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Film Review;  “Blue Note Records ; Beyond The Notes” directed by Sophie Huber.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Film Review;  “Blue Note Records ; Beyond The Notes” directed by Sophie Huber.

Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note Records in 1939 this is absolutely essential viewing for anybody with even the slightest interest in jazz.




Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note Records in 1939 “Beyond The Notes” is the second documentary film from director Sophie Huber.

Born in Switzerland but now based in Los Angeles Huber initially trained as an actor but gained film making experience as part of a Berlin based collective, co-directing several narrative films films while a part of this organisation.

In 2012 her first feature length documentary “Harry Dean Stanton; Partly Fiction”, an impressionistic portrait of the now late actor, was premièred at the Venice Film Festival with the resultant acclaim leading to a general cinema release.

When it was announced that a full length documentary about Blue Note Records was to be released I was wildly excited, hoping to be able to view the film at a local cinema. However the fact that I live in a remote rural location soon put paid to this, “Beyond The Notes” didn’t even appear as part of the annual Borderlines Film Festival. I’m therefore grateful to Faye Blaylock of Eagle Rock Entertainment for forwarding me a private link to the film for review purposes. Thanks, Faye.

My first significant involvement with Blue Note came in the 1980s when I acquired a second hand copy of the Lee Morgan album “The Sidewinder”, one of the label’s best known releases. Following an adolescence spent listening to prog and metal I was just getting into jazz and the Morgan record sparked an interest in all things Blue Note, the label having a particularly distinctive identity in terms of both music and visuals. There was a definite ‘Blue Note’ sound and the album packaging, featuring the photography of label founder Frank Wolff and the graphics of sleeve designer Reid Miles, was the embodiment of cool. I was hooked, and with Blue Note conducting a vinyl re-issue campaign at the time many more albums followed as recordings by Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, Horace Silver,  Herbie Hancock, Hank Mobley,  Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and others found their way into my collection – plus more Morgan of course! I was later to experience a similar epiphany with the German label ECM, coincidentally celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, another label with its own sound (albeit a very different one) and a similarly unique take on graphic design.

Leaving aside personal reminiscences and turning now to Huber’s film. “Beyond The Notes” doesn’t attempt to present a strict chronological account of the Blue Note story. Instead it looks at the wider musical and social implications of the label’s output, including its influence on the musicians of today.

The film begins in a Los Angeles studio where a contemporary group of ‘Blue Note All Stars’ are recording with producer and current label boss Don Was. Besides offering a fascinating glimpse into the recording process Huber’s film also includes ‘talking head’ style snippets of interviews with Was plus all six band members, Robert Glasper (piano,keyboards), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Marcus Strickland (tenor sax), Lionel Loueke (guitar), Derrick Hodge (electric bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums). Later on in the film interviews are conducted with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, two of the most influential musicians to have ever appeared on Blue Note.

All the members of the All Stars sextet speak of the influence of the Blue Note label on their younger selves, talking about the “transformative power” of the music and the coolness of Miles’ designs. On a more serious note the label’s role in the overall context of the Afro-American experience is also discussed with the interviewees talking about the “fight” and the “struggle” and the importance of both jazz and hip hop in this context. Akinmusire speaks of the social progress that has been since Blue Note’s ‘glory days’ of the 1950s and 60s but voices his fears that things are now beginning “to go back again” in the Trump era. These concerns are reflected in his playing as the All Stars sextet tackle Glasper’s hard bop inspired composition “Bayyinah” in the studio, the anger and the passion of the musicians reflected in their fiery performances.

Following this introductory section we were now transported back to the founding of the label back in 1939 by two German emigres, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff who had fled the horrors of Nazi Germany and settled in New York. In archive radio footage the pair describe hearing jazz for the first time on records in 1920s Berlin and of loving it but not fully understanding it. Lion, in particular, subsequently became increasingly absorbed in the music and was able to immerse himself in it more fully upon his arrival in New York.

Essentially Lion and Wolff were fans who established Blue Note to record the music that they wanted to hear, it was never meant as a purely commercial venture aiming for ‘hits’. The first artists they recorded were the boogie woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and James P Johnson these followed by saxophonist Sidney Bechet, trumpeter Sidney De Paris and clarinettist Edmund Hall.

Although its founders were white Blue Note’s roster of artists was almost exclusively black. Perhaps because of the prejudice they had suffered in Germany Lion and Wolff treated their artists with the utmost respect; they understood the value of trusting the musicians, encouraging the playing of original compositions, planning recording sessions in conjunction with the performers and even paying for rehearsal time, these qualities setting them apart from other labels. As a result the two Germans were respected in return and well accepted by the black musical community, despite their ‘funny accents’ and Wolff’s uncoordinated dancing when a studio session was ‘cooking’.

“They put no pressure on you” remarks Herbie Hancock while hip hop musician and producer Terrace Martin, part of the label’s current roster comments “they gave the cats a chance”. Among one of the major contributors to the film is ninety two year old saxophonist Lou Donaldson, whose wheezy accounts of working with Wolff and Lion are often laugh out loud funny. He’s quite a character is Lou.

Despite its origins in boogie woogie piano and trad jazz Blue Note is best known for pioneering the hard bop sounds of the 1950s and 60s. The label’s move towards a more modern style of jazz developed from Lion’s love of the music of Thelonious Monk. Lion and Wolff encouraged Monk’s individuality and he first recorded for the label in 1947, remaining with the company for five years, eventually moving on to Prestige. Huber’s film includes some great coverage of Monk in the studio and in live performance.  “Monk was the first hip hop pianist” comments Glasper.

“Without Blue Note nobody would have heard of Thelonious Monk” opines Donaldson. But the pianist was never the most commercial of propositions and his eventual departure came about due to the label’s financial difficulties. As genuine independents Lion and Wolff led a hand to mouth existence, particularly in the label’s early years.

Other influential pianists to record for the label included Herbie Hancock, Kenny Drew and Bud Powell. The latter stayed with the label from 1949-58 and produced some of his best work during this period. Again there’s some excellent archive footage of Powell, a tragic figure who died in 1966 aged just forty one.

Blue Note’s increasing involvement with modern jazz saw some of the giants of the music recording for the label, among them saxophonist John Coltrane whose 1960 recording “Blue Train” is still regarded as one of his best. An archive interview with Coltrane finds him enthusing about that session. In modern day Los Angeles Kendrick Scott talks about Coltrane’s influence on him and his contemporaries. Coltrane only recorded once for Blue Note and is most closely associated with the Impulse! label, but “Blue Train” remains one of the jewels of the Blue Note back catalogue.

Miles Davis, most commonly associated with Columbia, recorded three albums for Blue Note during the 1950s, later returning to appear on another Blue Note classic, Cannonball Adderley’s “Something Else!. Archive film of Davis shows him in the studio recording the ballad “I Waited For You”. Later on in the film there’s a clip of the Davis quintet playing Shorter’s composition “Footprints”.

Another trumpeter to record for the label was Clifford Brown, who was killed in a road traffic accident in 1956 aged just twenty five. During a short career Brown made a huge impact upon the music, remaining a highly influential figure to this day, with Akinmusire naming him as one of his major inspirations.

A central figure in the Blue Note story is the recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, another white who commanded total respect within the community of black musicians. Van Gelder is praised for his ability to capture the sound of individual musicians while retaining a clear label identity.

Between 1953 and 1959 Gelder recorded Blue Note sessions in his parents’ front room in Hackensack, New Jersey. He later built his own studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a purpose built construction designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and with the emphasis on space and height. During construction Van Gelder’s neighbours thought he was building his own church! In the ensuing years over four hundred recordings were made there, many of them label classics.

Almost as central as Van Gelder to Blue Note’s identity is album sleeve designer Reid Miles, whose innovative use of lettering, type faces and graphics was the visual equivalent to Van Gelder’s sonic artistry. Miles had the ability to make each album package different, but still instantly recognisable as a Blue Note record. His designs were augmented and enhanced by Wolff’s extraordinary black and white photographs. As well as handling the majority of Blue Note’s business affairs Wolff photographed every recording session and his striking, candid images were the perfect adjunct to Miles’ designs. The darkness within the Englewood Cliffs studio positively benefited Wolff’s photographs, making them more atmospheric than ever. Blue Note album sleeves remain the epitome of cool and several books of Wolff’s jazz photography have been published.

Blue Note was also a pioneer of live recording with drummer/bandleader Art Blakey’s 1954 album “Live At Birdland”, with its legendary introduction by the club’s MC Pee Wee Marquette, proving to be one of the most ground breaking releases in the label’s catalogue. Blakey and pianist Horace Silver were the pioneers of the style that came to be known as ‘hard bop’ as they broke the rules of bebop by replacing its complexities with simpler, funkier, more accessible components. This was considered a radical development at the time, despite its subsequent absorption into the jazz mainstream. This was the start of Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers franchise that consistently encouraged young and up and coming musicians, consistently hiring the young instrumental hot shots of the day.

Among these was the young saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, a shy young man who was brought out of himself by Blakey, who appointed him Musical Director of the Messengers and encouraged him as a composer.  As his leader Blakey also encouraged him to take musical risks on the bandstand. Shorter is among the musicians interviewed in Los Angeles saying “Art Blakey told me ‘you can’t hide behind your instrument’” Meanwhile Kendrick Scott comments “Art Blakey was a leader who trained leaders”.

The Blakey / Shorter section of the film includes marvellous archive coverage of the Messengers playing pianist Bobby Timmons’ composition “Moanin’”, essentially the band’s signature tune and of Blakey directing his band in the studio and even arguing with Lion and Wolff. We also see Shorter playing “Speak No Evil” and commenting that “we were thinking in terms of long term value”, even at this stage Blue Note wasn’t consciously looking for hits.

Indeed the label continued to experiment as artists such as Jackie McLean, pianist Andrew Hill and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson flirted with the modal jazz pioneered by Miles Davis and John Coltrane and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. Meanwhile albums such as McLean’s “Let Freedom Ring” and Blakey’s “Free For All” reflected the ongoing rise of the Civil Rights movement, with Blakey’s album, which features Shorter, containing some of the most intense music the drummer / leader ever recorded.

Although it had never actively sought commercial success Blue Note actually hit the pop charts in 1963 when “The Sidewinder”, the title track of an album by trumpeter Lee Morgan actually hit the pop charts. The recorded version was the 25th take of the tune, a fact indicative of the fastidiousness of Blue Note’s recording methods. This was followed shortly after by Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”. But these commercial breakthroughs proved to be a double edged sword as distributors pushed for more hits in the same vein and began to withhold payments. This unlooked for success had created its own problems and after years of living hand to mouth Blue Note began to experience real cashflow problems. In 1966 Lion and Wolff sold out to Liberty records, the pair being retained as ‘consultants’.  Lion had no taste for the corporate world that he had been thrust into and retired in 1967, Wolff died in 1971. It seemed that an era was over.

Blue Note limped on until 1979, first with Liberty and then with United Artists, who in turn had acquired Liberty. It seemed like the end but it was revived in the 1980s by record executives Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lindvall, both fans of jazz and of Blue Note in particular,  and both enthusiastic and knowledgeable enough to know that they were sitting on a gem of a back catalogue. Hence those 80s re-issues with which I cut my Blue Note teeth, plus a huge raft of repackages on CD in the 1990s, including previously unreleased material that Lion and Wolff had left on the shelf. With both jazz and rock becoming increasingly aware of their own histories Blue Note recovered much of its credibility and cool with Van Gelder hired again to remaster many of his original recordings for CD, the ‘RVG’ re-issue series.

Cuscuna and Lindvall took a similar approach to their predecessors Lion and Wolff.  “You’re the artist, you make the art and we’ll sell it” they would tell the musicians in their charge. Under the guidance of these two visionaries Blue Note began to make new signings, among them vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Cassandra Wilson and guitarist John Scofield. Even a handful of Brits got signed, saxophonists Tommy Smith and Andy Sheppard and trumpeter Guy Barker all recorded albums for Blue Note in the 1990s but got dropped again soon afterwards. Unsurprisingly they don’t get a mention in Huber’s film. The revived Blue Note’s biggest commercial success came in 2000 with the singer Norah Jones, who features in an interview and archive coverage.

The final section of the film emphasises the links between Blue Note past and Blue Note present and the direct lineage between jazz and hip hop with both depicted as “music of the inner cities”.
Samples of vintage Blue Note records appeared on hits by hip hop artists US3 and A Tribe Called Quest. Built around the riff from Hancock’s composition “Cantaloupe Island” US3’s “Cantaloop” sampled several other snippets from classic Blue Note records and was even afforded a release on the iconic label that had inspired it. Meanwhile A Tribe Called Quest based their success on a sample of the Lee Morgan composition “Absolutions”.

Cypress Hill, De La Soul and Eminem were other hip hop acts to trawl the Blue Note back catalogue . Blue Note artists that proved to be popular with the hip hop fraternity included Lou Donaldson and guitarist Grant Green, but the most frequently sampled Blue Note artist is drummer Idris Muhammad, whose playing style with its frequent use of break beats was particularly suited to the new aesthetic.

Terrace Martin compares contemporary hip hop artists with the jazzers and hard boppers of old, citing the withdrawal of musical instrument programmes in schools as the catalyst for the rise of hip hop and rap. Denied the opportunity of more conventional means of musical expression the youth of inner city America have developed their own alternative, making use of modern recording technology.

Glasper, in particular is seen as the bridge between jazz and hip hop, drawing from all the elements of contemporary Afro-American music with his Experiment group on recordings such as his “Black Radio” series. Meanwhile Glasper and Akinmusire are among the several jazz artists that appear on rapper Kendrick Lamarr’s 2015 hit album “To Pimp A Butterfly”, further cementing the links between the two genres.

The film ends as it began in a Los Angeles studio as Shorter and Hancock join the sextet of Glasper, Akinmusire, Strickland,  Loueke, Hodge and Scott to record a version of Shorter’s late 1960s composition “Masqualero”, a work that was also informed by the racial politics of its era. It’s an absolute treat to see these musicians of different generations coming together in support of a single cause.

The respect that the current crop of Blue Note All Stars have for their seniors is expressed in the studio interviews conducted during this session. Loueke speaks of their “openness”  and of regarding them as musical allies. Indeed it’s his summation of Hancock’s playing as being “Beyond The Notes” that gives the film its title.

Loueke is impressed by the way that Shorter and Hancock variously display “courage, uncertainty and vulnerability” as part of the improvising process. Hodge adds “they’re prepared to let the music flow out, they’ve worked at their humanity as well as their music”.

“Beyond The Notes” is an absolute treat for any jazz fan. The archive footage, both musical and spoken word is a joy, as we hear Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff speak and see such great artists as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Miles Davis play.

The contributions of Shorter and Hancock plus Was, Cuscuna, Lindvall and the current crop of Blue Note artists are also hugely enjoyable, whether playing in the studio or offering perceptive insights during the ‘talking head’ style interviews.

The film is also a visual delight. It’s great fun to pick out your favourite LP cover from the many iconic designs that are depicted. Then there are Frank Wolff’s marvellous photographs. One section of the film depicts Michael Cuscuna looking through Wolff’s photo archive, discovering rarely seen images of the great musicians associated with Blue Note label and reacting to them in the manner of a kid in a sweet shop.

I was a bit like that watching this film, and of course it makes you want to dig out those classic albums out again and listen to them again in full.

Criticisms are few. The chronological jumping around was slightly distracting – but then it was never Huber’s intention to deliver a strictly linear narrative. It’s also arguable that the jazz / hip hop link is a little overplayed in the expectation of attracting a younger audience – but try telling Glasper and his band of All Stars that.

Basically this is absolutely essential viewing for anybody with even the slightest interest in jazz. Even for those less committed than myself in terms of the music there is interest to be found in the socio-political narrative of the story and this film also represents rewarding viewing for those interested in the visual arts of photography and graphic design.

It’s rumoured that the BBC have acquired rights to the film with the intention of screening it later in the year, presumably on BBC4. Assuming that they do, make sure you don’t miss it! And if you’re lucky enough to live near a cinema where it’s being screened, just get yourself down there.

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