Tuesday, January 20, 2009

70 Years of Blue Note Records: The Blue Note 7

Mosaic: a Celebration of Blue Note Records
By the Blue Note 7

Blue Note Records’ longtime slogan: “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939,” is nothing more than truth in advertising for the loyal fans of the venerable jazz label. On that maiden day in 1939, co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff recorded boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. During its early years Blue Note cut some excellent sessions from traditional artists, like Sidney Bechet, but it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s that the label really came into its own, as the premiere home of Hard-bop, the earthier, more soulful successor to bebop. Specially assembled to mark the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, the Blue Note 7 specifically honors those classic hard-bop sessions with the release of Mosaic.

As the musical director of the Blue Note 7, pianist Bill Charlap is the leader among leaders. He is also the only member of the BN7 signed to the label. However, tenor-player Ravi Coltrane has important family connections to Blue Note. His legendary father, John Coltrane, only recorded one session of his own for the label, but it was a great one: Blue Train. He also appeared as a sideman on Johnny Griffin’s aptly titled A Blowin’ Session, and Sonny Clark’s Sonny's Crib, as well as some historically significant live recordings documenting his time with Thelonious Monk, which were released posthumously, well after the Blue Note’s 1985 re-launch. With trumpeter Nicholas Payton, altoist Steve Coleman and a rhythm section of guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Lewis Nash, and bassist Peter Washington rounding out the seven, the BN7 is quite an accomplished group of either distinguished leaders or absolutely top-flight sidemen, all very well known to those supporting the New York club scene.

The title track, Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic,” originally recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while Walton served as musical director, is a Hard-bop flag-waver, totally in the spirit of the original. It is a good vehicle for some blowing from just about all involved, including Charlap himself. Long associated with his interpretations of the Great American Songbook, Charlap’s bop chops are largely under-appreciated, but he has co-led a number of gigs with the fiery Parker-inspired alto-player Phil Woods. Appropriately, Nash takes it out, channeling the hard-swinging Blakey spirit.

While the BN7’s rendition of “Mosaic” has plenty of fire, they are actually more effective on tunes taken at something less than breakneck tempos. “The Search for Peace,” composed and recorded by McCoy Tyner (an alumni of both Blue Note Records and the classic John Coltrane Quartet), is an elegant meditation, giving Payton and Ravi Coltrane ample space to stretch out. Likewise, the intriguing combination of Wilson’s flute and Bernstein’s guitar perfectly fit Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem.” Probably the highlight of Mosaic though, is “Idle Moments,” a slow blues originally composed by pianist and Blue Note A&R man Duke Pearson for the label’s resident guitarist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Grant Green. Bernstein is the only solo voice in his arrangement, but the rock solid rhythm section and the supportive ensemble punctuations from the horns give it that late-night vibe that made Blue Note sessions so revered by generations of jazz fans.

The BN7 also follows in the Blue Note super-group tradition begun shortly after the label’s 1980’s resurrection. Whereas Out of the Blue was conceived as a group to promote promising young talent, and New Directions showcased relatively young but innovative artists already recording for Blue Note, the BN7 appear to be recruited mostly outside the label fold, expressly for this project. They have some killer moments on Mosaic and should really lock-in as they tour the country. Their road-show is already underway, with performances in Los Angeles and Orange County this week, culminating with a week-long stand at Birdland, starting April 14th.