How do you whittle down 70 years of Blue Note Records to a handful of favorites?
Downbeat magazine asked those at the forefront of today's jazz generation to go one step better and name their single favorite album issued by the label. On the magazine's cover is sax man Joe Lovano, who will release his 21st record for Blue Note, Folk Art, in May. Cradled in his arms is his pick: Art Blakey's 1964 bop masterwork Free for All.
Bill Charlap, pianist and musical director for The Blue Note 7, chose pianist Horace Silver's 1954 album with an earlier and altogether different lineup of the band (named Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers). But in a recent telephone interview, he all but dismissed any notion of a single "favorite" Blue Note work.
"It's a very show-business question to ask about your favorite Blue Note record," he said. "If you have more than one child, would you choose a favorite?"
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Rather than limiting the choices to a single selection, here is my critic's pick sampling of five champion Blue Note recordings. The choices — representing a just four years of the label's mammoth history — intentionally omit Blue Note's more iconic artists (Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and others) in favor of less-appreciated players who defined the label's timeless blues, bop, soul and swing.
Hank Mobley, Soul Station (1960). One of the happiest Blue Note sessions ever teams sax great Mobley with drummer (and onetime boss) Art Blakey and pianist Wynton Kelly for an album of lean, soulful cheer. A guaranteed smile-maker of an album.
Sonny Clark, Leapin' and Lopin' (1961). Clark is a shamefully overlooked pianist, composer and sideman, and his records as a band leader mixed playful blues (summarized here on Voodoo) and exquisitely reflective solo playing (his cover of Deep in a Dream).
Kenny Dorham, Una Mas (1963). Like fellow trumpeter Lee Morgan, Dorham had a way with a lyrical phrase. Note the similarities between Una Mas' title tune and Morgan's The Sidewinder. But Dorham also exhibited understated swing and regal cool.
Lee Morgan, Search for the New Land (1964). You could argue to infinity about who was Blue Note's greatest soloist and composer. Morgan gets my vote. He cut harder swing sessions, but few reached the sleeker emotive extremes of New Land.
Andrew Hill, Point of Departure (1964). Albums like this woke up Blue Note to the times. Within the jagged rhythmic strides of New Monastery, Spectrum and Dedication, pianist/composer Hill took the blues of Blue Note into brave new improvisational turf.