The Blue Note 7
Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the first Blue Note recording session. Since then, the groundbreaking jazz label has been credited as a guiding force in so-called “hard bop.” While that's a bit of a generalization, Blue Note nonetheless provided bop with a cosmopolitan shift, especially during the label's golden era of the 1960s.
Everything about Blue Note oozed style and cool, from its extraordinary roster of artists — Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and Dexter Gordon and lesser credited greats like Sonny Clark and Duke Pearson — to the in-house team of producer/label founder Alfred Lion and engineer Rudy Van Gelder — who gave Blue Note recordings a sterling but wildly soulful sound —to the extraordinary album photography of Francis Wolff — whose portraits mirrored the everyman artistry that Blue Note's bop sound embraced.
On a new recording called Mosaic, we have a Blue Note tribute undertaken by the label. The idea was to enlist a league of contemporary jazz stylists, dubbed The Blue Note 7, to reinterpret eight tunes from the label's celebrated past.
Pianist/musical director Bill Charlap is the only artist in the assemblage who records for Blue Note today. But the other extraordinary players within the 7 include one-time Chick Corea alto saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson; sublime New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton; tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of Alice and John Coltrane; and guitarist Peter Bernstein, (a one-time protégé of Blue Note sax great Lou Donaldson. Coincidentally, fine new albums by Coltrane (Blending Times) and Bernstein (Monk) also hit stores this week with Mosaic.
The new-generation approach of Mosaic is felt at once on the album-opening title tune, a Cedar Walton composition that, in turn, served as the title work to a 1961 Blue Note album by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The crisp propulsion of drummer Lewis Nash, who also arranged the tune, echoes Blakey's ageless bravado, while the Payton-Coltrane-Wilson horn section maintains the almost big bandlike fervor that showcased Hubbard and Shorter on the original.
Hancock's Dolphin Dance opens up the music. While Charlap, Nash and bassist Peter Washington initially place the music inside a crystalline trio framework with piano setting the tune's tonal reserve, lustrous solos from Payton and Coltrane expand the tune's inherent cool.
Charlap seems to purposely avoid dominating the session. Even during Wilson's arrangement of Thelonious Monk's Criss Cross, the melody is carried by the horn team in “all-for-one” fashion. But on McCoy Tyner's Search for Peace, the horns play off Charlap's piano rolls to momentarily suggest Tyner's muscular modal playing. Still, the tune quickly settles so Payton and Wilson can design an intimacy and warmth that deviate greatly from Tyner's prizefighting romps.
Similarly, Pearson's Idle Moments lets Bernstein's limber guitar work creep around the groove. That sets up twilight-hued piano delicacy by Charlap in which the Blue Note sound is reinvented again — as it is throughout Mosaic — in bursts of bright, boppish mischief.
(The Blue Note 7 will perform March 14 in Lexington at the Singletary Center for the Arts.)