Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Ten great Blue Note records

The great jazz label is 75 years old. Here are 10 records worth heeding.

Sat, May 31, 2014, 15:38

   

In the days when an LP was something that, in one form or another, you could actually hold in your hand, a few record labels managed to define and contextualise whole movements in music. Do we need to name them? Factory, Motown, Def Jam, ECM, Impulse!, Stax. You know the list. Actually, I should immediately withdraw that qualification. A myriad of labels still carry on that work, but, often existing in the digital ether alone, they don’t quite have the cultural force of those earlier record companies.

Few meet the criterion better than Blue Note records. Formed as long ago as 1939 by, among others, Alfred Lion, the firm really came into its own during the early 1950s when it became associated with the loosely defined form of jazz known as hard bop. We mean the more digestible follow-up to bop — often incorporating less hectic influences — exemplified by Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey and (inevitably) one incarnation of Miles Davis.

As well as making lovely recordings of great musicians in an era when jazz was losing its mainstream popularity, Blue Note also managed to perfect graphic design more influential than that employed by any other record company. The LPs were beautiful things to own. Even today, commercials nod to the work of designer Reid Miles.

Now inevitably owned by the Universal Music Group, Blue Note is celebrating its 75th anniversary by releasing high-quality vinyl reissues of some of its greatest recordings. Perusing the press release, fans of post-punk Mutant Disco, will be amused to note (or be reminded) that Don Was, once of Was Not Was, is now president of the company. We acknowledge his efforts by naming 10 great Blue Note LPs. We have tried to stick to albums that were recorded as albums by the firm: hence, the exclusion of Miles’s Birth of the Cool (originally released on Capitol) and Monk’s Genius of Modern Music (essentially a compilation). The choices are personal, but do seek to prove how Blue Note reached beyong hard bop to a variety of genres.

In no particular order…

HERBIE HANCOCK: MAIDEN VOYAGE (1965)

I say “in no particular order”, but this is probably my favourite Blue Note LP. The title track is particularly lovely.

ANDREW HILL: POINT OF DEPARTURE (1964)

One of Blue Note’s great bands nudges towards the avant-garde. Refuge is angular and epic.

SONNY ROLLINS: A NIGHT AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD (1957)

Or quite a few others by the great man. One of the best runs through of A Night in Tunisia.

ERIC DOLPHY: OUT TO LUNCH (1964)

Hang on, Maybe this is my favourite Blue Note LP. Proof that free jazz need not be alienating.

WAYNE SHORTER: SPEAK NO EVIL (1964)

Not for the only time, trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard joins bits of Miles’s “free-bop” band to help produce a classic. (See Maiden Voyage above)

DEXTER GORDON: OUR MAN IN PARIS (1963)

The tenor great joins up with Bud Powell and others for an angular hard-bop session. More fine Night in Tunisia action.

THE HORACE SILVER QUINTET: SONGS FOR MY FATHER (1965)

If you think you don’t know the title track you’re probably wrong. Steely Dan fans will certainly recognise the start to one their idols’ greatest songs.

THE ORNETTE COLEMAN TRIO: AT THE GOLDEN CIRCLE VOL 2 (1965)

The pioneer of free jazz takes a band to Sweden with hypnotic results. Volume one is almost as fine. Check out Coleman on fiddle.

JOHN COLTRANE: BLUE TRAIN (1957)

Coltrane’s only LP for Blue Note is not among his very, very best, but the title track is a masterpiece. (Again, if you think you don’t know it you’re probably wrong.)

BOBBY HUTCHERSON: DIALOGUE (1965)

You can never have enough vibraphone. Pianist Andrew Hill and vibist Hutcherson squabble themselves towards extraordinary results. Unbeatable.

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