Blue Note Reissues (part 1)

Jazz can be intimidating, what with players (and fans) geeking out on modes, tones, voicings, harmonic structures, time signatures and who played with whom.  But since when did intimidation stop anyone from diving into the discographies of prolific artists like Robert Pollard, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan? Perhaps the key to becoming (even) a (casual) fan of jazz is knowing where to start.

Fortunately, the iconic Blue Note Records has made it easier to discover that elusive starting point in its voluminous and impressive jazz catalog. For its 75th anniversary in 2014, the label began reissuing important records, many of which have been out of print (especially on vinyl) for nearly 40 years. So, discerning music listener, would you allow me to discuss some of my favorite Blue Note releases? These would make great entry points in the jazz canon, or perhaps they are titles you merely overlooked but are now back in print. Keep in mind that the label is selective with its reissues, and the purview of this four-part essay is even more limited. (So forgive me for the many worthy, mind-blowing albums that I’m about skip over.)

Playing alto and baritone sax in high school jazz bands, I listened to plenty of jazz, but rarely by my own volition. That changed in college with Combustication by Medeski Martin & Wood. A friend told me the record sounded like DJ Shadow starting a funky jazz organ group. And even after all these years, I can’t say that I totally disagree with that oversimplification. Funky, postmodern, accessible and just a little weird, it’s a perfect entry point into the band’s discography. We all need a good rabbit hole now and then, and the album is a great one that eventually leads to other masters of the Hammond B-3 and Fender Rhodes.

A couple songs really stand out to this listener. “Sugar Craft” is not only a fine opening track, it superbly sets the tone for the album. It also feels like a culmination of the band’s work to that point, with backbeats, record scratching and an infections Jimmy Smith-esque soul jazz melody. As good as the album starts, track nine, “Coconut Boogaloo,” is not to be overlooked. Its beauty lies in its tension, as the groove just never seems to get too comfortable. It feels like the rhythm section just might fall apart at any moment if Billy Martin misplaces yet another snare hit in his butchered James Brown beat. Once again, John Medeski writes keyboard melodies the listener can easily follow.

If you want to start with an older record, though, look no further than The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan, one of my favorite trumpet players. The title cut of the album was an early hit for Blue Note, reaching number 25 on the Billboard pop charts. It’s a funky blues romp with an excellent solo by Joe Henderson on tenor sax. The rest of the album is the hard bop that one could expect from a guy like Morgan, who spent time in Art Blakey’s group, the Jazz Messengers. While “The Sidewinder” is catchy and is great to spin at parties, “Totem Pole” is my favorite track. It shifts between two jazz styles with Bob Cranshaw’s solid bass line holding it together. Like many of Morgan’s successive albums, he seems intentional in mixing intricate, bop tunes with accessible, soulful songs.

That Blue Note is being so selective in this series should excite even the casual fan of jazz. Curation builds and maintains fanbases of any label. And today, when fans love revisiting and re-evaluating the past (just look at labels like Numero Group, Light in the Attic and Captured Tracks), Blue Note is doing well to carefully give attention to releases that made it such an important label.

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