Sunday, March 15, 2009


Dear Alfred Lion-

I just returned home from the Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary concert at Orchestra Hall in Downtown Detroit. Seventy years has passed since you opened Blue Note Records, turning jazz musicians such as Sidney Bechet, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and many others into household names. Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note's CEO made the roster more diverse. Lundvall upgraded the lineup by adding R&B vocalist Anita Baker, Soul crooner Al Green, and pop vocalist and pianist Norah Jones to the lineup.

The moved worked. Jones’ became a platinum artist, and her album "Come Away with Me" won six Grammy awards, and Baker's album "My Everything" sold an estimated 500,000 units. I'm unsure if Green's 2008 comeback project "Lay it Down" paid off. Some jazz fans criticized Jones because she doesn’t sound like the run-of-the-mill jazz vocalist. Some unreceptive jazz purists contend the label heads watered down when they signed non-jazz musicians. For the record, diversifying the label was a good move, and I like Jones.

The profits from Jones albums sales, I’m sure has kept the label afloat, and subsidize projects by pianist Jason Moran, trumpeters Terrence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis, jazz artists that don’t sell a lot of units. Alfred, I’m not writing you to preach about how much your brainchild has changed, or to defend Jones. Jazz purists are entitled to their opinions. I apologize for deviating from my intent, which is to share with you the goodtime I had at 70th anniversary concert.

Friday nigh the Blue Note 7, the septet touring around the country, celebrating your achievements and your legacy gave an outstanding performance. When I left Orchestra Hall, smoke was coming from my ears. Pianist Bill Charlap, guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Peter Washington, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane were the accomplished swingers called the Blue Note 7. Alfred, I wondered why the organizers of the celebration tour enlisted these musicians. Charlap is the only one signed to Blue Note. I also wondered why the organizers didn't use other musicians from the label.

The concert started promptly at 8:00pm. Charlap opened the first set with a composition written by trumpeter Lee Morgan “Party Time,” and Payton soloed as if Morgan’s spirit was on the stage whispering instructions into Payton’s ears. The trumpeter hit high notes like a sledgehammer. What like loved about the group was there wasn’t an anointed leader, and each member had equal billing.

Some weeks ago, I listened to the album "The Blue Note 7 Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records", and I was impressed how much the musicians mesh. I’ve always been leery of all-star bands, but the Blue Note 7 obliterated any biases I harbored. The last all-star session I attended-I won’t give any names- was a mess. Obviously, that ensemble either forgot to hearse or deemed rehearsing unnecessary. The Blue Note 7 clicked as though they’ve played together since childhood.

Charlap played the piano softly as if the black and white keys were made of foam. Even when the pianist navigated his way through the tricky chord progressions on pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross “Charlap did so gently.

Nicholas Payton nearly blew the audience from their seats when he soloed on Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub Tone”.

Drummer Lewis Nash was the septet’s franchise player. On tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “United,” instead of wailing on Nash scatted through his solo. When he soloed again put he his drumsticks away. Then he beat his drums with his hand. All night, Nash had the energy of a rookie point guard, and he was undoubtedly the crowd favorite.

Ravi Coltrane and Steve Wilson were passive the first set, but more assertive during the second. Coltrane bumped up his blowing a few notches when he soloed on an obscure Dexter Gordon composition. Coltrane had a light sound on the tenor. At any moment, his horn could’ve easily floated out his hands.

As for Steve Wilson, the saxophonist was in his nature habitat Jackie Mclean love song he dedicated to his wife “Ballad for a Doll”. The notes Wilson played were as pretty as a prom queen.

Alfred, I wondered if bits and pieces of your spirit and dedication to excellence fueled the musicians. Near the conclusion of the first set, I was concerned about the musician’s safety. They septet was immersed in the music. I thought they'd never come up for air. The audience was so hyped I worried they’d hold the septet hostage, demanding that they play on. The audience didn't fuss, however, when Charlap announced the guys would take a 15-minute break to allow their instruments to cool off.

The second set was just as good as the first. I won't consume any more of your time. Maybe for Blue Notes 80th anniversary Bruce Lundvall will encourage Anita Baker, Al Green, and Norah Jones to participate.
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