Blue Note 70th Anniversary Tour at the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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The whole package was highly successful and much appreciated by the audience because it captured the driving, forceful sound that was the signature of the best Blue Note recordings.
The Blue Note 7
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Verizon Hall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

March 28, 2008

The legendary Blue Note record label is celebrating its 70th Anniversary this year. To briefly summarize its history and achievements, one can do no better than to quote from the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

"Blue Note Records is a jazz record label, established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. Francis Wolff became involved shortly afterwards. [Wolff also took the photos that were on many of its famous album covers.—Eds.] It derives its name from the characteristic "blue notes" of jazz and the blues. Blue Note Records is currently owned by the EMI Group and in 2006 was expanded to fill the role of an umbrella label group bringing together a wide variety of EMI-owned labels and imprints specializing in the growing market segment of music for adults.

"Blue Note throughout its history has principally been associated with the 'hard bop' style of jazz (mixing bebop with other forms of music including soul, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel). Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard,Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd and Grant Green were among the label's leading artists, but almost all the important musicians in postwar jazz recorded for Blue Note on occasion, albeit most often only once."

The Blue Note 7 is a group of high-power musicians associated with the record label (although not necessarily most frequently recorded by them) who have come together to honor the record company and its musical legacy. Currently, they are on a tour of concert halls and other venues, and they have just produced one album, Blue Note 7 Mosaic, released of course on the famed label. In this concert at the Kimmel Center, they remained faithful to the hard bop legacy, selecting a series of tunes from Blue Note's heyday, with references to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, and Lee Morgan. There is no way to be totally representative of the label's prodigious output, but the group's selections certainly gave a feel for the music Blue Note put out in its glory days.

At the Kimmel Center, the group performed straight through without an intermission. The musicians appeared in corporate-style business suits that mostly recalled the professionalism of the Modern Jazz Quartet and stood in contrast to the colorful and casual outfits that many groups sport today. Their attire forecast their straight-ahead hard bop-derived approach to the music, delivered in a taut, high-wired manner propelled by drummer Lewis Nash's driving rhythm and the precise, on-the-money virtuosity of Bill Charlap's piano, Peter Washington's upright bass, and Peter Bernstein's softer-sounding acoustic-electric guitar. The horn section of Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax, and Steve Wilson on alto sax and flute did serviceable work, sometimes shining, but not quite at the creative level that each attains with his own group, perhaps holding back out of deference to the ensemble effect. Many of the arrangements were by the players themselves. The whole package was highly successful and much appreciated by the audience because it captured the driving, forceful sound that was the signature of the best Blue Note recordings. The musicians of that time had something new to say and, even in the cavern of the recording studio (or in many cases, Rudy Van Gelder's home facility in Hackensack, New Jersey), they really stepped up and drove their point across. Thus, paradoxically, by thoroughly respecting and honoring their forbears, the current group generated their own freshness and power.

The evening began with a rendition of Horace Silver's "The Outlaw," well-arranged and delivered with a clean, sharp sound, with a fine alto solo by Wilson and rapid right-hand runs by Charlap a la Silver. Charlap alertly edged forward from his seat, and his well-honed playing was stunning throughout. The legacy of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers was acknowledged with Wayne Shorter's "United" arranged by Renee Rosnes. An energetic drum solo by Nash foretold his subsequent astonishing technique and hard, steady rhythmic pulse. The theme was stated by the horns, followed by bass, guitar, tenor sax, and drum solos. Peter Washington, who in appearance could have passed for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, showed why he's regarded as one of the finest bassists in jazz today. A nod to Thelonious Monk, most of whose recordings were not with Blue Note, was nevertheless in "Evidence." Charlap's piano soloing highlighted Monk's off-center rhythm, while the trumpet, alto, tenor, and guitar solos seemed in doubt about what do with Monk in a straight-ahead format.

McCoy Tyner's classic "Search for Peace" from The Real McCoy was highlighted by a beautiful trumpet solo by Payton and a flute solo by Wilson, and constituted ballad relief from the rapid fire pace of the other numbers. The set concluded with Cedar Walton's "Mosaic," with glowing solos by Coltrane, Wilson, Payton, and Charlap. Nash's concluding drum solo was remarkable for its musical intelligence, powerful technique, and creative force. Payton mentioned, in connection with his survey of the audience about which Philly steak joint is the best (Gino's, Pats, or as one audience member added with a shout, "Jims!"), noted that Nash is a vegetarian. If his youthful appearance, Zen-like focus, and concentrated energy come from his diet, we should all be vegans!

For an encore the group performed Philadelphia legend Lee Morgan's "Party Time" in a fine arrangement by (Peter) Bernstein. The surprise of the evening came when Nash scat sang a solo. If Roy Haynes is any indication, drummers may harbor profound wishes to be vocalists. Nash did quite well at it.

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