5 Neglected Blue Notes
Neglected as in 'seriously unlikely to appear in any top 50/top 100 album list but better than most top 50/100 albums'. So, great as they are, no Blue Train, Something Else, Out to Lunch or Maiden Voyage.
I’ve had to fight the urge to include Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson or Wayne Shorter. I think they're pretty near the three most consistent artists on the label and each has more than one Blue Note to his name that never truly receives its due (Mode for Joe and Night Dreamer come to mind), yet it’s difficult to argue that even their least celebrated efforts haven’t been afforded their 15 minutes.
Paul Chambers’ ‘Whims Of Chambers’ nearly meets the criteria - it doesn’t get half the props it deserves – but... considering it boasts the line-up to end all line-ups (John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Horace Silver and Kenny Burrell, to name but four), it probably had to attain ‘Miles Smiles’ level importance/musicianship to be labelled ‘neglected’.
Honourable mentions also for Sabu Martinez’s ‘Palo Congo’, Kenny Burrell’s ‘Blue Lights Vol 1', Don Cherry’s ‘Symphony For Improvisers’, Johnny Coles’ ‘Little Johnny C’ and Lee Morgan's ‘The Last Album’. All great, all worth many listens.
Two of the selected five recordings are post-1966, after Blue Note was sold to the giant Liberty Records Inc. The consensus seems to be that Blue Note in its new guise put out weaker records, but that is quite removed my experience and I’ve made room for more than one slept-on gem from this period.
Ok, so here’s the list…
1. Lee Morgan - Search For The New Land (1964)
Lee Morgan (trumpet) Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone) Grant Green (guitar) Herbie Hancock (piano) Reginald Workman (bass) Billy Higgins (drums)
This is some of Lee Morgan’s most interesting and adventurous material, yet it gathered dust for over 2 years before anyone heard it. Morgan’s drink and drug dependency meant that the only way he could scrape a living was to constantly record, and Blue Note could barely keep up with him.
The Sidewinder – a huge hit for the label – was recorded 3 months before, so the only ‘New Land’ the label were interested in was the next Sidewinder. This wasn’t it. As the brooding picture of Morgan on the album sleeve suggests, this is a much mellower, complex, probing session.
The quality of the writing and playing is remarkable, yet the epic 15 minute title track is more equal than the others - right up there with anything Morgan put on record. Morgan had featured on Grachan Moncur III’s ‘Evolution’ album at the end of the previous year, and i can hear something of Moncur’s approach to composition on 'Search For The New Land'. Reggie Workman's bass line laying down a two chord foundation upon which Shorter, Morgan, Green and finally Hancock (his block-chord heavy solo is the high watermark) each tell their story. Must-hear.
2. Blue Mitchell – Down With It (1965)
Blue Mitchell (trumpet), Junior Cook (tenor saxophone), Chick Corea (piano), Gene Taylor (bass), Aloysius Foster (drums)
Blue Mitchell always had tone. And chops. Ever since holding down the trumpet spot in Horace Silver's quintet of the late 1950s-early 1960s, he’s been dropping one stand-out solo after another (check out Jackie Mclean’s ‘Capuchin Swing’ and Silver’s ‘Swingin At The Continental’).
His own ‘Down With It’, is in many ways a typical Blue Note recording date - the usual mix of Latin/Bossa, Ballad, Hard Bop, RnB - but just tighter. Take what could have been a routine rendition of "Hi-Heel Sneakers", for example. Post -‘The Sidewinder’ (again) the label were guilty of shoehorning at least one jukebox-friendly – and often disposable - RnB tune per album. ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’ is soled from different rubber entirely, though. All that rapport Mitchell had built up with sax man Junior Cook during their time in Horace Silver’s group really cuts through the record. They catch fire early, and don’t let up for a second.
That said, the record peaks at "Alone, Alone and alone", where a 24 year old Chick Corea demonstrates early mastery of the ballad. Had this number been on a Bill Evans album, i think it would have become a jazz standard by now.
3. Andrew Hill – Compulsion (1965)
Andrew Hill (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), John Gilmore (tenor sax), Cecil McBee (pizzicato bass), Richard Davis (arco bass), Joe Chambers (drums), Nadi Qamar (African drums, African thumb piano, percussion); Renaud Simmons (percussion).
Better than ‘Point Of Departure’. Yeah, I said it.
Andrew Hill is a unique pianist-composer in that his writing is rarely piano heavy - much like Sun Ra in that sense. Like Sun Ra, Andrew Hill cut his teeth in Chicago. Hill would try and catch him play whenever he could, and he never hid the influence this had on his music. So it was Hill’s good fortune that Sun Ra let his devout and brilliant saxophonist, John Gilmore, out to play on ‘Compulsion’. Then, getting Gilmore for a gig, much less an album, was tougher than a £3 steak.
Two horns (Hubbard just kills it), two percussionists as well as a drummer, bass clarinet, thumb piano...plus Hill’s own percussive approach to piano playing. As contemporary pianist Vijay Iyer put it “Everything he plays (on ‘Compulsion’) feels so right even though it doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection to tonality that we’re used to.”
Nothing else on Blue Note sounds like ‘Compulsion’. His next album ‘Change’ comes close, but this has Gilmore, and those beautiful piano-percussion textures take it to an even higher level.
4. Jackie Mclean – Demons Dance (1967)
Jackie McLean (alto saxophone) Woody Shaw (trumpet, fluegelhorn) LaMont Johnson (piano) Scotty Holt (bass) Jack DeJohnette (drums)
Jackie McLean was an extremely dedicated, fearless, and honest improviser who – unbeknownst to a lot of critics - got better with age. He played with this wonderful bright tone and his intonation was slightly sharper than a samurai sword. This combination gave him a rough, urgent, distinctive (a couple of notes and you know its Jackie McLean) sound that isn’t necessasrily to all tastes. His harmonic sense was incredibly sophisticated though, and I can’t think of many musicians who could swing like Jackie. THAT combination makes his music completely essential.
Demon’s Dance is just a brilliant record. Overlooked is an understatement. This is the last of the 21 albums Jackie McLean made for Blue Note and one of his strongest. The title track is a muscular opener with Jackie, trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Jack De Johnette (whose ‘busy’ style is perfect for this session) on fire. Shaw is stronger still on his two writing contributions, 'Boo Ann's Grand' and 'Sweet Love of Mine'. Jackie is at his lyrical best on ‘Toyland, the album’s only ballad. The rest of the music is merely very good.
5. Booker Ervin – The In Between (1968)
Booker Ervin (tenor sax). Richard Williams (trumpet) Bobby Few Jr (piano) Cevera Jeffries Jr (bass) Lenny McBrowne (drums)
One of the most original tenors of his day, Booker first made noise blowing with Mingus’ groups in the 50’s-early 60’s, and anyone even vaguely familiar with those records knows what a beast he can be. Pianist Randy Weston, who named his ‘African Cookbook’ album after Booker (“sometimes when he was playing we’d shout, “Cook, Book!”), considered him on the same level as John Coltrane. His quartet of ‘book’ releases (Freedom Book, Song Book, Blues Book, and Space Book) on the Prestige label are considered the best of Ervin, but ‘The In Between’ belongs in that company.
Most of the rhythm section are near unknowns - bassist Cevera Jefferies and drummer Lennie McBrowne are almost entirely off the jazz map - but they are rarely less than stellar. Surprises everywhere and they swing like hell. Booker's writing and playing (‘Tyra’ and ‘The Muse’ particularly) here are as adventurous as any free-jazz record of the period, yet to me sound more hard-bop than avant-garde.
Booker showed that there was still mileage in hard-bop, at a time when the style was considered archaic and many of his contemporaries went full-on avant-garde, often throwing out the baby with the bathwater in doing so. Sadly, he didn’t get too many more opportunities to continue what he’d started here. ‘The In-Between’ was his last but one record. Kidney disease got him two years later, aged just 39.