Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Deep Cuts, Graphic Novel

Blue Note Records is most closely associated with hard bop from the 1950s and 1960s, but its earliest sessions were traditional New Orleans musicians like Sidney Bechet and its final records (before the 1980s relaunch) were funk-jazz produced by the Mizell Brothers (and similar artists). You can easily view jazz history through the prism of Blue Notes Records. That is essentially what writers Kyle Higgins & Joe Clark do, without mentioning the label by name, in the graphic novel Deep Cuts, which goes on-sale today.

Fittingly, it starts in New Orleans, where a youthful clarinet player is eager for sideman work in “What it Means” (art by Danilo Beyruth). He will learn a lot from his first boss—not all of it good. However, he writes a brilliant jazz composition that reverberates throughout the following stories.

The action shifts to New York in “Sorry, I Can’t Take You” (art by Helena Masselis), telling the story of an aspiring Broadway composer, who needs her first show under her own name to be a success, because she won’t get a second chance. The producer tells her to write a “jazz hit,” but she finds that is harder to do than she realized.

“K.C. Blues” (art by Diego Greco) takes us to the Missouri town when it was the reigning jazz capitol thanks to Basie and Moten—but not for Alice Leslie’s father. He quit the music business to take a square job and the young aspiring detective wants to figure out why.

By far the best chapter is “Blue Notes” (art also by Diego Greco), which brings readers into the hard bop era. It tells the tragic but not uncommon history of a musician undone by addiction issues, whose only recording as a leader features a brilliant solo on a tune built around the changes from the song composed way back in “What it Means.”

Greco’s striking art also includes brilliant visual tributes to dozens of classic Blue Note Records album covers. Those that immediately stood out during a first reading included: Donald Byrd’s
Royal Flush and Cat Walk, Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris, Andrew Hill’s Judgement, Bennie Green’s Back on the Scene, Horace Silver’s Finger Poppin’ and 6 Pieces of Silver, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin, Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions, John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Kenny Dorham’s Una Mas, and The Magnificent Thad Jones, but there are probably a dozen more in there. If you don’t recognize any of those albums, you should go listen to them now.

Arguably, “Seeking Secrets” (art by Juni Ba), wherein a former jazz critic turned rock journalist tries to sufficiently understand a free jazz musician, so he can write his piece, feels like a bit of a letdown. The focus is definitely on the journalist, not the musician, who looks like a composite of Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. There are some interesting themes here, but the late great Nat Hentoff handled them better in his sadly out-of-print YA novel
Jazz Country.

“The Great Unknown” (art by Toby Cypress) takes the story in ironic directions for its conclusion. A former straight ahead hardbop player has become a huge star playing jazz-funk and even disco-crossover, but he is starting to regret his choices. He is searching for redemption in the form of a song—the source of the classic solo recorded in “Blue Notes.” He is also about to lose his keyboard player, who appropriately finds inspiration in the show tunes penned by the composer of “Sorry, I Can’t Take You.”

Deep Cuts
does a great job showing how sideman become leaders and old chestnuts get reinterpreted into fresh, new recordings. Readers who are relatively new to jazz can understand the apostolic connections and how one style evolves into another from the fictional jazz history Higgins and Clark have written.

Plus, you have to dig the Blue Note love. Beyond “Blue Notes,” the layout of the panels and the swooshes of color evoke the vibe of Reid Miles’s classic cover designs. Clearly, Higgins and Clark thoroughly understand the history of the music and the battery of artists appreciate jazz’s visual traditions. Very highly recommended, the tradepaper edition of
Deep Cuts is now available wherever comics are sold.