Nearly two months have passed since Bruce Lundvall and Capitol Records threw a bash in New York to announce the "Rebirth of a Legend" -- the return of the highly esteemed Blue Note jazz label. While it's still too early to tell how well the new enterprise will live up to the uncompromising standards set by Blue Note's founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in 1939, the initial series of releases offers some clues.
The 1985 Blue Notes fall into three categories: reissued classics; newly discovered treasures and new releases. Putting the music aside for a moment, what immediately makes a strong impression is the way these recordings have been packaged. Only audiophiles are likely to make much sense of the removable banners that proclaim each album's hidden virtues: Direct Metal Mastering, Premium Quality Vinyl, Digitally Remastered European Pressing. But once the recording is played, the superior sound quality is unmistakable. The surface noise, in particular, has been reduced to a minimum, restoring many of the subtleties lost on some of the older albums. The recordings are also available on high quality cassettes, tapes and compact discs.
The 21 vintage Blue Note albums re-released thus far also benefit from the original and generally informative liner notes, Francis Wolff's intimate photography and Reid Miles' tasteful cover art.
Art Blakey's triumphant "A Night at Birdland," Dexter Gordon's brilliant "GO," Horace Silver's eternal "Song for My Father" or any of the seminal Blue Note recordings by Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, to name a few of the giants represented here, are certainly worthy of this kind of care and attention. It's impossible to listen to these recordings and not marvel at the extraordinary number of gifted musicians who recorded for Blue Note in a variety of contexts over the years, as both sidemen and leaders. Many of them ultimately became part of the greatest repertory company any jazz label has ever assembled.
If you're unacquainted with these recordings, classics indeed, a specially priced two-record sampler, "The Best of Blue Note" (BST2 84429), that spans the label's halcyon years from the late '40s to the mid '60s, is a good, inexpensive place to start. Longtime listeners, though, couldn't pick a better time to restock their scuffy Blue Note library -- album by album.
Even by Blue Note standards, the four "newly discovered treasures" are impressive. By far the most cohesive and instructive album is a 1962 quartet session by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Although McLean's robust style at the time was beginning to reflect the bold iconoclasm of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, "Tippin the Scales" (Blue Note BST 84427) is a thoroughly relaxed and rather conservative collection of mostly medium-tempo pieces. McLean's performances are thoughtful and self-assured and Sonny Clark's vigorously swinging piano brightens several tunes.
Similarly, trumpeter Clifford Brown's "Alternate Takes" (Blue Note BST 84428) derives much of its charm from the rapport that existed between Brown and pianist Elmo Hope. Taken from three sessions in the summer of 1953, "Alternate Takes" is flawed and unfocused at times, but its shortcomings are outweighed by Brown's exploratory spirit -- a quality vividly illustrated here.
The last of these "treasures," each carefully compiled by Michael Cuscuna, are "The Rajah" (Blue Note BST 84426), a no-nonsense 1966 session with trumpeter Lee Morgan, and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley's appealing "Far Away Lands" (Blue Note BST 84425). Both musicians are heard to better advantage on other Blue Note albums, but there is a lot of good music here, especially when Morgan gets to play pretty on "What Now My Love?" or turns up the heat on "Once in My Lifetime."
Of course, repackaging Blue Note classic recordings and unearthing its lost treasures isn't the same thing as keeping alive Blue Note's tradition of fostering and recording young, innovative and largely unknown talent. For the moment at least, it seems that the new Blue Note albums have more in common with the Elektra/Musician label than with the more sharply defined music nurtured and preserved by Lion and Wolff.
Of the new Blue Note releases, Kenny Burrell and Grover Washington's "Togethering" (Blue Note BT 85106) is a solid session that will no doubt appeal more to Burrell's mainstream audience than those who find Washington's sensuous pop-jazz to their liking. Still, as refreshing as it is to hear Washington in this kind of setting, "Togethering" is not unlike the kind of straightforward Blue Note-inspired all-star sessions Jimmy Smith and others recorded for Musician a few years ago. Producing this kind of recording with lesser-known musicians -- a Blue Note trademark -- isn't something a major record label is likely to pursue very often.
Of the new releases only George Russell's "The African Game" (Blue Note BT 85103) is really worth hearing. Touted as "an impressionistic tone poem on the evolution of humanity in the African cradle," the piece, which is a lot more accessible than that description would have you believe, comprises nine movements that further explore Russell's fascination with layered African rhythms. A 26-piece orchestra interacts with an African percussion ensemble and eventually the music builds to a triumphant close. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff will be a tough act to follow.