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Blue Mitchell: The Complete Blue Note Sessions (1963-67)

Blue was the perfect nickname for Richard Mitchell. Bright or soft, his tone had a wistfulness about it, and his improvisations inclined toward the harmonic implications of the blues even when he worked with sophisticated material. His trademarks were calm, assurance, and relaxation. They were welcome in an era heavily populated with trumpet players bent on exploiting the instrument’s capacity for bravura proclamation.

Mitchell’s career with Riverside Records, from 1958 to 1963, coincided with his membership in the Horace Silver Quintet. His own recordings of that period and those with Silver trace the growth of confidence that resulted in a blooming of his lyricism, swing, and narrative ability. By the time of his first Blue Note session, when he was still with Silver, he was a skilled storyteller. With bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Roy Brooks from the Silver band, Mitchell used pianist Herbie Hancock and two saxophonists, Joe Henderson on tenor and altoist Leo Wright. Henderson brought in a new tune, “Mamacita,” that would become a classic, and demonstrated why the originality of his playing generated enthusiasm in the New York jazz community. Mitchell’s solos on “Sweet and Lovely” and “Cry Me A River” are examples of the maturity and sweetness of his ballad playing.

After Silver disbanded in early 1964, Mitchell continued the group with his frontline partner Junior Cook. Through the remainder of the Mosaic collection, Cook’s tenor solos are reminders that he, like Mitchell, rarely gets the credit he plainly deserves. Their partnership, with its stunning ensemble togetherness in “Fungii Mama” and other pieces, dominates the dates that produced the albums The Thing to Do, Down With It! and Bring It Home to Me. The rhythm section is Taylor, pianist Chick Corea, and the 18-year-old Al Foster on drums. Harold Mabern is on piano and Billy Higgins the drummer in the Bring It Home to Me session. Taylor is the only player other than Mitchell who is on every track of the four CDs. He is not a bassist whose notes have long decay times. Rather, the distinctness and intensity of his notes contribute to an inevitability of swing that makes his work notably satisfying.

Corea was a young wonder in the earlier sessions and by the time of the Mitchell octet date of 1966 (Boss Horn) had become a pianist of pronounced originality in harmony, touch, and conception. He also contributed two important compositions, “Tones for Joan’s Bones” and “Straight Up and Down,” arranged by Duke Pearson. Pearson’s chart on “I Should Care” combined with Mitchell’s caressing of the melody for a timeless performance. Pearson’s master touch continued the following year at the Heads Up! session with his, Jimmy Heath’s, and Melba Liston’s arrangements for a nine-piece band. They included another perfect ballad performance by Mitchell in “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Heath’s intricate “Togetherness” included side trips into modality, a challenge that Mitchell and Cook met with aplomb. This valuable set from Mosaic preserves some of the best work of a trumpeter who blazed no trails, but played beautifully.

Originally Published