Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records, stated in the company'92s first brochure, printed in 1939, that the label would be '93concerned with identifying [jazz'92s] impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.'94
Well, impulses and mission statements be damned. Blue Note turns 70 this year and the label'92s current powers-that-be decided that a little commercial adornment couldn'92t hurt. Thus, the formation of a tribute band, called The Blue Note 7, and album, titled Mosaic, named after a composition by Art Blakey'92s Jazz Messengers.
The tribute band and subsequent tour was the idea of Jack Randall, a booking agent of all things. Not the purist of impulses, certainly, but this is still a Blue Note celebration we'92re talking about. Plus, the tour brings The Blue Note 7 to Birmingham'92s Alys Stephens Center on Saturday, Feb. 28, so perhaps we can cut the promo devils some slack.
After all, it was Blakey who once told an interviewer: '93[Americans] haven'92t been sold on jazz, and there is a great deal of selling to be done. Why don'92t those high-powered salesman go to work on jazz? Let'92s sell jazz a little bit. It'92s more American than a lot of other things.'94
Motivation aside, the tribute album does two things well: it showcases serious jazz talent and it allowed band members to re-imagine each song, instead of just imitating legendary Blue Note tunes. The genius of Blue Note for the longest time was keeping things fresh and experimenting with the new.
Thus, on Mosaic, Blakey'92s title track receives a variation from drummer Lewis Nash. Renee Rosnes re-arranges McCoy Tyner'92s '93Search for Peace'94 and Herbie Hancock'92s '93Dolphin Dance.'94 And Thelonious Monk'92s '93Criss Cross'94 gets new life thanks to inventive riffs by saxophonist Steve Wilson. Pieces by Bobby Hutcherson, Grant Green and Horace Silver are also revised for the album.
The Blue Note 7 also includes noted trumpeter Nicholas Payton, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (yes, son of that Coltrane; yes, named after that Ravi), guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist and producer Bill Charlap, and bassist Peter Washington. Charlap Payton and Nash in particular create some memorable moments on the recording.
That said, the album won'92t please everyone. (Not a peep of trombone? On a label that once included Curtis Fuller '96 who even had a major role in Blakey'92s original '93Mosaic'94?)
Of course, eight tracks to cover 70 years is an impossible task. Blue Note is where Monk made '93'92Round Midnight'94 a jazz staple; where Jimmy Smith singlehandedly brought a new instrument to the jazz scene; where some guy named Miles wailed. So there'92s going to be some stuff missing.
The album features tracks mostly from Blue Note'92s glory years from the late '9140s to early '9160s '96 and understandably so. Still, it would have been nice to hear examples of Blue Note'92s earlier musicians (can you name the first two artists ever recorded by Blue Note? Trivia answer: Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.).
Or maybe a track or two from its more recent stable of artists who helped restore the Blue Note luster (the label actually went dormant for about six years between 1979-1985 until EMI re-launched the label under its ownership), performers such as Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones, Amos Lee, Terence Blanchard and Cassandra Wilson (the last two won Grammies this year for Blue Note releases).
Or a tune from one of its outside-the-jazz-mainstream artists such as Chuco Valdes, Bobby McFerrin or Al Green, a two-time '9209 Grammy winner for the label.
Thankfully, there should be time for additional tunes from the '937'92s'94 wider repertoire this Saturday. At any rate, an overflowing archive is not a bad problem for a label to have. More likely, it'92s even a profitable problem. We might be in store for Volumes 2, 3, 4'85 and more '85 down the road from The Blue Note 7.
Cool Hands James
There are few true jazz fans without multiple Blue Note albums in their collection. My own favorite is Jimmy Smith'92s Cool Blues. It'92s got a vintage Francis Wolff cover shot of Smith with mouth wide open, eyes closed in concentration and right hand in mid-flight above the organ'92s keys.
Cool Blues is a live album recorded in 1958 at Small'92s Paradise, a legendary Harlem club. It'92s one of famed engineer Rudy Van Gelder'92s '93lost albums'94 that wasn'92t released in full until 1990.
I love the album because before I listened to it, it just had never occurred to me (or to anyone else before Smith, for that matter) how the organ could be a jazz instrument. Loose, inventive renditions on there '96 such as '93Groovin'92 at Small'92s'94 and '93A Night in Tunisia'94 '96 showed how. Smith could shape and lengthen organ notes like a trumpeter might, but on his Hammond organ they somehow sounded even more soulful.
Plus, the set featured numbers with Art Blakey on drums and Lou Donaldson on alto sax. What'92s not to love?
Here'92s hoping Saturday'92s performance at the Alys keeps the Blue Note spirit spinning. Commercial adornments be damned.
The Blue Note 7 play the Alys Stephens Center'92s Jemison Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$55; student tix are $20. Call 975-2787 or visit www.alysstephens.org.