Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Blue Note Records—Beyond the Notes

It started with recordings of boogie woogie piano masters Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, but Blue Note Records would become synonymous with 50s and 60s Hard Bop, exemplified by artists like Horace Silver and Lee Morgan. They might sound stylistically disparate, but everyone on the classic Blue Note label was totally authentic and swung hard. The label’s past, present, and future are celebrated in Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were fans, not businessmen. Wolff presciently immigrated to America amid the rise of National Socialism in Germany, joining his boyhood friend Lion in New York. With Blue Note Records, they just started recording music they wanted to hear. Somehow, the venture became sustainable (barely), but it was never a commercial power house. Due to cash flow issues, they were forced to sell out to Liberty Records in 1965, but they were never comfortable working in a more corporate environment. Lion retired, Wolff passed away, and the new Capitol/EMI masters consigned the label to dormancy in 1979. Ordinarily, that would be the end of the story, but fan reverence for Blue Note was so deep and their backlist catalog sales were so strong, Capitol revived the label in 1985.

When an institution like Blue Note refuses to stay dead, it most definitely means something. Huber does a nice job explaining the many reasons fans have such respect and fetish-like collectors’ zeal for the label. Of course, the music is first and foremost. Lion and Wolff discovered, nurtured, and extensively recorded many great musicians, including Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Jimmy Smith (who is oddly shortchanged in the film), Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson, and “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson, who consistently livens things up with his candid interview segments, as anyone who has heard him in the clubs would fully expect.

Due credit is also given to Reid Miles’ boldly modernistic cover designs and Wolff’s remarkable photographs taken at the sessions (incidentally, a few covers were designed by a cat name Andy Warhol, but he never amounted to much). (Some colleagues asked me how legit Wolff’s photography was after a press screening—does two collections published by Rizzoli and exhibitions at the Smithsonian and the Jewish Museum in Berlin answer the question?).

Huber and her interview subjects also acknowledge the mastery of Rudy Van Gelder, Blue Note’s regular engineer (who had a particularly good ear for jazz but recorded every style of music under the sun) and the respectful and productive atmosphere fostered by Lion and Wolff. Unlike other labels, they paid musicians to rehearse, allowing their artists to bring in sophisticated charts, instead of just blowing head arrangements on some impromptu blues.

Huber views this musical legacy through the prism of a studio session for Robert Glasper, one of the label’s most prominent and talented contemporary artists not named Norah Jones (who also duly appears to pay tribute). Past and present meet when Hancock and Wayne Shorter join Glasper’s group, with the label’s current president Don Was proudly looking on from the control board. That kind of says it all for a lot of Hard Bop-focused Blue Note fans—yet it still leaves much unsaid.

Frankly, Beyond the Notes could have easily been a four-hour Amazon documentary, in the tradition of Long Strange Trip. Admittedly, some editing is usually a good thing, but it is rather problematic that Huber ignores Blue Note’s avant-garde/free jazz legacy, because these jazz artists are always the most likely to be marginalized. Unless they recognize a few album covers that flash across the screen, viewers would have no indication “outside” and explorative musicians like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, and Andrew Hill recorded for Blue Note.

Blue Note has such a rich history, distilling it down to ninety minutes would be a daunting task.  Yet, a good deal of time is devoted to arguing Blue Note is suddenly more “relevant” in the current cultural and ideological climate. However, the truth is Blue Note was never very political, especially when compared to Impulse Records or Flying Dutchman. Yes, jazz is descended from the blues, which was born out of slavery, but it is still frustrating Huber feels compelled to justify the music on the basis of some fleeting political relevancy instead of having confidence in its intrinsic and enduring value.

Blue Note is a record label. Ordinarily, those were just words on a sticker covering the dead wax of an LP, but Blue Note was, and to a considerable extent still is special. It was the artists, the look and the sound. It was the total package. Huber mostly gets at the essence, but there is so much more to the story, like Long Tall Dexter Gordon, whom many viewers who don’t know Blue Note from Blue Thumb will recognize from his Oscar-nominated performance in Round Midnight.

Even coupled with Julian Benedikt’s straight-over-the-plate Blue Note: A Story Modern Jazz, a great deal of significant Blue Note history and music is left out of the picture, but that means you are entitled to a feeling of discovery for everything you ferret out yourself (tip: start with Freddie Redd). Recommended (despite a few frustrations) for jazz fans and viewers with open ears, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes screens again tonight (4/25) and tomorrow (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.