Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes

Doug Collette By

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Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
Eagle Vision

Seventy-one minutes hardly seems long enough to tell the story of a record label so profoundly influential as Blue Note. Yet even a marathon film of multiple parts could not capture the essence of this phenomenon any more completely and certainly no more succinctly than Sophie Huber does on her second stint as a documentarian (her debut was the critically-acclaimed Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction). With Beyond The Note, she clearly and simply points the way through the label's eighty-year history.

In what almost passes as time-elapsed photography/videography, the depiction of black and white photos juxtaposed with rare film segments accompanies each landmark in the growth of the label. And, in retrospect, the signing of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane seems as much a fait accompli as the latter-day mainstream popularity of Norah Jones, the contemporary profile of the label then further heightened under the aegis of current president Don Was. Along the way, Sophie Huber touches upon all the salient points, the main theme of which is the independent means instituted by its founders, European jazz fans Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.

Maintaining a novel approach to nurturing the music they loved so much—emphasized at a couple points by mention of rehearsing the musicians assiduously prior to sessions (in contrast to their West coast counterparts like Prestige)—the duo's concentration on style carried over to the iconic cover art and, most importantly, the unique Blue Note identity. The integrity of the label remained intact through its various later stages of evolution including takeover(s) by major label organizations and a subsequent dormancy and resurgence/rebirth in the eighties under Bruce Lundvall.

Blue Note Records' connection with contemporary hip-hop sounds strained in the voices of some interviewees like keyboardist/composer Robert Glasper. But by the revelation that classics such as Herbie Hancock's "Canteloupe Island" became a major source of sampling for a new generation, the progression seems like nothing but a logical extension of the process that famed keyboardist/composer explains as the liberated (and liberating) approach Wolf and Lion took to their business: the duo eschewed a mercenary angle in favor of purely creative perspective.

In keeping with their comparatively greater and more extensive experience, the leader of the Headhunters and his esteemed peer, saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, are markedly more eloquent than some of the younger musicians appearing to speak during Beyond The Notes. In contrast, drummer/composer Kendrick Scott is articulate in explanations of his motivations and ambitions for his art, rightfully espousing the position that, just as artists like Lee Morgan and Art Blakey of the Fifties and Sixties reflected the times in which they lived, so does the music in this not-so-new millennium offer a similar means of expression,racially and otherwise.

The film seems to go off on a tangent during a prolonged interval devoted to the present-day Blue Note All Stars (assembled by Was) collaborating with Hancock and Shorter on the latter's "Masqualero," (especially because a full take is included as one of the two bonus features on the DVD, in juxtaposition with Glasper's own arresting tune "Bayyinah"). But because the narrative generally proceeds with the logic of a well-constructed instrumental arrangement—so much so it's easy to feel the conclusion coming as it nears—this interval ultimately works as that riveting set up in an improvisation immediately prior to the dramatic finish.

In that sense, Sophie Huber's work as director and screenwriter mirrors the sounds of those many recording sessions preserved for posterity under the immediately recognizable logo. And she rightfully depicts the elevated caliber of that work growing and changing with time. That she respects the intelligence of her viewers in that regard alone is a direct reflection of the same prescient thinking Blue Note's two German Jewish refugee founders brought to their initiative.

As a result, Beyond The Notes should not only stand on its own terms (through the literal reading of its title), but also as a means to the end of encouragement for music lovers who see it. The established jazz aficionado can conceivably calibrate an existing collection by the percentage of Blue Note Records within it, while the curious novice fan could easily amass an estimable compendium simply by following this chronology of notable characters, including but certainly not limited to, Miles Davis (and those many significant figures who passed through his employ).

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