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Creative Concepts From Blue Note

June 09, 1996|Don Heckman

Concept album is a theme that's in the wind these days for jazz. Cassandra Wilson's two successful collaborations with producer Craig Street, and Joe Henderson's Billy Strayhorn and Antonio Carlos Jobim recordings are projects that have impacted the thinking of any number of jazz performers and producers.

Three new releases by Blue Note take differing but provocative slants on the concept theme. Not everything works as well as one might hope for, but the intention to move beyond the let's-get-a-rhythm-section-and-make-an-album attitude is a healthy sign for the future of jazz recording.

*** BOB BELDEN, "Shades of Blue," Blue Note

Belden, as much a jazz historian as he is a gifted arranger and saxophonist, has produced one of the more complicated jazz albums of recent memory. The concept here was to recast a group of archetypal Blue Note-associated tunes in new arrangements, performed by a wide range of performers from the Blue Note jazz lineup.

The results vary as widely as the players and the repertoire, and the real question is how well an individual artist connects with an individual piece of music. In some cases, very well: Holly Cole has the right stance for "Hum Drum Blues," and the combination of Cassandra Wilson and Ron Carter on "Joshua Fit De Battle Ob Jerico" is superb; Belden's setting of "Song for My Father" for Renee Rosnes would surely please composer Horace Silver; and it is enticing to hear T.S. Monk do his father's "Evidence" and Jacky Terrasson dig into Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco." And there's much more, all indicative of how effective a true concept album can be.

*** THE CARNEGIE HALL JAZZ BAND, "The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band," Blue Note

Unlike some jazz repertory groups, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, under the musical direction of trumpeter Jon Faddis, emphasizes the exploration of familiar tunes via new orchestrations. Its debut album, recorded "live" in studio via audio master Mark Levinson's two microphone Cello recording system, has a sense of presence rarely heard in big bands, either on record or in over-manipulated concert audio.

The selections are a striking display of revisionism, with intriguing reworkings of such well-known items as "In the Mood," "Shiny Stockings" and "Sing, Sing, Sing." Lew Tabackin guest solos in a surging Frank Foster version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," and Faddis squeezes out one of his patented I-can-play-anything-higher-than-you endings for "In the Mood." It's all fine, unpretentious big-band jazz, with an occasional rough spot simply underscoring the enthusiasm and spontaneity of the session.

** 1/2 THE BLUE NOTE ALL-STARS, "Blue Spirit," Blue Note

The idea here was to bring together a talented sextet of individual players, some with their own Blue Note albums, and see if they could coalesce into a group. With a lineup consisting of Tim Hagans, trumpet; Greg Osby, alto saxophone; Javon Jackson, tenor saxophone; Kevin Hays, piano; Bill Stewart, drums; and Essiet Essiet, bass, there was reason to be optimistic.

And, to a large extent, the ensemble establishes a unit sound and a creative interaction more typical of a regular working band than a pickup recording group. Although the choice to do original material doesn't always pay off, Hagans' "Free Hop," with its collective improvisation and George Russell-like lines, and Bill Stewart's disjunct rhythm tunes--"Think Before You Think" and "Kae" (an 11-bar tune written in 7/4)--are first-rate efforts.

Except for Hagans, however, the players rarely come up with the kind of gripping soloing that characterized similar Blue Note outings from the '60s. Call it a productive idea that may take another album to come to full fruition.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended), four stars (excellent).

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