Photograph by Jimmy Katz
Notations: Left to right, the Blue Note Seven: Ravi Coltrane, Lewis Nash, Bill Charlap, Peter Bernstein, Nicholas Payton, Peter Washington and Steve Wilson.
The Blue Note Seven
Seven of jazz's brightest lights descend on Santa Cruz to celebrate the legendary label's anniversary.
By Andrew Gilbert
The history of American music would look and sound a whole lot different without Blue Note Records. From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, Blue Note defined modern jazz, providing many of the music's most charismatic improvisers with a sympathetic and aesthetically astute forum. From Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Art Blakey to Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson, the proud independent label documented jazz's advanced mainstream and packaged the new sounds with crisp, iconic black and white photos capturing the creative intensity of the players.
This year marks a double milestone for Blue Note, with numerous concerts, exhibits and events honoring the 70th anniversary of its founding and 25th anniversary of its rebirth. Spearheading the yearlong celebration of the label's incalculable legacy is the Blue Note 7 tribute band featuring pianist and musical director Bill Charlap, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. The band's 50-city U.S. tour brings the septet to Kuumbwa on Monday, one week after the release of the Blue Note 7 album Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records.
"It's not really a repertory band," explains Charlap, an indefatigably swinging pianist who's recorded a series of acclaimed albums for Blue Note. "All the players are bringing in new arrangements for the septet. The focus is the great Blue Note period of the 1950s and '60s--Horace Silver and Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. When you think about the incredible wealth of music, there's no way you could do anything but scratch the surface."
The band has essentially cherry-picked some of the most enduring compositions associated with Blue Note. Charlap notes that each player has helped define the band's sound by contributing arrangements. Nash, an invaluable drummer who has recorded hundreds of albums, wrote a thoughtful version of "Mosaic," a harmonically tricky hard bop anthem Cedar Walton designed for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Payton, one of the most exciting and incisive trumpeters to emerge in the 1990s, finds a new way to unravel Joe Henderson's surging modal sojourn "Inner Urge."
Wilson, a dependably brilliant reed player in constant demand on the New York scene, revels in the dancing beauty of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem" and tangles with the knotty rhythmic puzzle of Thelonious Monk's "Criss Cross." Bernstein, a lithe guitarist who just released an album devoted to Monk's music, offers a tantalizing arrangement of Duke Pearson's luminous blues "Idle Moments" (which was written for guitarist Grant Green, another jazz legend inextricably linked to Blue Note).
In an interesting twist, Charlap tackles Horace Silver's long overlooked "The Outlaw," an ingeniously structured piece with a Latin tinge. The only ringers are two pieces arranged by pianist Renee Rosnes (a longtime Blue Note artist who also happens to be married to Charlap). She contributes charts for pianist McCoy Tyner's spiritually charged tune "Search for Peace" and Herbie Hancock's ravishing ballad "Dolphin Dance" from his classic 1965 album Maiden Voyage.
Rather than trying to recreate the Blue Note vibe, Charlap and his comrades use the enduring compositions as an opportunity to explore their own concepts. "I'm not a huge fan of nostalgia for nostalgia's sake," says Ravi Coltrane, whose father, tenor sax legend John Coltrane, recorded his first classic album, Blue Trane, for Blue Note in 1957. "But so many of the things we love are connected to these records. There's an identity and lineage involved, an arc to all of that work. That's the beauty of it, the way so many artists had a chance to really express themselves at their best."
Birth of Cool
The story of Blue Note Records is almost as quintessentially American as jazz itself. Founded in 1939 by German Jewish émigré Alfred Lion, who was soon joined by childhood friend Francis Wolff, Blue Note first documented boogie-woogie pianists and early jazz stars like powerhouse soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. But in the years after World War II, Blue Note emerged as the definitive modern jazz label through a series of epochal recordings by an obscure pianist/composer named Thelonious Monk.
Wolff and Lion were savvy entrepreneurs who produced a string of commercially successful releases and instrumental jukebox hits while maintaining strong relationships with artists through their fair business dealings and respect for the music. Unable to resist the rising tide of rock & roll, however, Lion retired in 1967 when Liberty Records acquired the label. Wolff continued to work as a producer until his death in 1971, which pretty much marked the end of Blue Note. The label was relaunched in 1984 by veteran record executive Bruce Lundvall, who has maintained Blue Note's reputation as a creative hothouse while also earning commercial success with artists like singer Norah Jones.
Instead of using the project as an opportunity to showcase its roster, the label assembled a cast of supremely fluent mid-career players for the Blue Note 7. In many ways, choosing the personnel for the band posed a considerable challenge. There's hardly a mainstream jazz musician who hasn't been shaped by seminal Blue Note recordings, and each artist brings his own web of Blue Note connections to the band.
"The catalog as a whole is unbelievable, but my Blue Note experience is centered around the saxophonists and pianists--Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner," says Coltrane. "Herbie Hancock's Speak Like a Child was one of the first records I sat down with in college to analyze, technically speaking. It's still one of my favorites. It's something that resonates from your past that keeps resonating into your future."
That resonance is the legacy of Lion and Wolff, two guys who fled the Nazis and helped create the soundtrack for 20th century America.
THE BLUE NOTE 70TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR is Monday, Jan. 19, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30 advance/$33 door at 831.427.2227 or www.kuumbwajazz.org.
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