Blue Note All-Stars
Jazz as an art form is a lifelong work in progress. While in some camps the music of past masters represents the genre’s heralded Golden Age, others disagree, noting that there are artists in the present day with fresh original voices and their own point of view who are forging ahead with their imaginative visions for where the music is excitedly heading. Certainly steeped in the tradition, these new stars exercise the freedom to express themselves based on their own musical experiences.
The foremost marquee ensemble of originals exploring these new horizons is the Blue Note All-Stars, a super group formed in 2014. The band was launched to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records where such future giants as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, among many others, made their debut recordings. The latest edition of Blue Note’s young jazz bellwethers features modern-day luminaries Robert Glasper on keyboards, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums.
Each of these six visionaries are building their own impressive Blue Note catalogs, and now with their debut as a collective they present Our Point of View, an exuberant 11-track 90-minute musical expedition. The song list includes originals by each of the band members as well as two renderings of Wayne Shorter compositions, including an ebullient and expansive 18-minute version “Witch Hunt,” from Shorter’s 1965 Blue Note classic Speak No Evil. The Blue Note historical significance goes even deeper with the momentous cross-generational collaboration on Shorter’s “Masquelero,” on which the sextet is augmented by a special guest appearance by Shorter on soprano saxophone and his longtime musical partner and fellow Blue Note legend Herbie Hancock on piano.
“It’s showing how jazz can be relevant,” says Glasper who co-produced Our Point of View with Blue Note president Don Was and contributes two compositions, including the cooking “Bayyinah” (originally recorded on Loueke’s 2012 album Heritage produced by Glasper), which percolates with rhythms. “The music itself should reflect the time period you’re in. That’s the way it’s always been. We all love the history of the music. We’re infatuated with the history of jazz, but none of us are held back by the history of jazz. I feel like we’re all making our own history now.”
Egos are left at the door, Glasper says. “This is a band of open-minded, versatile musicians who are getting together for the love of the music. That can only equal great things.”
“It’s pushing the threshold in trying to do the next thing and not looking back,” Was adds. “That to me epitomizes what Blue Note is all about.”
The recording features a mix of wide-ranging excursions, including Scott’s skittering statement of purpose “Cycling Through Reality” which shifts the album into high gear; Strickland’s gem “Meanings” that he opens with a lyrical tenor solo; Akinmusire’s intriguing “Henya” (which first appeared on his 2011 debut When the Heart Emerges Glistening) played with mystery by the trumpeter and Hodge on acoustic bass; Hodge’s gently insistent “Second Light” as well as his swaying “Message of Hope” (originally recorded on Hodge’s 2013 debut Live Today) with Loueke’s electrified six-string fire; and Loueke’s catchy “Freedom Dance” (also originally on Heritage) with its funky guitar effects, Afro-pop beats and terrific tenor/trumpet interplay.
The Blue Note All-Stars delivers with a telling team play—listening, pivoting, passing, slamming it home or easing it up and in. A close listen offers glimpses of band members marveling in the movement.
“We are the young guys who are hoping to attain the mastery of the masters who laid the foundation at Blue Note,” says Scott. “We’re trying to get there, and I think we’re on the right path…It’s all about expecting the unexpected which is the beauty of what we do.”
Strickland shares the sentiment: “Everybody is a very in-the-moment kind of person. It definitely displays freedom at the highest.” Loueke adds: “We learn from each other. We challenge each other. No one’s close-minded. Everybody is open and going for the music. As long as you’re like that, the magic is going to happen.”
Recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood following a small number of shows after the Blue Note All-Stars 2014 debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Our Point of View is dedicated to the late Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall who resurrected the dormant imprint in 1984 and built it up to being the world’s premier jazz label. His late signings to Blue Note included Glasper, Loueke and Akinmusire. The album is bookended with songs for Bruce: opening with Glasper’s ruminative “Bruce’s Vibe,” which includes an excerpt of Lundvall’s speech at the Grammy Awards’ 2011 Trustees Awards ceremony, and the closer: Akinmusire’s solemn requiem “Bruce, The Last Dinosaur.”
When Lundvall addressed the Grammy crowd, he expressed his unfailing optimism about the future of jazz along with a dose of humor. “I’ve been in this business since the time when songs were short and careers were long to a present time of great uncertainty. I can assure you of one thing: There are more creative musical voices out there than ever before. If anyone says to you, ‘What’s going on with jazz dying?’ Just give them an evasive answer. Tell them what W.C. Fields would have said: ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
Around the same time, Lundvall gave advice for a successful career in the recording business. He said that you “have to have a strong musical awareness and a willingness to take risks…You have to balance business discipline with sound musical sense and the courage to sign who you believe in...Sign originals and give them a long catalog life. That will be your annuity.”
Blue Note founder Alfred Lion certainly exemplified that belief. In his original 1939 mission statement Lion wrote “Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive…Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”
When Don Was took over the helm of Blue Note in 2011, that became his motto: Sign originals and a give them a long catalog life. That is certainly the undergirding of presenting the Blue Note All-Stars who individually and collectively show their uniqueness as artists on Our Point of View—a special recording of grace, esprit, vigor and pure play.