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By James Rozzi
Vintage piano recordings shine with new luster on recent Blue Note reissues.
Founded in 1939, Blue Note Records reached its zenith during the hard-bop halcyon 1960s. Founders-producers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were immigrants, non-musicians who relied upon their love of jazz and sheer intuition when recruiting a roster of young, relatively unknown musicians who ultimately defined the art form.
Blue Note maintains traditions under current label president Don Was, enlisting talented up-and-comers as well as reissuing audiophile-quality vinyl in three distinct series: Tone Poet releases are gatefold albums containing additional in-studio photographs by Wolff, while Classic Vinyl reproduces vintage LPs. All were recorded by esteemed sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder and beautifully remastered for vinyl by Kevin Gray. More recently comes the offshoot Blue Note 313 Series, which partners with Jack White’s Third Man Records and concentrates on vintage albums originating from Was’ hometown of Detroit.
Lion loved his pianists, particularly focusing on them when they performed as sidemen for horn players. Sonny Clark was no stranger to the studio prior to his first Blue Note release as leader, backing tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley in June of 1957. His abilities as an accompanist and soloist had been in demand by a host of West Coast musicians prior to moving to New York. One month after the Mobley date, Clark was back in Van Gelder’s studio leading a sextet. Another Blue Note sextet date quickly followed, then Clark had his first chance to downsize with The Sonny Clark Trio, a long-awaited opportunity for his fans to hear the pianist stretch out at length. Available now as a beautifully resonating Tone Poet release, Clark spins out a diverse set of repertory bop and standards with a natural fluidity seldom heard on the instrument, aided by stalwarts Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones on bass and drums, respectively.
Not quite the virtuoso that Clark was, but equally gifted at composing and writing for horns, Duke Pearson enlists a stellar front line on his 1968 octet Tone Poet offering,The Right Touch. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, tenorist Stanley Turrentine, altoists James Spaulding and Jerry Dodgion and trombonist Garnett Brown pack a sizable punch on ensembles, and solo with ample excitement on six Pearson originals — from juke-flavored funk to sultry blues. What Pearson lacks in piano chops he ably compensates for with finesse and a most elegant piano sound. A highlight here, “Make It Good,” is a heartily swinging piano feature abetted by bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Grady Tate, engaging horn backgrounds and a typically machismo Freddie Hubbard solo.
As is often the case, musician referrals lead to gigs which lead to recordings. Pearson championed pianist Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet after hearing this highly focused working band out of Detroit. Produced by Wolff, recorded in Detroit and released on the Blue Note 313 Series, the group’s second Blue Note album, Multidirection, presents a complete change in soundstage. Whereas Van Gelder generally emphasized an encapsulated ensemble sound, engineer Jim Bruzzese isolated individual instruments to a greater degree. It makes little difference when sizing up this cleanly articulating, tightly arranged band, which easily oscillates between cerebral and funky, often within the same well-crafted tune. Cox obviously borrowed pianistic cues from Herbie Hancock, but I dispute the general opinion that his quintet — with like instrumentation — closely echoed Miles Davis’ mid-’60s group. While their names may be unfamiliar to most listeners, their well-crafted music exemplifies a quality group effort.
Art Blakey and Horace Silver performed together in the very first, early-’50s edition of the Jazz Messengers. But while Blakey was putting the hard into hard bop, Horace was giving it a silver lining. Silver’s music has always exhibited a sense of optimism throughout his Blue Note tenure, which lasted until 1979 — the longest of any musician. That’s a lot of records, and 1959’s Blowin’ the Blues Away, issued on the Classic Vinyl Series, is certainly one of his best. Silver’s optimal front line of trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook absolutely burn their way through this well-recorded gem.
For cats who came of age during the big band era, certain elements stuck, even if they hadn’t necessarily performed with large ensembles. Silver’s writing is textbook in this regard, always hard-swinging with interesting, highly syncopated melodies, bluesy solos spurred by kick-ass backgrounds, and exciting shout choruses. Silver’s comping even emulated a saxophone section’s repeated rhythmic motifs. Two tunes from this set have become standards: the Gospel-tinged “Sister Sadie” and the sensitive ballad “Peace,” the latter beautifully performed in trio with bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Louis Hayes.
Sitting poolside in Boca Raton, Florida, Prestige Records founder and producer Bob Weinstock told me, “I loved those Blue Note records. Even before I was in the business, Alfred Lion was my hero. The man was a giant. He had integrity. He made a fine product and recorded everybody from Sidney Bechet right up to Ornette Coleman.” Weinstock might have substituted pianist Cecil Taylor’s name for Coleman’s as a better example of Lion’s breadth of musical appreciation. Especially when considering both musicians’ Blue Note albums, the frenetic strains of Taylor’s Unit Structures (1966) make Coleman sound relatively conventional.
Released as a Classic Vinyl, Taylor’s volcanic septet erupts with equal parts emotion, intellect and kinetic energy. A listener with an astute ear will identify unit structures: oft-fleeting moments of melodic and/or rhythmic motifs that come to define these four tracks. Others will simply hear a wall of sound via group improvisations — directed primarily from the piano bench — featuring trumpeter Eddie Gale Stevens Jr., saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Ken McIntyre, bassists Alan Silva and Henry Grimes, and masterful drummer Andrew Cyrille. If spontaneous construction of form is indeed possible, this group achieves it via subtle networks of musical relationships. Taylor seldom maintained a working band. His music was too complex and overwhelming upon initial hearing to have a place in a nightclub. In fact, one musician has described patrons forgoing libations altogether, sitting like statues with mouths agape. As demonstrated once again, the music is sufficiently intoxicating without the bar tab.
Photos by Francis Wolff.