The Sound Unseen films-on-music festival is under way, and as always, it covers various genres, extremes, and intersections of music and culture. Kudos to Jim Brunzell and Rich Gill for keeping this niche party humming.
“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” which screens on Sunday afternoon, is a must-see if you love John Coltrane … or Kendrick Lamar. If you believe Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were the greatest record producers of all time … or you keep close track of the very interesting young hip-hop producer Terrace Martin. And especially if you think jazz is dead.
As Martin says in the film, “Blue Note is the past, present and the future. It’s always doing something different. It’s always turning on the next generation to something that could change their life.”
Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber’s feature-length documentary chronicles the birth, development, near death and phoenix-like rise of the most important label in the history of jazz. Let’s just say in the history of American music, because jazz is American music. This tale hasn’t been told since German filmmaker Julian Benedikt’s Peabody-winning “Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz” in 1997, and a lot has happened in the 20 years since.
Founded in 1939 by friends and passionate jazz fans Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two German Jews fleeing the Nazis, Blue Note was never about signing stars, making money or pumping out hit records. Best-sellers were accidents. Blue Note was about freedom: creative freedom, freedom of expression, freedom for the artists to reflect their experience, respond to their times (including the civil rights movement), push their own boundaries and speak their truth.
That’s what Lion and Wolff wanted to hear. They gave us John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, and the list goes on and on – nearly 1,000 records, many iconic, all lovingly recorded and produced, all documented in notebooks by Lion and photographs by Wolff.
Huber smartly starts and ends her film with a supergroup of today’s young Blue Note artists: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, keyboardist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummer Kendrick Scott and tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland. Glasper signed with Blue Note in 2004, the others during the 2010s. As the Blue Note All-Stars, they met to record what would be their Sept. 2017 release, “Our Point of View.”
Also in the studio, contributing one track, were jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Shorter first recorded with Blue Note in 1959; Hancock signed on in 1961. Huber shows us the label’s past, present and future, living and breathing and making music together.
With access to all things Blue Note, Huber has made a satisfying, illuminating film that squeezes 80 years of history and music into just under 90 minutes. New and archival interviews, performance footage, photographs, studio banter, and those instantly recognizable album covers come together in a cohesive whole with a stellar soundtrack.
The long, incredibly fruitful, warm and respectful collaboration between two white German Jewish jazz afficionados and the musicians they signed and recorded, who were almost all African-Americans, stands in sharp contrast to the xenophobia and racism that have always plagued us and are on the rise today. From the start, Blue Note made sure black artists were heard. That continues today, with commitment and without question.
What’s clear from the film is that jazz is very much alive, and it stays alive by changing while staying rooted in its own deep, rich history. Jazz is innovator, borrower and lender. It makes new music. It takes Disney tunes, Broadway hits and songs by Radiohead and welcomes them into the jazz fold. It shares licks, sensibilities and beats with hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar’s platinum-selling, Grammy-winning “To Pimp a Butterfly” is filled with jazz influences and features jazz musicians (Glasper, Akinmusire). Terrace Martin describes Lamar as “a jazz musician by default. It’s in his DNA.”
In one of our favorite stories from “Beyond the Notes,” Bruce Lundvall (Blue Note’s CEO from 1984-2010) tells of hearing about a London-based jazz/hip-hop fusion group that wanted to sample Herbie Hancock’s 1995 Blue Note release “Cantaloupe Island.” When they asked Lundvall, “Are you going to stop us?” Lundvall replied, “No, you can sample the entire Blue Note catalog. Let’s make an album.”
Us3’s “Hand on the Torch,” with its hit song “Cantaloop,” sold millions of copies. Lundvall also signed a very young and unknown Norah Jones to her first recording contract. Her first Blue Note album, “Come Away with Me,” swept the 2003 Grammys. So, yes, jazz can also be about money and making hit records.
But at Blue Note, it’s still about freedom. Norah Jones is with the label today because she can record what she pleases. So can José James. Born and raised in Minneapolis, now based in New York, James signed with Blue Note in 2012, soon after Don Was became president. (Was is every bit as visionary as Lion, Wolff and Lundvall were.) James has since released four dizzyingly diverse albums on the label; his latest, “Lean on Me,” is a heartfelt homage to soul man Bill Withers. James isn’t featured in the documentary, but he’s another example of how Blue Note stays in the black.
“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” screens just once during Sound Unseen: on Sunday, Nov. 18, at 3 p.m. at the Trylon. FMI and tickets ($12/14). This will be its Minnesota premiere. Here’s hoping it returns later for longer.
When it rains, it pours. Another documentary about Blue Note is following closely behind Huber’s. Wim Wenders was executive producer of Eric Friedler’s “It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story,” which is currently making the festival rounds. We’d like to see that, too. Landmark? MSP Film Society?