Jazz (2): what makes Blue Note so great

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The Blue Note label released a lot of records, right through modern jazz’s most productive period. Nearly all of them – that I’ve heard – are pretty good to great. How come? It’s actually hard to be didactic about the formula, but if you want to sample archetypal  Blue Note brilliance, in a pleasingly relatively obscure release, try Wayne Shorter’s The Soothsayer.

Take most of Miles Davis’ most famous quintet: Shorter (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums), add in the wondrous McCoy Tyner on piano, still tagged as a Coltrane man, and the ridiculously talented Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) with James Spaulding (alto) as the hidden gem. Three horns and a fantastic rhythm section. Give them some Shorter “compositions” to play with, mix with the van Gelder/Lion studio team and bam! A classic.

Hubbard’s flashy high octane stuff is great, and the polar opposite of Miles’ minimalism on the same instrument, Tyner is instantly recognisable, without showing the storming side from his own later solo work, and Spaulding’s acidic sinuous energy cuts through the slightly smug Blue Note ambience like a lightning bolt. Shorter himself is routinely described as elliptical with an air of mystery, which is true. To me he usually sounds like a man talking around a problem, only occasionally being right in your face, nothing like Coltrane, for example.

Standout tracks – but they’re all good – are the longer title track which is a real burner, Williams in particular with his innovative flickering, driving style is superb, and the following imperious drift of  the slow blues of Lady Day, with Shorter in his rarer dominant mode:  straight A’s.

47 years after it was recorded, Hubbard and Williams are dead – the latter tragically so – and the others are still working. One of the very best live gigs that I have seen was a 64 year old Tyner with Bobby Hutcherson (another Blue Note stalwart) with a young band. Quite astonishing playing and energy. These guys often do get better with age, but if you want to catch some jazz colossi when they were young and brimming with invention, try The Soothsayer.

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