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From Dizzy’s horn to Norah’s piano

Citizen Staff Writer
Cover story



I remember Blue Note Records from my teen years. Blue Note was the RCA Records of the jazz world. RCA had Elvis Presley. Blue Note had Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown and a bunch of other guys who would determine the East Coast version of modern jazz.

That was a long time ago.

It must be, because Blue Note is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a grand national tour that stops in Tucson on Friday for a concert by Blue Note’s all-star band of hot young players. Never a company to look back over its shoulder, Blue Note designed this band’s tour to celebrate the past by saluting the future.

Known as the Blue Note 7, the hard-driving septet consists of Ravi Coltrane, tenor sax; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Bill Charlap, piano and the group’s director; Steve Wilson, alto sax and flute; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; and Lewis Nash, drums.

Charlap says the playlist was put together by all the band members, going over those 70 years of artists and recordings to pick their favorite tunes. Most of the pieces are more complex than simple pop tunes. Blue Note became famous for its hard-bop sound, encouraging musicians who combined bebop with such elements as blues, soul and gospel.

Other artists of note mining this musical vein in the recording studio’s welcoming surroundings were Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey and Donald Byrd.

A taste of this concert precedes the band in an eight-track CD, “Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records,” presenting material that will be in the show.

Sure enough, the tribute songs are there (such as Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”) and respect to the original recording artist is paid. But on each track there is also an edge and an energy as these seven players keep finding new ways to open up the chords and express the changes.

Instead of erratic rhythms and dissonant notes, the band is flat-out blowing and the rhythm swings. Unlike those noisy experiments in free jazz, these guys see a jazz future that is lyrical as well as muscular.

“The Blue Note 7 is a true collaboration, an all-star band comprised of the next generation of major players, all leaders in their own right,” explains Bruce Lundvall, the record label’s president.

“The music that Blue Note recorded is so vast there was no way we could be comprehensive in covering all the contributions,” Charlap adds, speaking of the band’s CD. Although the album and the concert are created to showcase a diversity of moods, the musicians culled that list of tracks from a larger list of their personal Blue Note favorites.

Or as Charlap phrases it, “pieces that spoke to them musically.” With this band, there is sure to be a whole lot of conversation going on.

Speaking from the heart has been a tradition at Blue Note right from the beginning. During the mid-1920s in Berlin, a teenager named Alfred Lion went to a jazz concert by expatriate Sam Wooding’s orchestra. Wooding was from Philadelphia but chose to live and work in Europe, hiring many American musicians in the 1920s.

The young Lion’s mom had a collection of jazz recordings, the story goes, but it was the power of that live performance that hooked Lion for a lifetime. He moved to New York in 1937, and in 1939 recorded boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis in a studio rented for a one-day session.

With financial backing from Max Margulis, a communist writer and jazz lover in New York, Blue Note was born. That same year Lion’s childhood friend in Berlin, Francis Wolff, reached New York and joined the label. He was the photographer whose pictures made Blue Note’s album covers so distinctive.

After the Second World War, jazz came home with the face of bebop and Blue Note pricked up its ears. Along with Gillespie were some of the first recordings by pianists Bud Powell and Monk.

In typical jazz fashion, Monk’s angular style of playing and eccentric onstage personality didn’t catch on with the general pubic. But once the audience caught up with the artist, those same recordings became some of the most important to that era.

A much happier story belongs to Norah Jones. In 2002 the singer recorded her debut album on Blue Note, “Come Away With Me.” She followed that with the country-flavored “Feels Like Home” in 2004 and then her album of originals, “Not Too Late,” in 2007. All were well-received. Worldwide, Jones has sold a reported 36 million albums for Blue Note.

In the half-century of space between Monk and Jones, the label’s cutting edge kept slicing its way through jazz history – always moving forward, never backing up. Judging by the inventiveness and intensity of that CD from the Blue Note 7, Blue Note and the future of jazz should be good for a few more years.


What: Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary Tour

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd.

Price: $18-$42

Info: 621-3341, uapresents.org

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