Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes 

Review of documentary film about the iconic jazz record label

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Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes 
Directed by Sophie Huber (Eagle Rock)

Is it possible to be a fan of jazz and not be a fan of Blue Note Records? At once a kind of steward station, hooking listeners up with recordings that change their lives, and a beacon pointing out where to locate sounds that recalibrate jazz’s possibilities, the label has always been a conductor of comfort and community. Both are on ready display in this Sophie Huber documentary. It’s a highly conversational affair but never too talky, with cherished grooves of yore wafting through the various reminiscences and anecdotes.

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are on hand to sing myriad praises of label honchos Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, men who had the spirit of the animals in their names, who somehow fostered a record company where a house ethos didn’t curtail anyone’s individuality. The doc plays up the romance the pair had with Thelonious Monk, despite the fact that his music practically bankrupted them. They had escaped the horrors of 1930s Germany, and for such men, Monk must have been the very symbol of freedom. The latest generation of Blue Noters have a lot of say as well, with an articulate Robert Glasper keenly noting that “what you’ve been through in your life makes you sound the way you sound,” while still acknowledging that artistic greatness can come from a place beyond any one human being’s experience.

Beyond the Notes focuses a solid gaze on John Coltrane’s Blue Train, a game-changer that also invented a new sport, if you will, crossing populist, soulful jazz with a brave new world of first-glimpsed ideas. Blue Note nailed this combination often with artists like Hancock, Shorter, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson was there to witness a lot of it, and he is one hell of a character here, the salty uncle whose stories you greet with protests of “You’re too much! You can’t say that!” even as you want him to keep going forever.

Asked by Lion and Wolff if he sounded like Charlie Parker, Donaldson said sure, simply because he wanted the record deal. Most other labels, in his words, were “cheap, cheap, white.” But Blue Note was never about race or anything pot-stirring. Its concerns, reinforced here, were with giving outward expression to inner depths, so that listeners could then assimilate those newly emerged depths into their own lives.

It’s a highly graphic documentary, you might say, with the work of house artist Reid Miles acting as a sort of syncopation, punctuating rests and transitions. But it’s also a film of quiet asides, conversational moments when someone says plenty without conscious awareness that they’re saying much of anything, as when current Blue Note president Don Was likens Shorter’s Speak No Evil to a form of meditation, something without which his life would be another life entirely. That’s what you want your jazz to be. And this is what you want your jazz doc about that jazz to be. Be-squared—in the good kind of way—for Blue Note. (Visit bluenoterecords-film.com for screening information.)

Robert Glasper (left) and Jason Moran perform at the Town Hall to honor the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records, part of NYC Winter Jazzfest 2014
Robert Glasper (left) and Jason Moran perform at the Town Hall to honor the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records, part of NYC Winter Jazzfest 2014 (photo: Greg Aiello)