Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blue Note keeps 'em lookin' as smooth as they sound

When German emigrés Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff founded the Blue Note record label 70 years ago in New York City, jazz held most of the market for recorded music. Nowadays, it's decidedly a niche genre. So why do so many artists with mainstream success, from Norah Jones to Anita Baker, still want to record music for the legendary bastion of small-group instrumental jazz?

"The label has always stood for high quality," says its CEO, Bruce Lundvall, a former president of CBS Records and lifelong fan who helped resurrect Blue Note in 1985, after it petered out in the '70s. Even the fact it lay dormant in the heyday of airbrushed synth-pop feeds into Blue Note's matchless cachet - the label is synonymous with "cool."

So there will be no complaints on July 1, when Lund-vall becomes the first recipient of an award the Montreal Jazz Festival has named after him - the first of the festival's many prizes to be given to a businessperson rather than a musician. According to André Menard, the festival's artistic director, Lundvall "has taste and vision way beyond categorization."

Reached at his label's Manhattan headquarters, Lundvall comes across as a pragmatist who hasn't lost his ideals: "For me," he says, "music is what drives the business. If I sign the right artist, the business will follow. The ‘real thing' is what you're looking for always: the originals, the people who have the touch of God on their head."

Certainly his predecessor, Alfred Lion, found such artists - he helped launch the careers of icons such as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, and Jimmy Smith, all of whom forged a bond over a number of years. Their albums, in turn, captivated younger generations of jazz cats. Pianist Bill Charlap, who has recorded for the label since 2000, recalls growing up with its music: "So often, you would get an album that you loved, and you would find that it was a Blue Note album. When my first album came out on Blue Note, it was a very good dream."

During the label's heyday in the '50s and '60s, engineer Rudy Van Gelder created a readily identifiable sound, with lively horn tones; crisp, ringing drums; and - somewhat controversially - a brittle, percussive piano attack. As well, Blue Note boasted arrestingly creative covers that form an indelible part of the iconography of the genre: Wolff's session photos were cropped and colour-filtered by designer Reid Miles.

Miles's Bauhaus-inspired efforts, apparently, created friction: "He and Frank Wolff used to fight all the time," says Lundvall, "because Frank hated the fact that he would cut off the top of an artist's head in the cropping of a photo: ‘What did you do? You cut off Jackie McLean's head!' And Reid Miles was a classical music buff. He never listened to any of the Blue Note records, apparently. Alfred and Frank talked him through each session."

Nonetheless, there was a synergy between the design and the feel of the records. According to saxophonist Joe Lovano, whose new album, Folk Art, is his 21st on the label since signing with Lundvall in 1990, "There was a vibe to just look at the record. You felt the personality of the players on the covers."

When Lundvall took the label's reins, he couldn't rehire Miles, who was too busy filming lucrative TV commercials; similarly, his desire to record every album with Van Gelder was thwarted, as the musicians he signed often had their own preferred studios.

Lundvall has intentionally strayed from Lion's lead in other ways: He records vocal music (to which Lion wasn't attuned) and has signed pop and soul artists. He used to divert such projects to sister label in Manhattan as a matter of course (e.g., Bobby McFerrin's breakthrough, Simple Pleasures), but he gave in to Norah Jones's insistence on releasing her 2002 debut, Come Away with Me, on Blue Note. Since then, a number of her peers have followed suit, from Van Morrison through new signing Kristina Train, a singer of blue-eyed southern soul who, Lundvall says, "doesn't sound like anyone but herself, which is what we always look for."

Branching out from jazz, the CEO admits, has been an economic necessity, not only to keep the label in the black, but also to help to fund the work of jazz musicians he considers to be ahead of their time. During his tenure, Blue Note has crossed over into Latin jazz, using its clout, for instance, to sign phenomenally proficient Cuban pianists Chucho Valdés (playing fests across Canada this year) and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (playing Toronto and Montreal). And despite his focus on acoustic music, when Lundvall first heard Us3's acid jazz, based on uncleared Blue Note samples, he decided to sign them rather than sue.

Lundvall's devotion to eclecticism has brought criticism from purists but has won unlikely converts: Even Wynton Marsalis, whom he signed to CBS in 1981 and then to Blue Note in 2003, is apparently "becoming a little more open-minded than he was a few years back, where if [music] didn't swing a certain way, it wasn't jazz, and so on."

Typical of the label, it's celebrating its 70th anniversary by simultaneously looking back and forward. Bill Charlap has helmed a septet called The Blue Note 7, devoted to playing new arrangements of important compositions from the label's history. "All of us love the music so much and have such high regard for the artists we're paying tribute to that we're aware of them looking over our shoulder," he says. Meanwhile, Joe Lovano has been touring with players of a younger generation, including his former students.

Prospective signings, says Lundvall, often tell him they "went to the university of Blue Note," having learned from its records. And as its dean, Lundvall is doing a laudable job, which the jazz fest award in his name attests to. "It's a survival award, maybe, for fighting for jazz all my life," he says. At Blue Note, "we believe in the music, and we do."

-The Montreal Jazz Festival, featuring an exhibition of Blue Note art and performances by Blue Note musicians such as Charlap, Lovano, and Marsalis begins Tuesday.

This article by Mike Doherty, reprinted from Weekend Post

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