Magnificent 7: Tour, album revisit legendary Blue Note's jazz classics

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IMAGINE TRYING to encapsulate 70 years of music, a thousand-plus albums and arguably the most important jazz label of all time onto a single disc and concert.

Talk about heavy lifting!

"Clearly, we can't do all that," said keyboardist Bill Charlap, musical director of the Blue Note 7 album project "Mosaic" and matching touring group, bringing their "Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary Celebration" to the Kimmel Center Friday. "We can only offer a snapshot. There's no way to be comprehensive. But it's not a burden, it's an inspiration."

For the uninitiated, Blue Note is where it all began for some of the most influential and successful artists in modern jazz - the likes of Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and the Norristown-spawned wizard of the Hammond organ, Jimmy Smith.

Blue Note also proved a prime nurturing ground for edgy artists who didn't have a ghost of a chance of selling many albums - like Andrew Hill and Ornette Coleman - who were out there, wildly original and good.

"In the Blue Note 7, we're focusing on the label's renaissance years, the mid-1950s to the late 1960s," detailed Charlap, a pianist who's made his mark on the label with albums reinvigorating the standards.

"It was a very creative period for the music, when so many great recordings like Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage,' Wayne Shorter's 'Speak No Evil' and McCoy Tyner's 'The Real McCoy' were being made."

 

Back in the day

 

The '50s and '60s was the period when the 12-inch long-playing album was coming into its own, when hard bop- and gospel-influenced "grits and gravy" soul jazz ruled the New York-based label.

Jazz was red hot in night clubs and on the radio - the hippest music and connoisseur's choice on the then "new" FM dial.

Not coincidentally, that golden era was also the time when Blue Note became the prime case study for Music Marketing 101. The operation fine-tuned its trademarked (percussion-forward) sound with pristine engineering by the esteemed Rudy Van Gelder.

And it raised its cool factor by 10 with daring, modernistic album graphics by commercial artist Reid Miles and brilliant photography by the label's sidelining business director, Francis Wolff.

Unlike other jazz labels that would put a random, distracting pretty girl on the cover, Blue Note clearly celebrated the African-American identity of its star acts. Still being emulated today, the packages were so promising, and Blue Note's track record for artistry was so strong, that young fans like Michael Cuscuna, now the label's curator, would plunk down their hard-earned allowances "on albums and artists I'd never heard of."

 

Back to the future

 

The Blue Note 7 brings its own spin and fresh arrangements to the jazz classics, said Charlap. But the musical director won't deny that the septet is emulating the spirit of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, always a star-studded (or stars in the making) aggregation with incredible interplay, snap and crackle. (The title track of the 7's album, written by Cedar Walton, was cut by the Messengers in 1961.)

This new tribute band also features saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of famed musicians Alice and John), drummer Lewis Nash, trumpeter Nicholas Payton (another second-generation player), saxophonist Steve Wilson, guitarist Peter Bernstein and bassist Peter Washington.

"You can hear the past, the present and the future in their playing," said Charlap.

Ironically, it took two German Jewish emigres running one step ahead of the the Nazis - Alfred Lion and Wolff - to bring American jazz to the artistic forefront here and abroad.

Many tin ears dismissed jazz as "bordello" music - admittedly, where artists like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong got their start. By contrast, Lion viewed jazz as America's most original and valuable contribution to the world's body of music, important in a social/political context as well as the cultural one.

"Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff celebrated their freedom by producing the music of freedom," declared trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, also a Blue Note artist these days.

 

Making a difference

 

As Cuscuna explains, other jazz labels would bring in talents to cut a full album in a single day, to wing it with a few standards and an impromptu blues jam or two. Lion, the label's musical visionary, would first bring in his band leaders for planning meetings, where he'd encourage even first-timers like Hancock to fully express themselves, summoning up an album's worth of originals.

"At our first meeting, he must have heard something special in one of my tunes, 'Watermelon Man,' " Hancock has recalled. The song was a huge hit.

Blue Note would pay musicians for two days of rehearsals before they hit the studio. So they felt respected and at ease and weren't already burned out when it came time to record.

Always dancing to their own muse, Lion and Wolff relished music with a minor-keyed blues base, ergo the label's name. (Arranger/producer Bob Belden refers to it as "space age melancholia.") They also insisted on music with "schwing."

Musicians always knew they'd recorded a keeper when the diminutive and semi-klutzy Lion (affectionately nicknamed "Stumpy") would jump up in the control room and wiggle around.

The Blue Note duo trusted their instincts explicitly. When no one else would give the oddly named and weirdly a-rhythmical pianist/composer Monk a shot, they let him cut 17 tracks before putting out even one to see if it would sell.

And while they were often just scraping by - still filling the orders themselves even when they had major hits on their hands by Lee Morgan ("Sidewinder") and Silver ("Song For My Father") - Lion and Wolff weren't afraid to shelve products that didn't meet their "must make a statement" standard.

"Of the thousand or so albums that they did put out, about 900 still stand up as worthy," assessed Cuscuna, who got his start in Philadelphia as a jazz DJ on WXPN (88.5-FM) and first started digging into the Blue Note vaults in 1975.

 

The second coming

 

Lion sold the label to Liberty Records in 1967 and retired to Mexico with his second wife, Ruth. (He survived till 1987; Wolff, only until '71.)

Under its new owners, Blue Note fell into such decline that Cuscuna couldn't persuade them to put out some of the treasures he'd discovered, sparking him to start the Mosaic label and license Blue Note music for limited-edition box sets.

Eventually, Liberty was eaten by the British giant EMI. In 1984, its chairman Bhaskar Menon approached Bruce Lundvall, a long-time advocate for jazz as an executive at Columbia and then Elektra Records, to come in and revive Blue Note. (Lundvall cut his jazz teeth as a student DJ on the Bucknell University radio station in Lewisburg, Pa.)

In his 25 years helming Blue Note, with keeper of the keys Cuscuna as his "full-time consultant," Lundvall has done a wonderful job maintaining the legacy and pushing the music forward.

Talents like Norah Jones, whom he offered a deal after hearing just one demo track, and US3 - British mixologists reshaping Blue Note catalog hits - have brought the label huge paydays and some amount of "this isn't jazz" controversy.

But Lundvall is convinced that "Alfred Lion would have put these out" and that "hip-hop is now part of the jazz language."

He also acknowledged that having those cash cows has allowed him to issue other cool stuff from the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Philly singer/songwriter Amos Lee, living legends Al Green and Van Morrison, and fresh jazz figures Benny Green and Aaron Parks.

"Most of our 25 years have been profitable," Lundvall recently allowed. "Last year wasn't good . . . but I'm very optimistic about the future of Blue Note. There are a lot of young people that I'm very excited about that I'd like to bring to the label. The good Lord willing and if the money doesn't dry up, we'll sign some more people in our 70th year." *

Blue Note Records' 70th Anniversary Tour with the Blue Note 7, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce streets, 8 p.m. Friday, $26-$64, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.

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