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At 80, Blue Note Records tries to shape future of jazz

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    As Blue Note Records’ president, Don Was, has revived the record label, pulling together a solid roster of unique musicians including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who released his album “Origami Harvest” last year.

Imagine a smoky room with a horn player blowing fiercely over a strolling standup bass, and you’re hearing a Blue Note Record album. Think of a modernist, cobalt-hued album cover, with a photo of a studious young musician hunkered over an instrument, and you’re envisioning the Blue Note look.

It’s been a long time since that fantasy was a reality — for jazz or for Blue Note, which turns 80 this year. Since the 1960s, the label has been through numerous readjustments, all while working to keep pace with shifts that have left jazz in a state of diffusion. “Jazz” today encompasses an ocean of music: highbrow traditionalism, renegade funk, droning improvisations.

Jazz musicians now have to be improvisers trained in the American tradition, with roots in the blues. Beyond that, almost anything goes.

When musician and producer Don Was took over as Blue Note’s president in 2012, “The mission was to keep the Blue Note aesthetic alive and carry it forward,” he said in an interview.

So what does that mean? What is jazz today, when the very notion of genre seems to have gone defunct?

In the past few years, star pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran both declined to renew their contracts after well over a decade on Blue Note. Glasper is increasingly making music beyond the pale of jazz, while Moran is concentrating on multidisciplinary work and releasing his own albums. In a DIY age, some artists might see diminished benefits in associating with a legacy organization that sports the tagline “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939.”

But Was has managed to pull together a roster that has its own uncontainable energy and a healthy mixed identity.

Last year trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire put out a twisty album called “Origami Harvest,” with a string quartet, a rapper and a three-piece jazz band. This spring, vibraphonist Joel Ross led a traditional-looking quintet through 12 fresh, deeply felt original tracks on his debut album, “Kingmaker.” Pianist James Francies released his own fine debut, “Flight,” and drummer-composer Kendrick Scott continued a strong run with “A Wall Becomes a Bridge.”

Blue Note’s beginnings, and ’80s revival

Blue Note knows that history is its greatest asset. Each time the label hits a major anniversary, it takes a long look back and repackages the past. This year, Blue Note has been rolling out vinyl reissues from its midcentury glory days; limited-run canvas prints of old album covers; even a commemorative G-Shock watch.

The label started as a passion project. Its first stewards, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were German Jewish immigrants who had fled the Third Reich and shared a devotion to jazz. Their early recordings came with a manifesto printed on the cover: Jazz, it said, “is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”

Before hard-bop became Blue Note’s stock-in-trade, its releases ranged from swing to Dixieland. But by the mid-60s, Lion’s deteriorating health led to the sale of the label to Liberty Records, which was acquired by an insurance company. Jazz’s popularity was on the wane, and under new supervision Blue Note took a turn toward airy funk records. Many have not aged particularly well, and in the late 1970s, EMI — which had acquired Liberty’s catalog — let Blue Note wind down, reissuing a handful of items from the back catalog, but no new albums.

In the mid-80s, after coming under the aegis of Capitol Records, Blue Note was revived. Executive Bruce Lundvall brought a dedication to jazz and the original ideals set out by Lion and Wolff. He supported the Young Lions — musicians intent on reviving that classic hard-bop sound and other parts of jazz’s earlier history — but he also invested in artists uninterested in traditionalism: conceptualists like Geri Allen, Greg Osby and Moran.

Peer-to-peer sharing upended the record industry around the turn of the millennium, and Blue Note declined to renew contracts with some of its artists. But then in 2002 came a kind of deliverance: Lundvall took a chance on 22-year-old Norah Jones, who was just getting her feet wet in New York’s jazz scene.

“He wasn’t sure what I was all about, and I wasn’t sure what I was about either,” Jones recalled recently. “So he gave me some money to make demos.” That material eventually led to “Come Away With Me,” Jones’ debut, which sold roughly 30 million copies worldwide.

A modern sound for the 21st century

Roughly 90% of the 1,200 or so titles in the Blue Note catalog are available on Apple Music and Spotify, and about three-fourths of the company’s album revenue last year came from streaming and sales of its vast catalog, according to the label. Just a quarter came from new releases.

But the label reinvests much of that revenue in promoting its new artists — even when the returns tend to be modest. With jazz and experimental music catching a fresh gust of interest from young listeners, Blue Note sees an opportunity to put its cachet to work and re-establish itself as an influence on the music’s future.

Was is tilting toward a more youthful listenership. He appears to be thinking about the twin popularity of streaming and vinyl among consumers under 50. But he’s also staying the course with older Blue Note fans: the seasoned straight-ahead jazz listeners, and those boomers at the coffeehouse.

Was’ first signee for Blue Note was Gregory Porter, a baritone whose powerful gentility has made him one of the label’s biggest sellers. A month after Was’ arrival, Glasper released “Black Radio,” the first full album with his electric band, the Experiment. It sold the equivalent of more than 300,000 albums and won the Grammy in 2013 for best R&B album.

Was then signed the Experiment’s bassist, Derrick Hodge, to his own deal after the success of “Black Radio.” The following year, Blue Note released its first record by José James, a hushed baritone with a funk band behind him.

“Kingmaker,” the debut album from 24-year-old vibraphonist Joel Ross, is a record that seems to have both devotees and casual listeners talking. It’s full of tightly layered compositions with crossing rhythms and downhill momentum, and a chatty, hyper-articulate vibe that feels distinctly millennial. It’s both historical and hip in the way Roy Hargrove’s was in the 1990s, but Ross is not quick to impose any big narrative thread around his generation.

“A lot of the music from Ambrose’s generation and Glasper, I feel like they were just finding and pushing the limits on how jazz could be fused with other styles,” he said. “We want to take the fusings and build something that’s still as traditional, and honest to us.”

Was, for his part, said Blue Note intends to come along for the ride. “I think in the ’60s there was a Blue Note sound, and you could put the needle down and you’d know that it was a Blue Note record before you even knew whose record it was,” he said.

“You can’t do that today, mainly because artists are used to having a little bit more freedom,” he added. “So they’re all different, and I’m proud of all of them, and they all add up to a total picture.”

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