What was the best release on Blue Note Records this year? It’s still too early for that question, so let’s change the criteria and try again. By my estimation, the label’s most heartening release in 2014 was a double header recorded 75 years ago. I’m referring to the very first two entries in the Blue Note catalog, made by the Chicago boogie-woogie pianists Meade “Lux” Lewis and Albert Ammons.
Their limited-edition reissue on 12-inch vinyl this April, in coordination with the nationwide retail promotion known as Record Store Day, was worth noting not only for the durable if slightly crackly charms of the music. It was also a marker, another reason to believe that Blue Note, awash this year in 75th-anniversary commemoration, had regained its balance after a season of faltering uncertainty. Against the backdrop of the label’s other output this year, this low-key archival flourish sent an unspoken message: We know who we are and where we came from, we have a strong feel for where we’re going, and we’re certain we can catch your interest along the way.
As recently as five years ago-the last time Blue Note unfurled the streamers and rang the anniversary gong-you couldn’t have made that claim in good faith. The modern label era that had begun in 1984, with Bruce Lundvall’s arrival as president, was then drawing to a turbulent close for reasons that had little to do with music. At the heart of the matter was the 2007 sale of Blue Note’s parent company, EMI, to a private equity firm. Since then the back catalog had mostly languished and new jazz signings had all but ceased; slash-and-burn corporate strategy slowed the release schedule to a crawl. Small wonder that I began to detect a seething undercurrent in my otherwise characteristically upbeat conversations with Lundvall, the rare record company executive whose devotion to his artists always outweighed his fealty to the bottom line.
Things got worse before they got better. The EMI restructuring turned monumentally sour, leading to a forced bankruptcy and a fire sale to another conglomerate, the Universal Music Group. As for Lundvall, after a 25-year run as president of Blue Note, he stepped down to become chairman emeritus. And while there were some who could scarcely imagine the label without Bruce at the helm-“My answer is I don’t,” shot back Greg Osby, the alto saxophonist, when I asked-Blue Note managed to install another strong steward, the veteran record producer Don Was.
Lest anyone forget, this was not the obvious choice. Best known in some circles as an associate of the Rolling Stones, and in others as a founding partner of Was (Not Was), the restless (but not rootless) rock band, Was had little in the way of jazz credentials. But he did have a deep, informed relationship with the Blue Note legacy, as a listener and consumer. A few months into his tenure, in 2012, we had a long conversation over dinner in New York, and the first thing that struck me was his pointed enthusiasm. The second thing was his candor: about the rut that Blue Note had been stuck in, the formidable road ahead, and the incongruity of finding himself at the wheel.
Two years later, his success seems patently obvious. In addition to supporting most of the label’s core artists, Was has signed some standout talent, including José James, a soul singer with a jazz metabolism, and Gregory Porter, about whom you could say the same but with the genre order switched. Porter earned Blue Note a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album this year; James, whose winningly audacious second Blue Note album, While You Were Sleeping, is out in June, has earned the label a bit of targeted youth appeal.
One reservation I had about the Was era, early on, involved his commercial proclivities. And that was clearly a factor in recent Blue Note albums by Aaron Neville, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello with the Roots (along with this year’s signing of Vintage Trouble, a retro rock-and-soul band). During his first day on the job, Was heard a rough mix of Black Radio, the 2012 full-length debut by Robert Glasper Experiment; he told me that its new spin on jazz-R&B represented everything he wanted to do at the label. Blue Note has since released Black Radio 2, along with albums of similar mood by José James; trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, with James producing; Derrick Hodge, the bassist in the Experiment; and guitarist Lionel Loueke, with Hodge and Glasper in the band and Glasper as producer. A decade ago, if you had to identify an emblematic Blue Note artist, you might have gone with saxophonist Joe Lovano (or if you wanted to make some kind of a point, Norah Jones). Today the more accurate choice would be Glasper.
But it was also Was who brought Wayne Shorter back to Blue Note, and ensured that there would be room on the schedule this year for creatively diverse albums by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band and pianist Jason Moran. And the label’s new approach to catalog has been inspired, with a robust digital program supplemented by an initiative to reissue five LPs a month on high-quality vinyl.
At the start of the year, Blue Note kicked off its festivities with a concert at the Town Hall in New York. As the lights went down, Moran and Glasper sauntered onstage, bantered a bit and settled in to play a dual-piano medley of “Easy Rider Blues” and “Boogie Woogie Stomp,” tunes that Ammons recorded in that inaugural session 75 years ago. They put their own distinctive spin on the music, establishing a reverence free of restrictions. If that isn’t a sign of good health, I’m not sure what is.