The label’s first release was a duet between boogie woogie innovators Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis and it’s first "hit" was Sidney Bechet’s "Summertime", a session produced by Lion. Alfred Lion produced Bechet because he liked his music. The same could be said for every artist that released a recording during his tenure at the label’s helm. The label suspended business during the Second World War, but roared back with a vengeance with Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell as the rising stars of their nascent stable of artists. When long players became the industry standard, replacing the 78 rpm, it seemed like Blue Note might go under. Instead, Rudy Van Gelder joined the production team in 1953 and in short order Horace Silver and Art Blakey formed the Jazz Messengers, hard bop was born, and Blue Note was notched up a number of notches in public acclaim. It was the jazz label from that point forward. At around the same time graphic artist Reid Miles began to combine his work with Francis Wolff’s extraordinary photography, which gave the albums a distinct, instantly recognizable look. Lion retired in 1967 (he would die in 1987) and Wolff died in 1971. Though it looked bleak for a while, Blue Note started struggling back in the late 1970s under the guidance of industry veteran Michael Cuscuna, first, and Bruce Lundvall, since the early 1990s. With the likes of Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis, and Joe Lovano the label stands poised to be nearly as impressive in the two thousands as in the sixties and seventies.
As if to reinforce the historical importance of the label, Blue Note has released an impressive series of vital and eminently vibrant sets from their storied past, under the Rudy Van Gelder Edition imprint. Among those 5-star classics seeing new light as part of this important series are:
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Buhaina’s Delight (1961) One of the best of Blakey’s dozens of discs for the label, this featured one of his most stellar lineups in Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and Jymie Merritt, all young and full of fire. "Backstage Sally," with a incisive Shorter solo and Fuller’s "Bu’s Delight," a jogger that gives plenty stretching space to all, most especially the thunderous Mr. Blakey in an extended solo, is as good as the Messengers ever sounded.
Dexter Gordon: Doin’ Allright (1961) From the gorgeous opening version of the Gershwin title cut to the edgy alternate take on "For Regulars Only," this is a fantastic set. His first Blue Note disc, and one largely credited with launching his comeback, Dexter’s flawless phrasing is on display throughout. Freddie Hubbard shares the front line, though as evidenced on "You’ve Changed," the great Dexter Gordon has always been a stand-alone genius.
Andrew Hill: Black Fire (1963) Pianist Hill, joined here by Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes on his label debut, spoke to his times. This powerful set sounds as provocative and enhancing 40 years after these tightrope-walking sessions first found an audience. Aware of, though not completely embracing, the avant garde that was beginning to fully flower, he and his band mates experiment with signatures, tempos and colors with glorious success. This still stands as one of a few classics from his wholly impressive catalog.
Jackie McLean: Destination Out (1963) Alto sax master McLean was in his most creative and fertile period in the early/mid/60s and this stands as one of his defining sessions. Three of the four compositions here are from trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and it is Moncur, as much as McLean, who sets the pace, though Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Ridley and Roy Haynes are strong presences throughout, particularly on the brilliant dirge-like opener, "Love and Hate." This has something of an avant-chamber quality to it, with extraordinarily nuance playing defining the set.
Jackie McLean: Right Now (1965) The quartet that McLean brought to the studio for this set couldn’t be more different than those assembled on Destination Out. This is a hard driving band that brings as much of a strong textural framework to the session, but it was more solidly in a hard blowing camp. Pianist Larry Willis, who contributed two tunes, is joined by first call bassist Bob Crenshaw and drummer Clifford Jarvis. Outside of Willis’ "Poor Eric," this is a set injected with explosive energy and some of the most impressive McLean work captured on disc.
Lee Morgan: The Sixth Sense (1967) Lee Morgan’s affiliation with Blue Note started in 1956 when he was 18. By the time he cut this set, he was 30 and at the peak of his creative power. Though he had cut The Gigolo two years previously and would record The Procrastinatortwo years hence, this transitional piece is nearly their equal. With Jackie McLean, tenorist Frank Mitchell, Cedar Walton and the rhythm team of Victor Sproles and Billy Higgins along for the ride, he walks ever so slightly outside the hard bop box and adds Latin touches here and there. The beautiful ""The Cry Of My People" is as tender as "Extemporaneous" is fiery.
Sonny Rollins: Newk’s Time (1957) 1957 was a busy year for Rollins, who released a number of albums, including the landmark "Way Out West" on rival Contemporary. This hard blower is every bit the equal of the better known classic and benefits from the presence of Philly Joe Jones, one of the best time keepers to ever work a drum kit, pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Doug Watkins. Even on the innocuous "Wonderful, Wonderful" the tenorist is on fire. Standouts include takes on Miles Davis’ "Tune Up" and Kenny Dorham’s "Asiatic Raes," but given that each of the six tunes collected here is a solid 5-star number, this is vital Newk.
Horace Silver: Serenade to a Soul Sister (1968) Cut with two separate bands that included Charles Tolliver, Stanley Turrentine, Benny Maupin and Billy Cobham among their ranks, the program here is captivating throughout, with exceptional work served up by all involved, most especially the piano player. The second group, with Maupin, Cobham, bassist John Williams and holdover Tolliver is the more adventurous. Maupin’s blowing on "Jungle Juice" is one of the highlights of the disc, and the unison work on the following "Kindred Spirits" is spellbinding still. The horn players sit out the beautiful closer, "Next Time I Fall In Love." Exquisite.
Jimmy Smith: Prayer Meetin’ (1963) The hippest cat on the planet, Jimmy Smith was hardly capable of making a bad album, and this certainly proves the point. With Stanley Turrentine, Quentin Warren and Donald Bailey in tow, and bassist Sam Jones on two bonus tracks, this is the epitome of the jazz organ disc. There were a number of bona fide classics in his catalog, about evenly split between Blue Note and Verve. This is among those. A superb take on the Gene Ammons standard "Red Top" is followed by the even more stunning original "Picknickin’." Add sizzling versions of "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "I Almost Lost My Mind," as well as the title tune and what emerges is truly classic.
Jimmy Smith: Rockin’ the Boat (1963) Smith reportedly recorded four albums in a one week period in 1963. This effort, with Lou Donaldson, a more frequent collaborator, in place of Turrentine, doesn’t have the flow of Prayer Meetin’, but it still has its moments. "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" takes it back to church with more authoritative soul than any other non-vocal performer who comes to mind. Percy Mayfield’s "Please Send Me Someone To Love" is a standout, too. Not a classic, but still an important entry in the catalog of the man who put the B3 on the map.
As noted at the top, Blue Note is a jazz label that remains prestigious and continues to be one of the major players on the current scene. Still, that classic &&&50s and &&&60s period never fails to send chills. Fans of classic hard bop will find much to get excited about. Pleasures abound aplenty. The good news is that there&&&s more coming!