Blue Note Celebrates 80th Anniversary with Vinyl Reissues

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Alfred Lion (left), Dexter Gordon and Francis Wolff

(Photo: Courtesy Blue Note Records)

As label president Don Was told DownBeat in a recent phone interview from his office in the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, Blue Note’s vinyl revival is two-pronged, involving both new products and reissues.

“About half of our new records come out on vinyl,” he said, noting that other releases are available digitally and/or on CD. Among the label’s recent vinyl releases are albums by Norah Jones, Gregory Porter, José James, Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, Nels Cline and the all-star collective R+R=NOW.

On the reissue front, Blue Note has launched multiple series of reissues to mine gems from its illustrious catalog, which includes titles by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Robert Glasper, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Sam Rivers and John Scofield.

It took more than great artists, however, to make Blue Note a great label. The company was founded in 1939 by two jazz-loving German immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, both fleeing the Nazis in the late 1930s. They attracted and retained the best musicians in New York by offering them respect and consideration, working around their schedules. They also provided great-sounding recordings, with the legendary Rudy Van Gelder engineering many of the sessions between 1953 and 1972, as well as exceptional photography (often by Wolff), cover art (by Reid Miles) and liner notes to produce glorious packages worthy of the music. All the elements combined into what became known as the Blue Note aesthetic.

Besides the profusion of vinyl reissues, the 80th anniversary celebration includes a new documentary, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, by director Sophie Huber; a series of limited-edition canvas art prints of classic album covers; a limited-edition G-STEEL men’s wristwatch; expanded Blue Note classic playlists on Spotify and Apple Music; and an U.S. tour this fall by saxophonist James Carter, pianist James Francies and singer/keyboardist Kandace Springs—all current Blue Note artists

But why launch four different series of classic Blue Note reissues? “Each has a unique purpose,” Was explained.

The Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl series is all-analog, curated by Joe Harley, of the audiophile vinyl label Music Matters, and mastered from the original master tapes by Kevin Gray, of Cohearent Audio. The LPs are housed in deluxe gatefold packaging. Titles include Introducing Kenny Burrell (1956), Andrew Hill’s Black Fire (1963), Dexter Gordon’s Clubhouse (1965) and Cassandra Wilson’s Glamoured (2003).

The Blue Note 80 Vinyl series, curated by Was and Blue Note staffer Cem Kurosman, is midpriced, with standard packaging, and it’s organized according to themes, like “Blue Note Debuts,” “Great Reid Miles Covers” and more. Like the Tone Poet series, the BN 80 series is pressed on 180-gram vinyl. LPs in this series include Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones (1962), Donald Byrd’s Ethiopian Knights (1971) and Tony Williams’ Foreign Intrigue (1985).

Additionally, there’s an exclusive six-title series issued by audiophile record company Vinyl Me, Please; and the Blue Note Review, a vinyl box set subscription series that includes exclusive content.

“Joe Harley’s Tone Poet series—that’s just the highest-quality vinyl experience I think you can have,” Was said. “When we started doing hi-res audio mastering, I kept going back to those Music Matters releases, because I couldn’t figure out what he was doing to make them sound so good. I found out that it’s a little bit of everything, not just one thing you do in the mastering. ... I got to know Joe while we were working on the Charles Lloyd record together. I invited him to come do it at Blue Note and throw our full resources behind it, rather than just licensing the masters.

“The first two releases, Wayne Shorter’s Etcetera and Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, are in their third pressings already. They outsold everybody’s wildest guesses. They just sound amazing.”

Something that Was discovered while working on the vinyl reissues was that mastering off the original analog tapes “makes a huge difference.” Even in the lower-priced Blue Note 80 series (about $25), the projects were mastered using the original masters.

The Vinyl Me, Please offering—a 1,000-set series that aims to present the story of Blue Note in six albums—sold out a mere three hours after it went on sale, Was said. The series includes Horace Silver’s trio debut and projects by Ambrose Akinmusire, Lou Donaldson, Dexter Gordon and Bobby Hutcherson. According to Was, the sales success “shows that if you present it right, people love this music so much, and there’s still a great audience for it.”

The Blue Note Review, available by subscription, is a box designed to “step up the tactile experience” of owning the music, Was said. In addition to four LPs, the second volume contains lithographs of Reid Miles covers, a magazine, a book on drummers, trading cards and a record-cleaning brush. A third volume, focusing on the Blue Note legacy, is in the works.

Aesthetically speaking, putting out vinyl on a Blue Note artist in the digital age is not a hard decision—but the financial factor is another matter. “I think the vinyl sounds incredible. I love the sound of it,” Was said. “People my age, that’s how we know that music. It’s a warm, pleasing sound. It’s not necessarily the most accurate—there’s a certain distortion that vinyl brings as well. It brings the back wall of the mix forward, gives it more immediacy and presence. It’s not a neutral color. But people like it. I think we’ll probably sell 100,000 Tone Poet records this year.”

But there’s something else about vinyl, Was said, that makes the experience of music special. “I remember showing the turntable to my kids for the first time. We sat in a circle looking at the turntable and listening to music. There’s action going on—it’s like a fireplace,” he said with a chuckle. Then, more thoughtfully, “It’s a very physical experience. And there’s an element of ritual to it that impacts human behavior at a really deep, primordial DNA level. You have to pull it out of the sleeve and treat it right. To be able to hold something physical, and to be able to read the print on the back.”

Another fan of vinyl is saxophonist Marcus Strickland, whose latest Blue Note album, People Of The Sun, is available as an LP. “I like everything about vinyl,” he said by phone from his Brooklyn home. “The sound, the size and shape, the way it showcases the artwork. And it is still in primary use in DJ culture, which is a great way of dispersing the music. ... I feel like most of the people who would like the record would be the kind who go to hear DJs at a club and like to hear all kinds of different sounds. So, I made the record that way, with short cuts that would fit on two sides. And having the vinyl at the gig is very key to selling. They’re great for signing.”

Deciding which albums to release in the vinyl format a challenge, though. “It’s a little arbitrary,” Was conceded. “Ultimately, we have to go through a process where we feel it’s going to sell enough copies to justify the expense. It’s a business; it’s a combination of aesthetics and practicality.”

Both the label’s decision to manufacture vinyl and the fans’ decision to buy it comes down to a philosophy that “music is worth owning and appreciating,” as employees at Vinyl Me, Please like to say. Was and the label share that philosophy. “I’ve been making records for a long time and have seen every type of goofy situation you can imagine between record companies and artists,” Was said. “The best way to make great music is to work with artists you believe in and let them be who they are.”

That’s also a good business plan, Was noted. “I’ve never told any artist at Blue Note what to do—ever. If they want an opinion, I’m happy to offer one. But if they have something in mind, I want them to pursue it. I believe that’s the way you build the kind of catalog that Alfred Lion built, and Bruce Lundvall continued. Just try to help great musicians make the best music they can make.” DB



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On Sale Now
August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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