Blue Note Stars Generate Fresh Sounds, Classic Vibes in Montreal


Lionel Loueke (left), Marcus Strickland and Ambrose Akinmusire perform at the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival in this still from a Blue Note Records publicity video. The band played in Montreal on July 1.

(Photo: Courtesy of Blue Note)

I first caught the all-star outfit known as the Blue Note 75 group at the Montreal Jazz Festival two years ago, during the label’s actual 75th anniversary year, when the band was one of the standouts of main arena programming.

The impression was a more than solid one, especially for the sometimes-tentative nature of all-star gatherings. “They really should go on meeting like this,” I thought. The universe heeded my call. The star-studded ensemble met “like that” again last week at the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival.

Up in Montreal, in this 77th year of Blue Note (b. 1939), the impression was even stronger, with a deeper sense of inter-player cohesion and esprit de corps than before. It helps, of course, that these players—keyboardist Robert Glasper (the project’s de facto music director), saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Derrick Hodge—have intersected, interacted and generally taken their place as a new generation of Blue Note heavyweights, with ears open to ideas and impulses old and new.

History came calling on the potent opening number of a two-and-a-half-hour set in the Theatre Maisonneuve on July 1, to the tune of Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt,” from his legendary first stint as a Blue Note artist in the early 1960s. (Shorter would eventually leave the label, but re-signed three years ago). Glasper’s solo was the first of many demonstrating his taste and uniquely melodic and exploratory aplomb, and Akinmusire built his thematic solo—one of several stunning individual declamations this night—out of a four-note motif borrowed from Glasper.

Vaporous echoes of Shorter’s melody came wafting and looping back during the coda, out of which Scott navigated an organic and energized drum solo, segueing into the next tune.

Thus, the back-and-forth dialog and historical cross-referencing was quickly established between the players, and the set list seamlessly moved through a varied landscape of originals.

Loueke, playing with a synth-y tone (this reviewer longed for more of his straight “guitar” sound), traded heated riffs with Strickland, moving into Scott’s fast and bristling “Cycling Through Reality,” which contrasted with Akinmusire’s signature ballad/hymn “Henya,” heard here in the form of a supple, lyrical duet with bass.

Strickland’s “TMF Nuttz” scampered post-boppishly, and an Afro-soul touch came through in Glasper’s “Bayyinah,” written for Loueke’s 2012 album Heritage, and through a winking quote of “Embraceable You.”

During his showcase solo, Loueke illustrated why Glasper had jokingly introduced him as “Lionel and friends,” conjuring up his multiple identities as deft and spidery guitarist and talented vocalist. To close, the spotlight turned to a dazzling solo from bassist Hodge. His gentle, chant-like “Message Of Hope” was then passed to the team, ending the long set on a mellow, sighing note.

Urged back onstage by the typically enthusiastic Montreal festival audience, Glasper bent his ear toward a request from the house, easing into a sly slice of Radiohead’s 2000 song “Everything In Its Right Place” before moving into the real encore business at hand, Ornette Coleman’s classic “Turnaround.” But this version was loop-fitted and Glasper-ized, taking a crafty (and literal) musical cue from the woozy “turnaround” motif in the song, and turning that into a hypnotic riff before the blues changes locked in.

In the hands of this crew, Blue Note is alive and well, and finding new ways to reinterpret cherished but malleable old ways.

(Note: To see a publicity video of the Blue Note 75 band, click here. For more info on the Montreal Jazz Festival, which runs through July 9, visit the festival’s website.)

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