By Don Heckman
A 70th anniversary for any record company is an impressive achievement. A 70th anniversary for a jazz record company is almost unheard of. So the current celebration of the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records — which includes upcoming tributes associated with the Grammy Awards, as well as a series of touring concerts by a group of jazz all-stars called the Blue Note 7 – is much deserved. There are hundreds of recorded performances on Blue Note that are vital, irreplaceable entries in any significant listing of the most important jazz records.
So when the Blue Note 7 – pianist and music director Bill Charlap, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash – showed up at Royce Hall Thursday night for UCLALive’s first jazz program of 2009, visions of sounds and rhythms from the Blue Note golden age seemed poised to come back to life. With a line up of stellar players and a program of material from such iconic Blue Note artists as Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock – what could go wrong?
In fact, there’s not a simple yes or no answer to that question. What the Blue Note 7 players were presumably attempting to accomplish – on the group’s new, just released recording, “Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note,” as well as in the live performances on their 50 plus concert tour – was to recall the glories of the Blue Note catalog played by contemporary artists in contemporary settings. The goal was not to be a repertory ensemble. Neither simulations nor imitations were what they had in mind. But what one did hope to experience, was a sense of the vitality, rhythmic excitement and cutting edge imagination of the Blue Note image – especially in the music that founders Frances Wolf and Alfred Lion recorded in the ’60s and early ’70s.
And therein lies the rub. The material – which included items such as Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” Shorter’s “United,” Hutcherson’s “Bouquet” and (best of all) Henderson’s “Inner Urge” – was arranged, mostly by Charlap and Renee Rosnes, in crisp, respectful fashion for the three horn front line. The keyword is “respectful,” because the charts, despite their craftsmanship, offered little in the way of new creative illumination. The ensemble performance could be described the same way, in part because the work of the rhythm section felt more like the product of four disparate entities than the sort of empathic, propulsive togetherness so characteristic of the classic Blue Note rhythm teams.
The soloing, which occupied most of the evening’s program, had the most to offer, with Coltrane’s consistently exploratory efforts coming the closest to the cutting edge qualities of the finest Blue Note outings. Wilson’s alto – and his flute work on “Bouquet” – was at its best when he set aside his considerable technique and allowed the clarity of his ideas to surface freely. Payton, usually an imaginative improviser, seemed focused on his upper range, except for a few intriguing passages – especially on “United” – in which he used focused note repetitions to create a late-Picasso like minimalism. Bernstein, for unknown reasons, had little solo space, generally making the most of what was available. Nash was his usual musically articulate self, Washington displayed considerable fast-fingered virtuosity, while Charlap ranged impersonally across a variety of piano styles.
Would the Blue Note decision-makers of the ’60s have recorded this band? Probably. But more because of Frances Wolf’s and Alfred Lion’s unerring ears for musicians’ inherent potential than because of what the Blue Note 7 had to offer on this particular evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall.