Celebrating 85 years of Blue Note Records

Blue Note has traced the entire history of jazz – from boogie woogie to swing, through bebop and soul jazz and onto the avant garde and fusion. Now Blue Note artists embrace the world of jazz rap, hip hop and more and it was time for us to celebrate 85 years of the longest-running label in jazz.

Eighty five years ago in January 1939, German-Jewish immigrant and passionate jazz fan Alfred Lion produced his first recording session in New York City, founding what would go on to be this most iconic of labels. In 2012 Blue Note entered a new era under the stewardship of new President Don Was – an inspired choice of leader who has taken the label on to new heights through imaginative signings and the refocused reissue programme of Classic and Tone Poet editions.

We should also mention the great Michael Cuscuna who died earlier this month. Cuscuna was the man who singlehandedly kept the Blue Note label on life support when no one else was playing attention or knew what to do – and quote comes from the Blue Note obituary and reminiscence feature that you can find right here. It’s a tribute to and celebration of what one inspired visionary can do in the corporate world of the music business. Cuscuna worked alongside Bruce Lundvall – an established record executive and jazz devotee – and from 1984 they headed various reissue campaigns, including the popular RVG series which namechecked the master engineer Rudy Van Gelder. But they also brought back former Blue Note icons and signed many new artists too – and without them, the label would undoubtedly have died. You can hear Cuscuna talking about the Blue Note sound and some of the iconic record covers in this great video feature from Vox and for a one minute film about the great cover designer Reid Miles check this out.

So on Cosmic Jazz this time round we pay tribute to the label with a selection of ten classic tracks – old and new, mainstream and avant garde, down in the groove and out there on the edge.

1. Grant Green – Time to Remember (Osunlade remix) from Blue Note Revisited

We kick off the show with a chilled remix from producer and Yoruba priest Osunlade that’s unusually just half the length of the original which first appeared on Grant Green’s Alive album. Bright and bouncy, this is highlight from a patchy Blue Note remix album first released in 2004. Of course, Blue Note artists had long been sampled to good effect by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West and Public Enemy and one of the delights of these hip hop artists was listening out for their sample sources. Among the best crate-digging beats come from London-based group Us3 (the first hip-hop act signed to Blue Note) who scored a pop hit with Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia) in 1993, which famously reconfigured Herbie Hancock’s Canteloupe Island and A Tribe Called Quest’s wonderful Electric Relaxation from their masterpiece Midnight Marauders (also 1993) which uses Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew as a starting point. Check out this udiscovermusic post for lots more Blue Note samples.

2. Art Blakey – Abdallah’s Delight from Orgy in Rhythm Vol. 2

Art Blakey booked his slot in our Blue Note show at a very early stage – although he recorded for many other labels, he’s perhaps most associated with Blue Note. Derek’s first choice is a bona fide classic from 1957 and one of the first percussion-focused records. Released initially as two LPs, Blakey enlisted a terrific line-up with Art Taylor and Philly Jo Jones alongside the leader on drums, five percussionists including the great Sabu Martinez, flautist Herbie Mann, pianist Ray Bryant and bassist Wendell Marshall. From that opening drum break, into the bass solo and then the muted piano before Herbie Mann comes in on flute, Abdallah’s Delight is indeed a charming groove that just swings! Ray Bryant summons up a kind of Ellingtonian vibe and Sabu leads a midtrack percussion breakout – it’s just nine minutes of magic. Note that Blakey recorded his final Blue Note album Indestructible exactly 60 years ago on 15 May 1964!

3. Joe Henderson – El Barrio from Inner Urge

Derek and Neil have great memories of El Barrio at a Blue Note live gig some years ago – a hit on the dancefloor, this burner from tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson really got everyone moving. And that’s not surprising as Henderson is joined by jazz royalty – McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones alongside Sonny Rollins’ sideman Bob Cranshaw on bass. Tyner is really impressive on this record – and his raw power on the keys matches Henderson’s full-throated tenor tones. This 1964 album is full of great tunes with the title track, the Thelonious Monk-influenced Isotope and our choice – the wailing cry of El Barrio. Inner Urge is one of the best Henderson albums and it’s now available in an all-analogue remastered vinyl edition in the Classic series. Just go for it…

4. Wayne Shorter – Black Nile from Night Dreamer

And from one classic to another – also recently made available in the all-analogue Kevin Gray-mastered Classic series. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Blue Note debut (also 1964) found him well prepared to enter the big time. With an impressive quintet that includes trumpeter Lee Morgan, the aforementioned McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones along with the great Reggie Workman on bass. There’s a consensus that Shorter’s finest work is the sequence of records that he made for his first tenure with Blue Note, from Night Dreamer all the way through to the under-rated Odyssey of Iska in 1970. The invaluable Penguin Guide to Jazz notes that This is Shorter at his most Coltrane-like… The lines are much fuller than typical Wayne, with lots of accidentals and grace notes – and we can hardly disagree. This is another essential and a wonderful place to start your Shorter collection.

5. Rachelle Ferrell – You Don’t Know What Love Is from First Instrument

In the early days of Jazz FM in the UK, Derek remembers a late-night show where he came across Rachelle Ferrell and her Blue Note record First Instrument. It struck him then as an amazing record and that feeling remains today. Here was a jazz vocalist re-interpreting well-known tunes in a highly imaginative way and with a voice whose range seemed at times to take her into the stratosphere. In recent years a new crop of much-praised jazz vocalists has emerged who draw upon traditional tunes but, in our opinion, Rachelle Ferrell stands proud besides them. First Instrument was released originally in Japan in 1990 and had to wait until 1995 for a wider Blue Note release. On You Don’t Know What Love Is Rachelle soars up and down above the pared down sounds of a trio with Eddie Green leading the way on piano, Tyrone Brown on bass and Doug Nally on drums. Elsewhere on the album can be found the likes of Lenny White (who produced the record), Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Gil Goldstein, Michel Petrucciani and Stanley Clarke. Sadly, Ferrell has suffered health issues for some time and does not appear to be performing.

6. Don Pullen – Jana’s Delight from New Beginnings

For Neil, this is one of those tracks that always generates a wide smile. Seeing Pullen in London a few years before his death was a truly memorable live gig. On this Blue Note record from 1988, Pullen seems to be almost unzipping the keyboard while alongside him Gary Peacock on bass and Tony Williams on drums provide the perfect trio background. Want an even more remarkable example of Don Pullen’s unique approach to the piano? Then check out this extended version of his composition Warriors Dance: Little Don Pt.1 from the superb Black Saint album Warriors (1978).

7. Erik Truffaz feat. Nya – Siegfried from Bending New Corners

The album title is, of course, an allusion to the Thelonious Monk classic album Bending Corners and Alsace-born trumpeter Erik Truffaz takes the tradition forward with a record that features guest vocalist Nya on some tracks, including our long-time favourite Siegfried. This tune has long been a Cosmic Jazz favourite – we last played it in February last year, and we’ll surely feature it again sometime. Derek saw Truffaz live a few years ago amply demonstrating that cool modal sensibility and plangent tone to great effect – despite a tiny audience. Siegfried features the rapper Nya to good effect and the delicate Milesean tone that Truffaz teases from his horn is is just so good that once you’ve listened, a repeat is unavoidable.

8. Melissa Aldana – Los Ojos De Chile from 12 Stars

Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana is a relatively new signing to Blue Note, but she’s already made an impact with two releases, including her new album Echoes of the Inner Prophet, whose title track pays homage to Wayne Shorter. Derek’s choice comes from her debut for the label – 12 Stars – which includes this lovely tune and interesting cover art designed by jazz vocalist Cecile McClorin Salvant. It wouldn’t be the same without your artwork writes Melissa Aldana on her very special thank you list. She is now based on New York, which she reached via a full scholarship to attend Berklee College at the encouragement of Wayne Shorter’s pianist Danilo Perez. but from the title of this tune Los Ojos De Chile (Eyes of Chile) her homeland is not forgotten. Wayne Shorter was on the judges’ panel in 2013 that chose Aldana as the winner of the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. For more Aldana, just listen to her playing on this video from a 2023 live concert in California.

9. Immanuel Wilkins – Lighthouse from The 7th Hand

We continue with another of the contemporary Blue Note artists and one who’s highly rated – namely alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. He has also been appearing on music by other Blue Note artists – for example, drummer Johnathan Blake and his album Passage, which we have featured on the show. The album The 7th Hand is steeped in Biblical symbolism with a photo of Baptismal immersion on the album sleeve and the record is an hour-long suite comprised of seven movements.  If the number six represents the extent of human possibility, Wilkins wondered how it would sound to invoke divine intervention and allow that seventh element to possess his quartet. It’s the idea of being a conduit for the music as a higher power that actually influences what we’re playing, he says. The sleeve notes states how new battles are in front of us, to resume the work that began in the 1960s before things turned to psychedelic decadence and that the work will be resumed ready or not. We’re not sure whether Wilkins is talking about society or the music of the 1960s but his is certainly very much of a contemporary album even though Lighthouse includes sounds that echo jazz history.

10. Hank Mobley – No Room For Squares from No Room For Squares

We end the show with this characteristic Blue Note release from 1963. Recently reissued on vinyl as part of the Blue Note Classics series, No Room for Squares was the eleventh outing on Blue Note for Hank Mobley. Here he’s accompanied by Lee Morgan on trumpet, Andrew Hill on piano, John Ore on bass and (again) Philly Joe Jones on drums. The term ‘square’ in this context now seems to be long gone from usage, but it came out of the jazz community of the 1940s and was directed in a demeaning way to anyone who was old-fashioned or out of touch with musical trends. We can only guess that Mobley was making a statement – like this music or count yourself square. Ironically, Hank Mobley has not always been seen as a great innovator, but he commanded the greatest respect from fellow musicians like Donald Byrd. The album is a typical Mobley session, and while he’s often considered something of a journeyman for the label, he’s on excellent form here. Like a number of other Blue Note soloists (including Jackie McLean) Mobley changed his tone over the years, adopting a harder, more aggressive sound in the 1960s when compared with his 1950s approach. On this title track there’s some knotty soloing from both the saxophonist and Morgan on trumpet and Andrew Hill’s piano is typically meaty too. John Fordham in The Essential Guide to Jazz on CD described Mobley as A player of restrained fire, with a sense of melodic shape and quirkiness rivalling that of Sonny Rollins, though with none of Rollins’ bullish theatricality. Out of Mobley’s many Blue Note records currently available, we’d pick this one if you want to start your Hank Mobley collection – highly recommended and a great place to end our ten track tribute to the glories of the Blue Note label.

Neil is listening to…

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