JOIN THE MAILING LIST
The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
I've always been a Blue Note junkie, so you can imagine my delight when I came across a gorgeous, lavishly-illustrated, 85-dollar slab of a coffee table book called Uncompromising Expression, which charts the history of the label up to the present. Of course I have the two previous books: Blue Note – The Album Cover Art, which gives you what seems like all, or most, of the approximately 500 covers designed by the great Reid Miles in the label's mid-50s – mid-60s Golden Age; and Richard Cook's Blue Note Records: The Biography, which gives you the inside story of the label and its cast of characters. This new tome does a bit (or quite a lot, really) of both, and though it's not as complete as its predecessors put together, it's pretty damn fine, and brings the story up to date.
One nice feature of Uncompromising Expression is that it regularly pauses its narrative to devote a double-page spread to one classic album. A few of the choices surprised me, but they're mostly the usual suspects; albums so iconic that almost everyone with an interest in music is at least aware of them, like Coltrane's Blue Train, Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, Art Blakey's Moanin', and Horace Silver's Song For My Father. Then there are influential albums beloved of musicians and critics, like Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil or Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage. Others are known mainly for their stunning cover art, which has been much imitated: Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch, or Freddie Hubbard's Hub-Tones. (I did a Blue Note pastiche myself, of the album Sonny Rollins Vol. 2, and some years later, Rolling Stone magazine printed that cover side by side with my Body and Soul. Apparently, my cover was a rip-off. And they had caught me. Curses! Foiled again!)
Anyway, those are all great albums, but here are a few lesser-known ones I've enjoyed just as much.
LEE MORGAN: Search For The New Land
I love Sidewinder too, but this is compositionally more ambitious, shows more sides of Morgan's talent, and is a better overall album.
KENNY DORHAM: Whistle Stop
Dorham is less renowned as a trumpet player than he once was, but he was very good and his records hold up because he was also such a talented composer. This album is the best showcase of his writing and arranging – atmospheric, original, and without a dull moment.
ART TAYLOR: A. T.'s Delight
The one and only album as leader by a ubiquitous session drummer, this is way better than it ought to be: well-paced, lively, and interesting, with great playing by the likes of Stanley Turrentine on tenor and Wynton Kelly on piano.
ART BLAKEY & THE JAZZ MESSENGERS: Roots and Herbs
One of the least-known Messengers albums, this one somehow got lost in the shuffle of their most hyperactively prolific period, but it's a gem. Every track is written by Wayne Shorter, who at the time was well-established as the group's musical director, and on a creative roll which would soon spill over onto his first solo projects (the enduringly awesome Night Dreamer, JuJu, and Speak No Evil).
FREDDIE REDD: Shades of Redd
Redd is remembered, if at all, for his haunting score to the stage play and 1960 movie The Connection, about junkie jazz musicians hanging around waiting for a fix. At least one of them was played by an actual junkie jazz musician hanging around waiting for a fix, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who also plays on this album. It's a tour de force of jazz composition by someone whose obscurity is hard to understand. On the other hand, he's been the opposite of prolific (what would that be? Paltry? Parsimonious?) so I guess it's at least partly his own fault.
THE THREE SOUNDS: The Best of The Three Sounds and Live at the 'It' Club
A piano/bass/drums trio, these guys were on a million jukeboxes back in the day, and are now largely forgotten, which is a shame. Gene Harris is a worthy scion of that royal family of funky piano men of which Horace Silver is the king, and Bobby Timmons and Ramsey Lewis the other princes.
HANK MOBLEY: A Slice of the Top
Mobley's most acclaimed albums are the earlier Roll Call, Workout, and Soul Station, which are all great. A Slice of (not 'off') the Top (don't ask me why) is pretty obscure, maybe because it was recorded in 1966 but not released until 1979. Anyway, it crackles with energy and shows Mobley evolving: working with younger, 'edgier' players like McCoy Tyner, and a bigger band, with an unusual lineup including tuba and euphonium. The arrangements are by Duke Pearson (whose own Blue Note albums are well worth checking out, too).
DUKE PEARSON: Wahoo!, The Right Touch, and Sweet Honey Bee
A good pianist, very good composer, and fantastic arranger. Like I said – well worth checking out.
DEXTER GORDON: A Swingin' Affair
Gordon's best-known Blue Note is the excellent Go!, but this was recorded just two days later, with the same lineup (including one of my favourite pianists, Sonny Clark) and is just as good. Albeit with a slightly less striking cover design.
SUZANNE VEGA: Beauty and Crime
Wait a minute – who?! Well, I should say something about what happened after Blue Note went down the crapper in the 1970s and 80s (for all that Robert Glasper, in Uncompromising Expression, calls that era a 'Vital Link'). Over the last couple of decades the label has gradually recovered at least some of its former stature, even as it has sometimes seemed confused about its own identity – for instance, signing an artist who doesn't seem to fit them at all, and dropping her after one album. Nevertheless, it's one of Suzanne's two or three best, with more good songs than two or three of most peoples' albums.
Blue Note did do something clever in 1993 with Us3's Hand On The Torch, and a decade later (though less convincingly, for my taste) with MadLib's Shades of Blue. Both are jazz/hip-hop crossover projects built on samples from old Blue Note records, which the company not only allowed, but actively encouraged, and then released themselves – thus appropriating an appropriation.
These days, Blue Note mostly seems (beyond the miracle of its continued existence) to be in decent shape. Norah Jones doesn't do much for me, but any label that's willing to stand by artists of the caliber of trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard, as well as promoting someone with both the popular appeal and the integrity of a Gregory Porter, can't be too bad. It is 2016, after all, and we're stuck with it.
Now, what did I do with that Dizzy Reece album . . .