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Various Artists: The Blue Note Years

The Blue Note Years rivals The Smithsonian Collection Of Classic Jazz in scope and curatorial insight. Not only does this 14-CD box set celebrates 60 years of the legendary label’s singular achievement, it makes its name synonymous with an ecumenical, evolving jazz aesthetic.

Despite its understated presentation-the bound 48-page large format book is refreshingly free of self-congratulatory prattle, being exclusively devoted to the session photography of Francis Wolff and Jimmy Katz-the sub-text of The Blue Note Years is label identification: Blue Note means “the finest in jazz” in all its manifestations, from Albert Ammons to Us3.

Wisely, Blue Note lets the music make the case in seven two-disc packages, using chronological and thematic criteria in its selections for the first six volumes: “Boogie Blues & Bop (1939-1955);” “The Jazz Message

(1955-1960);” “Organ And Soul (1956-1967);” “Hard Bop And Beyond (1963-1967);” “The Avant Garde (1963-1967);” “The New Era (1975-1998).” When heard sequentially, the collection cleanly establishes a historical dialectic in neat, digestible chapters; yet, by resolving the decades-long push and pull between jazz’s populists and mavericks in the problematic seventh volume, “Blue Note Now As Then”-a collection of Blue Note chestnuts performed by the label’s current roster-they settled for synthetics over synthesis.

Yet a closer look at the sleeve booklets’ discographies reveals a variety of sub-genres flourishing together in compressed timeframes. Barely eighteen months elapsed between Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas’ “Old Stack O’Lee Blues” and Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” By the ’60s, the same musicians performed allegedly disparate musics within a few weeks. Three selections featuring Lee Morgan from three separate volumes are telling; within two months in ’63, he recorded with long-time stablemate Hank Mobley (in a quintet with Andrew Hill) and outward bound trombonist Grachan Moncur III (the sextet’s front line was rounded out by Jackie McLean), in addition to waxing his soul jazz bestseller, “The Sidewinder.” One of the set’s perhaps unintended bonuses is that, with a multi-disc player, listeners can rewrite history to their hearts’ content.

The overarching strengths of producer Michael Cuscuna’s 10-disc survey of the Alfred Lion era are that it is well paced and sufficiently detailed, including important, lesser known figures like Ike Quebec, Sonny Clark, and Big John Patton. The first disc spans the label’s entire first decade, a brisk stride through solos by Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Earl Hines, trad sessions featuring Sid Catlett, James P. Johnson, and Ben Webster, swing bands led by Jimmy Hamilton, Ike Quebec, and Tiny Grimes, and the bop units of Tadd Dameron, James Moody, and the team of Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro. Elsewhere, Cuscuna makes several passes over the same terrain, using key players to enumerate the many strains of a movement; on “Hard Bop And Beyond,” label stalwarts like Joe Henderson are the common denominator between popular anthems like Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” and modal explorations like McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance.”

If the bottom line for such gargantuan collections is illuminating sequences of materials from varied sources, Cuscuna meets it repeatedly. The first disc of “The Jazz Message” features a quadruple dose of great tenor workouts from Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, and John Coltrane. The second disc of “Organ And Soul” boldly juxtaposes Donald Byrd’s date with voices, Stanley Turrentine’s big band date, Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” and cookers by Shorter and Mobley. The second disc of “The Avant Garde” begins with a sly triptych of Monk dedications: Eric Dolphy’s “Hat And Beard,” Moncur’s “Monk In Wonderland,” and Hill’s “New Monastery.” In addition to his authoritative knowledge, Cuscuna brought his revelry to the proceedings, bringing the Lion era to life.

In such a collection, it’s a given that a few artists are omitted or under-represented; the inclusion of musicians such as Tina Brooks and Paul Chambers only as sidemen is not cause to man the barricades. Yet this set’s disfigurement of the interregnum between the Lion and Bruce Lundvall eras is perplexing. After Lion’s ’67 retirement, Blue Note credibly charted the post-Coltrane landscape with albums by Shorter, Tyner, Chick Corea, and Elvin Jones, among others. For this period to be solely represented on “The New Era” by mid-’70s crossover cuts by Byrd, Earl Klugh, and Ronnie Laws is a shame. “The New Era” also suffers from the absence of important artists like Geri Allen, RonCarter, and Ralph Peterson, whose albums were licensed from Japan’s Something Else Records. Add James Newton, Bennie Wallace, and Don Pullen (who is featured only in the co-op quartet with George Adams; the saxophonist’s solo albums were also Something Else productions) to the absentees list, and “The New Era” pales not only against the Lion era, but against the label’s complete output during Lundvall’s watch.

Blue Note’s future is rooted in its present roster; on this count, the work of, among others, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, and Jacky Terrason on “The New Era” bodes well for the label. Yet too much of the present-day Blue Note’s present is represented as a rehash the label’s past on “Blue Note Now As Then.” This mid-’90s concept album was produced by Bob Belden at the behest of Toshiba-EMI’s Hitoshi Namekata, the executive producer of the referenced Something Else-produced albums; this is the material’s first domestic release. It provides the only performances by such New Era leaders as Tim Hagans, T. S. Monk, and Renee Rosnes. Hagans is saddled with Belden’s Bitches Brewing of Hill’s “Siete Ocho;” Rosnes is paired with Fareed Haque for a smooth jazzing of “Song For My Father;” only Monk is done justice in the form of a tart reading of “Evidence” with Carter and Don Sickler. “Blue Note Now As Then” does include some engaging new perspectives on classic pieces.

Both Geoff Keezer’s take on Herbie Nichols’ “2300 Skidoo” (two tracks by the iconic pianist/composer are included on “Boogie Blues & Bop”) and Lovano, Allen and Wallace Roney’s interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s “Good Old Days” (both his Golden Circle trio and his New York Is Now quartet made the cut) succeed in giving the compositions a classic mid-’60s Blue Note feel without downplaying their idiosyncrasies. However, “Blue Note Now As Then” does not begin to approach that which it precluded from this pantheon-like box set, starting with desert island tracks like Shorter’s “Night Dreamer” and Morgan’s “Search For The New Land.” It is an appendix in every sense.

Still, the bulk of The Blue Note Years is “the finest in jazz.” That it was conveyed to the world by a single label is nothing short of miraculous.

Originally Published