Blue Note Records' Blue Note 7: The Magnificent Seven

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The Blue Note 7 (L to R: Ravi Coltrane, Lewis Nash, Bill Charlap, Peter Bernstein, Nicholas Payton, Peter Washington, Steve Wilson)
By Jimmy Katz

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The birth of Blue Note Records, one of the most important labels in jazz history, can be traced back to Jan. 6, 1939, the date of Alfred Lion’s first recording session with Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, two boogie-woogie pianists he had seen two weeks earlier at Carnegie Hall as part of John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” gala concert. Seventy years after that jazz-loving German immigrant set things in motion, Blue Note remains a vital and globally revered entity, as committed to the future of jazz as it is beholden to its own rich past.

To help celebrate the label’s legacy, an all-star septet of current-day luminaries—pianist Bill Charlap, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, alto saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash—has been assembled to barnstorm the country, presenting new arrangements of tunes from the classic Blue Note songbook. Dubbed the Blue Note 7, they embark on a 50-city tour from Jan. 7 through April 19, performing concerts in such unlikely places as Wickenburg, Ariz.; Boone, N.C.; Klamath Falls, Ore.; Norman, Okla.; and Sheboygan, Wis.

“It’s an unusual tour,” says Bernstein. “We’re going to the real America, as Sarah Palin says. In these days, that’s more of an exotic type of tour than going to little towns in Germany. For a lot of New York-based jazz musicians, that’s the circuit. Everyone’s been to those same German towns. But how many guys have played a gig in Meridian, Mississippi, or Yakima, Washington?”

In conjunction with the extensive tour, which culminates in a six-night run at Birdland in New York City, the label will also release Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records, an eight-song collection of Blue Note classics arranged by members of the Blue Note 7 and by guest arranger Renee Rosnes.

“You really can’t go wrong with anything from the Blue Note catalog,” says Payton. “You could have a whole closet full of Blue Note records and close your eyes and pick one out and come up with a classic. All of the material stands up, and over time the beauty and the meaning of these records become deeper, which is a testament to how great they were initially.”

“It’s daunting to approach this music,” says Charlap, a Blue Note recording artist who also functions as musical director for the Blue Note 7, “but we also love playing this music. It means so much to us that we want to put everything of our intellect and our hearts into it. The repertoire is rich and important and I’m certain that it will turn a lot of people on musically throughout the course of this tour.”

The brainchild of Jack Randall, a booking agent at Ted Kurland Associates, and tour producer Danny Melnick of Absolutely Live Entertainment, the Blue Note 7 is a specially handpicked aggregation of all-stars who are all steeped in the Blue Note tradition. Alto saxophonist Wilson, who played in another Blue Note all-star band 20 years ago named Out of the Blue, says he grew up with the sound of Blue Note recordings in his home. “My father had some Jimmy Smith and Stanley Turrentine records and some of his friends had other Blue Note recordings as well. So that music was always playing in somebody’s living room. And I remember as a kid seeing those great, wonderful album covers and being so struck by the artwork. That really played a role in leading me to the music.”

In his mid-teens, Wilson bought his first Blue Note album, Wailing With Lou, a 1957 recording by alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson with Donald Byrd, Peck Morrison, Herman Foster and Art Taylor. “I transcribed a couple of solos on that record,” he recalls. “And, of course, the older musicians that I was around at the time would tell me to check out other recordings that were on Blue Note. Moving through my teens and going into my 20s, I just became more exposed to and aware of this great music. For any budding jazz musician, all roads lead to Blue Note Records.”

On Mosaic, Wilson contributes a subtly reharmonized arrangement of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” (which originally appeared on Hutcherson’s 1965 Blue Note recording Components with Herbie Hancock, James Spaulding, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Joe Chambers) on which he plays flute. “I was glad to have Bobby Hutcherson represented on the album,” says Charlap, “because he is so important as a player and musical force. He’s one of those players who when you hear him you are educated and lifted in your spirit. There are just a handful of people who play at that level, so it’s nice to have something that’s in tribute to him. And Steve did such a nice job with the arrangement, integrating the flute with the guitar and incorporating the shout choruses. He’s such a great team player and soloist.”

Charlap was also pleased to have Wilson’s thoughtful arrangement of Monk’s “Criss Cross” (originally from a 1951 Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson, Sahib Shihab, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey) included in the collection. “I’ve played almost everything that Monk has ever written at some time in my life,” he says. “He’s definitely a focal figure for me, as he is pretty much for most modern jazz musicians. I’m not saying anything fresh here but he’s one of the preeminent composers-pianists and musical thinkers in the history of this music. I’ve always loved Monk’s music and always loved playing it, and I especially love what Steve has done here with ‘Criss Cross.’ There’s a moment at the end before the melody comes back where Monk sort of alludes to three against two and Steve actually took it and put a bar of 3/4 in there, just to keep us on our toes. And there’s a moment at the end where he does some rhythm section shouts that are very pointillistic, like Monk’s ‘Evidence.’ They sound like the way that Monk comped in the rhythm section sometimes and it’s very natural within the piece. Steve’s a natural musician and he makes everything feel natural.”

Native New Yorker Bernstein got his introduction to the Blue Note label from checking out albums at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. “I was taking out everything from Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil to John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure,” he recalls. “I also took out a lot of Jazz Messengers albums and those two Sonny Rollins records he made for Blue Note as well as things by Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver and Joe Henderson. I’d take home a bunch of albums at a time and have two weeks to listen to them and tape them on cassette. It was the original Napster move. Then a little bit later I got into the whole organ group thing and started checking out all those great Jimmy Smith albums and others by Baby Face Willette and Big John Patton, which is how I got hip to Grant Green.”

Bernstein pays tribute to Green, one of his most important guitar influences, with a new arrangement of Duke Pearson’s “Idle Moments” (the title track from Green’s 1963 Blue Note recording with Pearson, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Bob Cranshaw and Al Harewood). “Grant has been one of my favorite players ever since I started getting into jazz guitar,” says Bernstein. “I heard other players before, like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, but there was something in Grant’s playing that I was attracted to: his full, bright sound that cuts right through, his beautiful phrasing, the clarity of his ideas and directness of his attack. And the blues thing is so strong in Grant’s playing. He has a way of singing on the instrument that always affected me. And while you can’t really get someone’s sound you can try to emulate their feeling. I sometimes try to get Grant’s feeling in my own playing.”

Bernstein had previously recorded “Idle Moments” in an organ group led by Mike LeDonne (2006’s On Fire, recorded live at Smoke with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth for the Savant label). This time out he took a different approach on that Duke Pearson classic. “For a guitar player trying to interpret this tune it’s like a tenor player playing ‘Body and Soul.’ I mean, it’s already a perfect recording. But I enjoy playing it and on this version I tried not to do what Grant did but just evoke the spirit of the tune. Bill told me I’d probably be the only soloist on it and he asked me to write some things for the horns to do around me, which is a new experience for me. I haven’t done much arranging for horns, so I just wrote a couple of backgrounds, some little shout choruses. It’s not the kind of tune that you’d want to completely reinvent as a 6/8 piece or a rumba or something. It’s a nice, simple tune and I just wanted to orchestrate what was already there. It’s got some meat to it but it’s very simple, like a beautiful haiku of a tune. And it seems like it would be fun to play night after night on tour.”

Adds Charlap, “‘Idle Moments’ is such a great tune and it’s certainly a great feature for Peter, who is such a soulful, honest player and is so directly connected to Grant Green and that whole jazz-guitar lineage. He’s one of the few players that could get inside it and not sound like an imitation. It’s such a part of who he is that he could bring himself to it.”

Pianist Renee Rosnes (whose husband is Bill Charlap) contributes a beautiful arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s gentle “Search for Peace” (from 1967’s The Real McCoy with Ron Carter, Elvin Jones and Joe Henderson) and a luminous take on Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” (from 1965’s Maiden Voyage with Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman). “She’s really a fantastic arranger,” says Charlap. “She has the ability to bring a fresh light to such a classic piece of music as Herbie’s ‘Dolphin Dance,’ which is from one of the perfect records in the history of this music.”

Of his elegant touch and sparse approach on “Search for Peace,” Charlap says, “I’m just playing it the way that I hear it and the way that I’m listening to the rhythm section as they’re playing. Peter and Lewis are playing such beautiful counterpoint and I’m reacting to what they are playing. It’s any improviser’s goal to play something that’s real and in the moment and not pre-planned, something that comes from intuition and the inner ear. And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re having a three-way conversation, in a sense.”

For his sole arrangement on Mosaic, Charlap turns in a faithful rendition of Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw” (from 1958’s Further Explorations with Clifford Jordan, Art Farmer, Teddy Kotick and Louis Hayes). “To me, Horace is such a clear chamber music writer when he was writing for bass and drums and piano and the two horns,” says Charlap. “And everybody has a part in that particular tune. It’s really orchestrated music all the way. So for me, I wouldn’t want to get too far into re-composing or re-constructing the music. That said, I took a couple of liberties with the piece. There’s a 16-bar ostinato that exists within the piece that I put at the beginning and opened up for a guitar solo, and I also put in a different key. So I did just a couple of things to package it in our own way but that particular arrangement is really very much based on Horace’s original conception of the piece, though it was originally for a quintet ... We’re opening up the voicings but not losing Horace’s original counterpoint, which is so much a part of the sound of Horace’s music.”

In his invigorating arrangement of Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic” (the title track of a 1961 Jazz Messengers recording featuring Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Jymie Merritt and Walton), drummer Nash deftly shifts the band from an opening 12/8 groove with tricky stop-time phrases to breakaway 4/4 bebop. “Cedar Walton is such a clear composer in terms of his thought for the horns and the rhythm section,” says Charlap. “So again, it’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to lose Walton’s framework because it’s so strong and correct. It’s hard to rewrite without being ‘less than’ instead of augmenting what’s there. But that is indeed something that Lewis did to add a fresh touch.”

Trumpeter Payton offers an ambitious re-imagining of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” (the title track of Henderson’s 1964 Blue Note recording with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Bob Cranshaw). He’s not only changed the harmony, he’s changed the rhythmic impetus, changed the blowing sections, added different sections and otherwise reworked the piece into a kind of mini-suite where the melody can sometimes work independently of the chord changes. Yet one still hears the essence of the original composition. “I maintained the melodic feel of the material but it’s harmonically altered so it’s more suited to the kind of way I hear,” Payton explains. “Joe Henderson favored a lot of sharp-11 chords and what I did was to change virtually all the sharp-11 chords to sus chords, which I love to use. I also utilized a concept that I’ve been working on for quite some time now, which is writing things that feel like they’re in an odd meter but are actually in four. So you can still feel the pop and the snap of a four but it also suggests another time signature. And you achieve that by not delineating the one and by stretching certain rhythms or succession of rhythms over the barline.”

Recorded in just two days at Bennett Studios in Englewood, N.J., Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records stands as a testament to past genius while remaining very much in the now. “This material is so much a part of our DNA as jazz musicians,” says Charlap. “Blue Note is the musical library of our generation. This is just a snapshot. These are eight tunes of probably a couple of thousand things that we could’ve picked. And though it is great, classic repertoire, we’re playing it as we play it today. We’re not trying to do recreations of original arrangements. The arrangements and playing still have the essence of the originals but can also encompass how we feel about them today.”

While there was precious little time for rehearsals before going into the studio to record the eight tracks that appear on Mosaic, Charlap sensed an instant chemistry among all the participants. “Certainly in theory it was easy to see that the chemistry could be there. It partially has to do with the experience level in the band. Even though we are younger players, we’re not in our 20s. We’re also not in our 60s. So there’s some experience there leading bands and working as sidemen and there’s like-mindedness there, too. It’s clear to me that it’s a band, and it sounded like a band right away.”

That chemistry could very well deepen as the Blue Note 7 commences its 50-city tour. “We’ll have at least twice as much material on the road as we did on the album, and we’ll open these pieces up more,” says Charlap. “So there’ll be different pieces, different set orders, different soloists on different nights. We’ll remain vital throughout our tour. You’re not going to hear the same performance in Boone as you may hear in Lexington. If they’re on consecutive nights you almost surely will not hear the same performance from one night to the next because that wouldn’t be as much fun for us.”

A Swingin’ Affair: Blue Note Does It Up in ’09

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the legendary label (as well as the 25th year since Blue Note was reactivated under the leadership of current label head Bruce Lundvall), several special events have been planned in addition to the extensive 50-city North American tour of the Blue Note 7.

In the coming year, Blue Note aficionados can expect more newly discovered archival gems along the lines of 2005’s Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and 2007’s Charles Mingus Sextet With Eric Dolphy, Cornell 1964. Also upcoming are the definitive label biography by author Ashley Kahn (Somethin’ Else: The Story of Blue Note Records and the Birth of Modern Jazz, Viking Books), and a Jazz Prezzo photography collection that presents Francis Wolff’s iconic images from Blue Note’s early period alongside Jimmy Katz’s documentation of the current era.

Planned for February is a month-long invasion of New York City clubs and music halls by Blue Note legends Lou Donaldson and Dr. Lonnie Smith, along with current Blue Note artists such as Terence Blanchard, Robert Glasper, Norah Jones, Joe Lovano, Lionel Loueke, Wynton Marsalis, Jason Moran, Aaron Parks, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. In addition to the continuation of Blue Note’s long-running RVG Series (for which the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder remasters his classic sessions) and Connoisseur Series (featuring lesser-known gems from the catalog), the label will also begin reissuing its core RVG Series titles as vinyl/CD combos while making special digital initiatives available on www.bluenote.com.

Originally published in January/February 2009

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