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Classics from a great label

This is a two-volume collection of excellent numbers from Blue Note, the speciality jazz label that celebrated its diamond jubilee last year

The Best of Blue Note Vol 1 and 2
Rs 100 each

Blue Note, the first speciality jazz recording label, celebrated its diamond jubilee last year. A couple of years earlier it had released a four-CD boxed set called The Blue Box: Blue Note's Best. It was largely based on a collection of compilation albums of individual artistes, The Best of ... anyone from Sidney Bechet to Herbie Hancock.

The cassettes under review are actually some five years older, having been released in 1992 (but not having come to India, unlike many of the individual Best of ... albums, under the HMV label when it was handling Capitol). The 18 tracks in these two volumes are also taken from these individual Best of ... albums (and so most of them figure in the Blue Box).

Altogether they make up a marvellous anthology of almost unflagging standards. Almost, because Donald Byrd's Cristo Redentor (from the first cassette, which I'll call Volume 1) seems curiously misplaced in a jazz collection. It has hardly any jazz feeling or soloing, and a sizable vocal choir singing in conventional choral style overshadows what little there is.

Although Byrd was known for straying far from the jazz path (as my recent review of The Best of Donald Byrd noted), he turns up here on a couple of pieces recorded under other leaders. He thus redeems himself with the great funk-blues pianist Horace Silver's Senor blues and the towering tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins's Decision, the first two tracks on Volume 2. (More on them later.)

The period from which the material is taken is roughly the decade 1955-65, when hard bop was at its height and funky jazz was also coming into its own. Almost every track is a well-known classic identified as one of its creator's landmarks. Thus, Volume 1 starts with John Coltrane's famous Blue train, opening with a dramatic alternation of Coltrane's tenor sax and a trombone followed by a series of solos by trombone, tenor sax, trumpet, piano and bass. This was the title track of the record that announced Coltrane's arrival as a star in his own right.

The next, Herbie Hancock's Maiden voyage, is another classic by a 24-year-old pianist who'd already made a big splash with his first album a couple of years earlier. It's basically an interplay between him and another Blue Note regular, the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

There follow several hard bop or funk standards with the compelling rhythms characteristic of these styles of jazz. Lou Donaldson (on alto sax) takes us through the Blues walk; Lee Morgan (on trumpet) puts us through our paces with the Sidewinder; Art Blakey (the drummer who did most to create hard bop) and his Jazz Messengers invite us to join them in Moanin' (never was moaning such fun!); and Horace Silver (piano) "sings" the lyrical Song for my father.

And we have the greatest exponent of the Hammond B-3 electric organ, the instrument that started life in small black churches, moved up into gospel music and then the blues. Jimmy Smith gives us a taste for life Back at the chicken shack with his incomparable whiplash style combined with the incomparable sound of this instrument, ably partnered by Stanley Turrentine on the tenor sax and Kenny Burrell on guitar. These two play an encore on Turrentine's Chitlins con Carne, which has a somewhat Latin flavour augmented by the use of congas.

Returning to the first two numbers on Volume 2, Horace Silver continues his funky piano work on Senor blues while Sonny Rollins's unique tenor sax sound sets the hard bop pace on Decision. Or should I say the great Max Roach on drums sets the pace and also takes a ripping solo? There's a contrasting, leisurely and lyrical-sounding Dexter Gordon on tenor sax alternating solos with his pianist on Three o'clock in the morning. Another hard bop classic, Blues march by Art Blakey, has him sharing solos (with dramatic loud touches) with trumpet, tenor sax and piano.

Other delights on Volume 2 include Cannonball Adderley on alto sax with Somethin' else, Joe Henderson on tenor sax adopting the Brazilian bossa nova style with Blue bossa and finally Herbie Hancock playing his most famous composition, Watermelon man, from his very first album in 1962. His piano opening makes way for the beautiful and dramatic theme shared by tenor sax (Dexter Gordon) and trumpet (Freddie Hubbard). The three of them share solos while his piano riff runs all the way through. Even if these are the cream of just a decade in the six through which Blue Note has kept the jazz fire burning, one can't seriously object to the title The Best of Blue Note.


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