Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes Review
Some record labels are inseparable from the style of music they release. No more so is that true than with Blue Note, the quintessential jazz label that has recorded almost every famous name you can think of in the genre. From John Coltrane and Miles Davis, to Thelonious Monk and Don Cherry, there is no other label that has helped define and shape the music as clearly as Blue Note.
Sophie Huber’s documentary, Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes, gives us a summary of the label's past, present and future. Almost 1,000 records have been released since the first recording in 1939, and Huber connects the dots from its heyday through to modern-day luminaries like Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott and Ambrose Akinmusire, along the way passing through the influence of jazz on rap and sampling culture.
The Hard Bop sound that become synonymous with Blue Note during the 50s and 60s was an evolution that started with the boogie-woogie sounds of pianists like Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. The label was started by two Jewish German-born businessmen who left the country in the late 30s to head over to New York. Childhood friends Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were jazz fans first and foremost, and it’s a philosophy they kept to throughout their time spent owning and running Blue Note.
This made the label a haven for artists to experiment and push the boundaries of the music, with Lion and Wolff giving them space to create without any commercial restrictions. A perfect example of that is the idiosyncratic but legendary pianist, Thelonious Monk. His unique playing style still confounds as many people today as it did seven decades ago, and with major labels refusing to record him, the world would’ve missed out on his genius if Blue Note had not allowed him to call the label his home. It’s an approach that saw Lion and Wolff take major financial hits in the early days, and thankfully their commitment ensured some of the greatest recordings in jazz history were able to be heard.
Huber moves back and forth across the years paying homage to the two men and the many artists that appeared on the label’s roster at one time or another. This includes Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, who recall their own memories in-between recording with the present day Blue Note All-Stars. Hancock is a musical giant in his own right, while Shorter is considered jazz music’s greatest ever composer and one of best saxophonists to ever pick up the axe. For the purists out there, Wolff’s beautiful black and white photos are used to show us the likes of Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan and countless others in their pomp during the height of the label’s success.
There’s plenty of live archived footage, with current Blue Note President Don Was one of the few talking heads making an appearance. Another is Rudy Van Gelder, who engineered many of the most famous recordings during the height of the label's success, although despite his insider knowledge not much of his interview footage is used (he died in 2016). Another small bone of contention is that free jazz is largely overlooked in the context of the label’s history. When you consider this includes trailblazers like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, more attention could've been paid to their contributions. Although, given the vastness of the label's history, Huber does manage to cover a lot of ground in its relatively brief runtime.
Of course, acknowledgements are made to Reid Miles’ timeless album cover art, whose distinctive use of fonts and colour tints still remain the epitome of cool. Blue Note went through tough times throughout the 70s and the label lay dormant for another decade before it began a slow revival that continues in a more modernised format today. The spirit of survival is engrained into the fabric of the music, and it comes as no surprise one of its most famous labels continues to thrive.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes opens in select cinemas on March 8th.