For most followers of Blue Note, hard bop was the order of the day and the label's numerous releases in that genre still serve as evidence of their dominance in the field. Less championed perhaps these days are more adventurous titles that brought to the fore some of the avant-garde's leading lightsincluding pianists Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill, trumpeters Eddie Gale and Don Cherry, and saxophonist Jackie McLean.
For the latest batch of Blue Note reissues to get the Rudy Van Gelder remaster treatment, we get a mix of mainstream titles with a few forward-thinking dates thrown in for good measure.
Detroit-New York Junction
The earliest set of the batch, Detroit-New York Junction brings together a crew of several Detroit-bred musicians under the aegis of trumpeter Thad Jones, who even at this early stage contributes some fine writing in the form of the three originals (part of a set that also includes two standard gems from Rodgers and Hart). It's easy to take for granted the superb line-up that appears here and while some of the albums from the 1500 series are arguably of the "blowing session variety, this set is a class act all the way. Tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell is in especially fine form and it's always good to hear pianist Tommy Flanagan in a more bop-oriented setting. While Van Gelder was not the original engineer for this session, he's done a fine job of presenting this music in the best light possible. Despite the fact that this one clocks in at just a few minutes over half an hour, it's definitely a keeper.
The Cat Walk
Following a career path not unlike fellow trumpeter Miles Davis, Donald Byrd's time at Blue Note found him expanding his horizons by working through a wide variety of ensembles and genres. This would eventually lead to him embrace pop and soul textures via a beneficial alliance with the Mizell Brothers in the early 1970s. A decade earlier he hit on an acutely strong quintet line-up that included baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and pianist Duke Pearson. One of several superb albums this group would make (although Herbie Hancock would eventually spell Pearson in the piano seat), 1961's The Cat Walk is distinguished by a first-rate selection of tunes that includes three numbers from Pearson's eloquent pen. "Say Your Mine is a sweet medium tempo swinger, while "Duke's Mixture comes on with a strong shuffle beat. Most remembered of the trio of pieces, "Hello Bright Sunflower is programmatic of its title. Neal Hefti's "Cute gets one of its best readings, marked by the fluid drumming of the legendary Philly Joe Jones. At the peak of their powers, all hands acquit themselves well on this landmark release.
Between his session work for Blue Note and Prestige, drummer Art Taylor was such a ubiquitous presence at the Van Gelder studios that for many years he kept a kit there just for use on record dates. Even with all this activity, the opportunities for leading his own dates were quite few in number, making A.T.'s Delight all the more valuable for those of us who admire Taylor's signature drum style. Like a true leader, however, Taylor does not dominate the proceedings but allows his other musicians to take the lion's share of the solos, providing the perfect carpet for what is a solidly enjoyable ride. Both saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and trumpeter Dave Burns sound enthused in these high-octane settings, with numbers like "Syeeda's Song Flute and "Epistrophy distinguished by original interpretations. Carlos "Patato Valdez adds a further layer of rhythmic complexity with his conga beat, locking in with Taylor on such Latin tinged numbers as "Cookoo And Fungi.
It wasn't until 1979 that the music on Clubhouse saw the light of day, though it had been recorded by saxophonist Dexter Gordon back in the spring of 1965. Reading between the lines, it's apparent that the chief reason for the delay was producer Alfred Lion's clear dissatisfaction with the results. In hindsight, it's hard to agree with Lion's summation, as there's just too much to admire here to call the date a complete failure. Sure, put into perspective by comparison with Gordon's masterpieces of the time such as Go! and A Swingin' Affair, this music is not on the same level. Nonetheless, the pairing of Gordon and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is particularly sagacious and the tunes bring out the best in all, particularly bassist Ben Tucker's funky "Devilette. Gordon also delivers a minor gem with the ballad performance of "I'm A Fool To Want You. Previously available on disc only as part of a large boxed set of Gordon Blue Notes, it's great to see this one more widely available, and with the best possible sound yet.
New And Old Gospel
Although he could be easy classified as a died in the wool bebopper, saxophonist Jackie McLean loved to shake things up, which he regularly did through a disparate set of Blue Note dates that span the mid 1950s to the late 1960s. New And Old Gospel is considered to be one of his more controversial sets, pairing him with Ornette Coleman, here playing trumpet. What might have been intriguing would have been to hear Coleman on alto saxophone alongside McLean, for he plays the trumpet with limited proficiency. Still, there's a sense of urgency that makes this set well worth some close listening. Most interesting are Coleman's two pieces, which originally took up the second side of an LP. "Old Gospel comes from a down home and soulful point of view that does indeed mix new and old sensibilities for an intriguing new hybrid, stoked by the chameleon-like drumming of Billy Higgins. Not McLean's best effort in the new vernacular, but still a damn fine listen.
The late Andrew Hill was a singular artist on par with other pianists/composers such as Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. Given a free hand by Alfred Lion, Hill was able to document his every musical whim, leading to a body of work on Blue Note that ranks with the best the label has to offer. Slowly but surely, Hill's catalog titles have been revisited by Van Gelder, each one revealing new layers of intricacy thanks to the engineer's remastering. Compulsion ranks among his most exigent works, densely orchestrated and featuring two percussionists alongside kit drummer Joe Chambers. In a rare appearance away from the Sun Ra organization, saxophonist John Gilmore thrives in these settings. So does trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who seems to have done his most adventurous work under the auspices of both Hill and saxophonist Sam Rivers. Complex and driving, Hill's piano work is as much about melody and harmony as it is about textures and rhythm, all of which makes Compulsion the qualified success that it is.
Tracks and Personnel
Detroit-New York Junction
Tracks: Blue Room; Tariff; Little Girl Blue; Scratch; Zec.
Personnel: Thad Jones: trumpet; Billy Mitchell: tenor saxophone; Kenny Burrell: guitar; Tommy Flanagan: piano; Oscar Pettiford: bass; Shadow Wilson: drums.
The Cat Walk
Tracks: Say You're Mine; Duke's Mixture; Each Time I Think Of You; The Cat Walk; Cute; Hello Bright Sunflower.
Personnel: Donald Byrd: trumpet; Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone; Duke Pearson: piano; Laymon Jackson: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums.
Tracks: Syeeda's Song Flute; Epistrophy; Move; High Seas; Cookoo and Fungi; Blue Interlude.
Personnel: Dave Burns: trumpet; Stanley Turrentine: tenor saxophone; Wynton Kelly: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Art Taylor: drums; Carlos "Patato Valdes: congas.
Tracks: Hanky Panky; I'm A Fool To Want You; Devilette; Clubhouse; Lady Iris B.; Jodi.
Personnel: Freddie Hubbard: trumpet; Dexter Gordon: tenor saxophone; Barry Harris: piano; Ben Tucker, Bob Cranshaw: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.
New And Old Gospel
Tracks: Lifeline; Old Gospel; Strange As It Seems.
Personnel: Ornette Coleman: trumpet; Jackie McLean: alto saxophone; Lamont Johnson: piano; Scotty Holt: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.
Tracks: Compulsion; Legacy; Premonition; Limbo.
Personnel: Freddie Hubbard: trumpet; John Gilmore: tenor saxophonist and bass clarinet; Andrew Hill: piano; Cecil McBee, Richard Davis: bass; Joe Chambers: drums; Nadi Qamar and Renaud Simmons: percussion.