry Ridley, and Lee Morgan’s great running buddy in the Jazz Messengers, Shorter. Swiss director Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is a loving summary of what roads the label has traveled, and how contemporary musicians are striving to adapt and contemporize it.
Therein lies a question: if you revere something, what should you do to honor it? “Steep yourself in it, then move beyond” is the usual formulation. But move how, and where? Blue Note-loving musicians and producers have answered this in different ways over the years, with varying degrees of success. In 1993, Us3 took Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe” as the basis for a laid-back hip-hop track that scored well on the pop charts, but the album as a whole captured only a trace of the label’s magic. Madlib dug in harder on his 2003 Shades of Blue, shimmering remixes of Blue Note cuts put out by the label itself.
Since then, Blue Note received an influx of cash when Norah Jones admirably chose to release her very popular music through the label. The largesse funded recordings by great musicians (Van Morrison, Al Green) only nominally connected to the core style of the label. All seemed to be paying their respects to the glories of the label without truly capturing and conveying its essence.
The most promising for me, though, is Reimagining the Message, a new recording, out on Blue Note in November, by gifted drummer and composer Makaya McCraven. A thoughtful, questing musician, McCraven uses the full range of what the label produced as the basis for his explorations. Blue Note is promoting the album in an interesting way, providing only one of the drummer’s reinterpretations, a complete overhaul of “Frank’s Tune” by criminally lesser-known pianist Jack Wilson. On the opener, Blakey sets things off with his famously convivial stage patter from a Café Bohemia session (“As the message is being delivered tonight … we wish for you to come in, relax, take off your shoes, and have a ball”), segueing into the Wilson-derived number. Here, McCraven takes a hard turn away from the period to reimagine the song’s chromatic movements in a new way, fusing the classic sound with a contemporary R&B and hip-hop context. He truly finds the connection between these sometimes close, sometimes distant worlds, in much the way the Notorious B.I.G. is shown to in the recent documentary on him, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, where his flow is laid over a Max Roach track to stunning effect.
The rest of their advance playlist offers the not-the-usual-suspects Blue Note deep cuts that McCraven will be reimagining; tracks by Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, Dexter Gordon, and others, concluding with Sun Ra associate Eddie Gale’s “Black Rhythm Happening,” a step into the beyond for the label. So it is McCraven’s curatorial excellence that is highlighted; he makes you hear these songs anew, and that grounds the effort as a whole.
Part of the deciphered message, then, is to dive deep into the past; another part is to recognize that hybridity rules, each generation stealing from the last and adapting for the next. But there is another way to go: playing something so straight that you are virtually acceding that it can’t be topped. Such was the case when Donald Harrison took the stage at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival recently to recreate the Bird with Strings album with the Harlem Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Amadi Azikiwe. A great altoist and former Jazz Messenger, Harrison is fully capable of drawing out the different sub-structures of music, the cross-currents running under and through it, as is so abidingly felt in the music of his native New Orleans. But here he reduced the number of elements, simply setting his sweetly acidic tone against the gauzy orchestrations of arranger Jimmy Carroll. As a result, the crowd was enthralled from the first note, and seemed to drift off into a collective dream.
It was inspiring to see the festival back for its 28th year and firmly rooted in Harlem, with all shows taking place at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park; as Harrison noted admiringly, “This music was invented right here!” Before the encore on the final night’s performance, drummer Willie Jones III commented that what united all the players on the bandstand, who hailed from all different parts of the world, was their intense love of the music. That’s the place where it all starts, wherever it may take us.