A lot has been said about Blue Note. For good reason. There is no other label, that released as many records, with a consistent level of quality. In content, engineering, mastering, and design, Blue Note trumps. Because of the label, my early encounters with Jazz blossomed into a life long passion. It was love at first sight. That said, for many years, I conceived of my debt and tie to the label, my introduction to Coltrane. I’m a dyed in wool Free Jazz fan. That journey began with Coltrane. He defined my tastes, pushed my understanding of what Jazz could be and subsequently me away from the label where I first discovered him. Until recently, I considered Blue Note a necessary folly of youth. Mainstream taste. Temptation to a listener’s inner conservative. I regarded them as important, valuable works of art, but their place in my world, and the world of Jazz, was in the past.
Like most music lovers I’m lead by ears and heart, not by my brain. I believe listening goes in cycles. Sometimes you find yourself back where you started. Sometimes you have to concede, you missed something along the way. Sometimes you have to admit you were wrong. It is part of what makes the life of a listener so rich and exciting. You never know where you’re going.
A year ago, I started to come across a few classic Blue Notes in dollar bins. Each subsequent record came home with me, and sprang to life from my speakers. I was back where it all began. I was in love again. I thirsted for more. I realized how many albums I had no longer had copies of. Like any good record collector, I set out to rectify this in short order. Ticking them off one by one. Listening to everything I encountered along the way. I researched and read. I plumbed the depths to find what I had missed. This lead me to articles and forums where people discussed their favorite records. What struck me, despite the breadth of Blue Note’s catalog, was that people sited the same records again and again. No one dug that far. I’m the first to fall in line behind the shear weight of Moanin’, Somethin’ Else, The Sidewinder, A New Perspective, Song For My Father, Out To Lunch, and the others, but it got me thinking about about my own favorite Blue Note records. The ones I picked up along the way and who followed me through the years. That stayed the test of time and ever changing tastes. They are the records that felt radical and stuck to my bones. They are under-discussed masterpieces. If you know them you are lucky. If you do not, you will understand why we are here.
1. Eddie Gale- Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music (1968)
Eddie Gale played trumpet in Sun Ra’s Arkestra for a number of years and made two records as a leader for Blue Note in the late 1960’s. Both are incredible, so take this as a proxy recommendation for 1969’s Black Rhythm Happening. I doubt either did particularly well, since the label never bothered to repress them after initial release. Beyond being one of my favorite Blue Notes, Ghetto Music stands as one of my favorite records of all time. A heavy, deep, groovin’ spiritual big band with some of the best vocals you’ll ever hear.
2. Andrew Hill- Compulsion!!!!! (1965)
I have to admit, despite his many fans, Andrew Hill has never fully captured my heart as a leader. With one exception Compulsion!!!!!. For half a decade this was the sole Blue Note on my want list. It took that to track down, and was worth the wait. It sounds unlike any other Hill record, and hosts an incredible line-up, capturing John Gilmore at his height, in one of his rare moments recording outside of the Arkestra. For lack of a better term this is a free jazz record, but the category doesn’t fully stick. As wild as it is, it feels composed and considered rather than free improvised. It flirts with the spiritual and latin without ever touching down. It is raw energy forced onto your ears by an incredible intelligence.
3. Art Blakey- Holiday For Skins Volume 2 (1958)
I came back to Blakey, a decade ago, through my love of percussion records, not Jazz. One of the great things about drummers, is how fluidly they are drawn to cultural traditions beyond their own. Blakey is no exception. What stands apart, is how early he saw the beauty of unaccompanied and ensemble percussion, drew from traditions around the world, turned it into an art all his own, bringing fans along for the ride. Both Holiday for Skins records, are part of this body of work hiding in Blakey’s large and familiar cannon. I site the second only due to the slightest preference. There are moments of other instrumentation here, but the bulk of the record is entirely made of up of ensemble percussion. It is a hypnotic frenzy that leaves the listener lost in its depths, picking out tangled references to worlds beyond our own.
4. Pete La Roca- Basra (1965)
Pete La Roca is better know as a side man. As such, his credits are as respectable as it gets. Coltrane, Rollins, Hubbard, McLean, Russell, Bley, Henderson, among countless others. As a leader, he made this record for Blue Note in 1965 and only one other in 1967 for the Douglas Label, which sadly, in an attempt to drive sales, was miss-credited to Chick Corea in subsequent issues. Basra is a stunning piece of work and saddens me that there are so few recordings with him at the helm. It’s a chugging, driving, early spiritual wonder. Its closest touchstones are with Coltrane. But acknowledging that.. it’s its own beast, deserving the creative respect and attention showered on the best of those he supported over the years. It is bound to leave every listener wondering where it’s been all these years.
5.Duke Pearson- The Phantom (1968)
I have a number of Pearson’s records. He has a grossly under-acknowledged voice as a leader. His output was spotty, but when he nailed it….. he nailed it. Of all the records on this list, this is by far the most listener friendly. It’s straight ahead, soulful as hell, funky and modal. In ways, I struggle to think of it as a Jazz recording, rather than instrumental soul. Similar territory to what Donald Byrd was exploring in the same period. It took me close to month to get it off the turntable when I first discovered it.