Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes – Eagle Vision/Universal EVB 053937 – Blu ray disc – 111 minutes – ****1/2 <Street Date 9/6/19>
Video – 1080P High Definition 16:9
Audio – LPCM stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
Subtitles – English, German, Spanish, French
There have been several documentaries celebrating the iconic jazz label, Blue Note Records. It has taken a Swiss filmmaker, Sophie Huber, however, to find the right mix of archival photos and older historical film stock , along with current interviews with jazz historians, and Blue Note current artists. The appeal to jazz aficionados as well as present day hipsters, of 1950s thru 1960s Blue Note hard bop genre centered releases, goes well beyond the soulful grooves on their albums. It was the entire package- Reid Miles graphics that epitomized a hip coolness, the liner notes by noted jazz writers, and a warm acoustic full bodied sound engineered by Rudy Van Gelder, recorded in the living room of his parent’s house. Van Gelder later opened up his own studio inspired by the wooden three story tall room architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, that even further expanded the sound stage. Van Gelder’s studio became “the” place to record small group jazz so much that other labels used his services, and even though Rudy passed away recently, his studio is still being used.
Blue Note Records was started in 1939 in New York City, by two German Jewish emigres, Alfred Lion, and Francis Wolff. They both fell in love with initially Swing, and later bebop. Unlike other jazz labels, Blue Note coddled its artists, letting them rehearse before recording, and having food and beverage provided to relax and inspire. Other labels of the day, such as Savoy and Prestige, had their recordings recorded in a single day, without rehearsal time. This forced that material to be largely standards, that the groups already knew by rote.
Alfred Lion stood by and promoted musicians like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, who along with their genius, had side issues and personalities that required patience to nurture their talents. It took years for the public to fully explore, and appreciate their unique musical visions, and Lion and Wolff were willing to lose money, as it was much more than a business to them. Largely because the commercial demands from distributors to produce “hit records” became too onerous to Alfred and Francis, they sold Blue Note to Liberty Records near the beginning of the 1970s. (It wasn’t until the 1980s through the involvement of Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cuscuna, that Blue Note regained its panache that continues today through its current leader, Don Was).
Sophie Huber, in less than two hours, has done a superlative job of blending the best of archival material with Blue Note masters, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lou Donaldson and others, with current Blue Note roster talent, i.e., Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire.
The love that African American jazz icons had for Blue Note is striking. They had free rein to explore topical themes of the 50s and 60s – racism and equality come to mind- without commercial restraints. Even when Blue Note struck gold with Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” Wolff and Lion refused to follow a pattern, and pushed the envelope with artists like Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor.
Blue Note went on through Lundvall’s tenure to recognize new talent, such as Norah Jones, and keep their roster satisfied so that they did not sign with larger labels. Jones kept the label in the black through bleaker times, and sold more than any other jazz artist in the label’s history. Blue Note’s management had the acumen to see the blending of hip hop with jazz, as an appeal to a new young demographic. The label gave full permission to hip hop artists to sample Blue Note’s classic issues to appeal to a wider audience.
Huber concludes this monumental documentary with extensive interviews with legends, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, who recorded for Blue Note during its golden years, and are still going strong, inspiring young jazz and hip hop artists. They speak glowingly of the Blue Note founders, and tell sweet stories of how these two emigres loved jazz, and looked at their roster artists as family. Shorter and Hancock play Wayne’s “Masqualero” along with present day BN musicians, Glasper, Akinmusire, and Lionel Loueke.
On the 80th anniversary of Blue Note, this documentary is a fitting tribute to the musical label that has brought the most joy to jazz fans over the years. Long live Blue Note and kudos to Ms. Sophie Huber for this excellent tribute. Both the superb audio mix, and high definition visuals make this a must buy Blu-ray…