14 CDs bring back the remarkable Blue Note years


December 24, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg The Orb J.D. Considine

Various Artists

The Blue Note Years (Blue Note 2434 96427)

Few jazz labels captured as much of the music's history as Blue Note Records. And few jazz boxed sets convey the spirit of a record company as vividly as "The Blue Note Years."

Founded in 1938 by a young German jazz fan named Alfred Lion, Blue Note began as a labor of love and would maintain that spirit for a half century and more. It hardly mattered whether the music was as rollicking and accessible as the boogie-woogie piano of Meade Lux Lewis or as raucous and abstract as Cecil Taylor's avant-garde explorations; if there was merit in the music, odds were, Blue Note would record it.

Many of the biggest names in jazz recorded for the label, but Blue Note hardly owed its reputation to such stars. Although such visionaries as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman all recorded for the label, they only cut a couple of albums each. Blue Note wasn't about documenting musical milestones - it was more concerned with life in the mainstream.

As such, Blue Note's mainstays exhibited a different sort of brilliance. There were singular stylists (Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Cassandra Wilson), brilliant bandleaders (Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd), soulful soloists (Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Lou Donaldson), and inimitable virtuosos (Jimmy Smith, Bobby McFerrin, Stanley Jordan). Between them, they made up what was for most listeners the very heart of jazz.

"The Blue Note Years" maps that heart brilliantly. While its 14 CDs cover a lot of ground musically, the set doesn't attempt to present jazz history in the usual chronological fashion.

Instead, it breaks the Blue Note sound down into seven distinct styles. First comes "Boogie, Blues & Bop," which covers the explosive creativity of the New York jazz scene in the 1940s; next is "The Jazz Message," which traces the development and impact of Art Blakey's classic be-bop combo, the Jazz Messengers. From there, the set moves through "Organ and Soul," "Hard Bop and Beyond," "The Avant Garde" and so on.

Naturally, the set includes all the classics, from Silver's "Song for My Father," Smith's "The Sermon" and Blakey's "Moanin'," to Ronnie Laws' "Always There" and Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)." But it also includes such exceptional experiments as Eric Dolphy's "Hat and Beard" and Sam Rivers' "Luminous Monolith," tracks that may not be as instantly familiar, but are well worth hearing.

Factor in the gorgeous packaging and a beautiful book of black and white photos by Francis Wolf and Jimmy Katz, and this limited-edition set will seem essential to any dedicated jazz fan. ****


The Nields

Play (Zoe 01143-1002)

If the stereotypical flowery vibrato of the female folk singer makes you feel nauseated, "Play," by folk rockers the Nields, may make you reach for the Dramamine. On songs such as the Indigo Girls-esque "Easy People" and "Georgia O," it sounds as if sisters Nerissa and Katryna Nields are singing on a violently turbulent airplane. But when they occasionally abandon the trill and go for a waify whine or breathy speaking voice, a la Alanis Morissette, the ride is smoother. Yet, underneath whatever affected vocal style the Nields choose are genuinely strong songs with poetic lyrics and familiar, engaging pop hooks. The understated, affecting ballad "The Hush Before the Heartbreak," bouncy, anthemic tunes such as "Jennifer Falling Down" and "Friday at the Circle K" and the playfully psychedelic "Tomorrowland" are worth revisiting once the motion sickness subsides. **1/2

@ U.F.Off: The Best of the Orb (Island 314 524 599)

Ambient techno is hardly an in-your-face pop style, so the notion that an ambient act would have hits - much less enough to fill a greatest-hits album - may seem hard to swallow. But the Orb did in fact have its share of successful singles, all of which are duly represented on "U.F. Off: The Best of the Orb." This being the Orb, however, the set recounts the group's history in fairly cheeky fashion, presenting "Blue Room" in its 7-inch single version (instead of the 40-minute album edition), and offering not one but two mixes of "A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Center of the Ultraworld." Alternately silly, soothing and psychedelic, it is indeed the best of the ambient act's output. ***

J.D. Considine

Takako Minekawa

Cloudy Cloud Calculator (Emperor Norton 7010)

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