Sophie Huber’s consistently fascinating documentary about Blue Note Records leaves you wishing only one thing: it should have been longer. Chronicling the past and present story of the seminal jazz label, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes may prove frustrating for jazz aficionados who will already be familiar with much of what’s included. Still, the film offers enough astute insights and terrific interviews and performance footage to attract buffs while serving as a superb introduction for neophytes.
The label was founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff (along with Max Margulis), who both fled Germany as the Nazis assumed power. Having been introduced to American jazz in their native country, they were determined to record the music they had grown to love. The label was a hand-to-mouth operation for many years, but managed to become the permanent or temporary home of such legendary musicians as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and many others.
In the pocket.
The label originally concentrated on traditional and swing jazz before moving into such modern styles as bebop. Lion was particularly passionate about the form, despite the fact that it didn’t sell very well. The film includes footage of Monk playing his classic “‘Round Midnight” where his fingers seem to attack the piano keys, representing one of many wonderful archival clips.
A gallery of Blue Note artists, both veterans and newcomers, provide commentary. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who was signed to the label in 1952, describes how well he was treated there in comparison to others that were “cheap.” Elder statesmen Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock testify about how they never felt pressure to create commercial music. “We had no thought of competing with the music business,” Shorter comments.
One of the reasons for the label’s success was its distinctive album covers, designed by Reid Miles and often featuring pictures taken by Wolff, a photography buff who was constantly shooting during recording sessions. The nattily dressed musicians were often presented against stark black backgrounds. “The Beatles looked cool, Jimi Hendrix looked cool, but these guys looked cooler,” comments Don Was, the renowned musician/producer who currently serves as the Blue Note’s president.
Blue Note experienced hard times along the way. Financial pressures forced the founders to sell to a bigger label in 1966. Lion left, while Wolff continued to run it until his death in 1971. It was dormant for several years before being relaunched by EMI in 1985. By that time, hip-hop had become ascendant, and Blue Note’s recordings were frequently sampled by rap artists. Donaldson’s recording of “Ode to Billie Joe” became, surprisingly enough, the most sampled of all the label’s output. “I found out looking through my royalties,” Donaldson says happily.
The label became more successful than ever with such releases as the jazz/rap group Us3’s 1993 millions-selling Hand on the Torch, which sampled vintage Blue Note records extensively, most famously Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” and Norah Jones, whose 2002 debut album Come Away With Me won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. Among the current Blue Artists interviewed in the documentary are Terrance Martin, Robert Glasper, Lionel Loueke, Ambrose Akinmusire and Kendrick Scott, several of whom are shown jamming with Hancock and Shorter on the latter’s “Masqualero.”
The documentary feels scattershot at times, lacking cohesive structure and too often feeling like it’s just scratching the surface of its fascinating subject. But while this historical label deserves more extensive treatment than the mere 85 minutes it’s accorded here, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes should become an essential component of any jazz lover’s video collection.
Production: Mira Films
Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Director-screenwriter: Sophie Huber
Producers: Hercli Bundi, Chiemi Karasawa, Susanne Guggenberger, Sophie Huber
Executive producers: Geoffrey Kempin, Terry Shand, Anke Beining-Weilhausen
Directors of photography: Shane Sigler, Patrick Lindenmaier
Editor: Russell Greene