As a jazz aficionado I expected to hear a lot of good music in this documentary and anticipated a certain amount of archival footage and interviews with some of the great musicians who appeared on the Blue Note label over the years. But I never could have guessed where Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber would take me, or that I would be willing to go along for the ride.
Blue Note was the invention of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, boyhood friends who escaped from Nazi Germany and came to New York City. They pooled their meager resources and relied on their enthusiasm to entice musicians to record for them. Their groundbreaking boogie-woogie discs featuring Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson put them on the map and remain classics today. They ventured into swing in the 1940s but really made their mark with the coming of bebop. During the label’s heyday in the 1950s and 60s Blue Note records had a distinctive sound and an equally distinctive look, thanks to Wolff’s exceptional photography and Reid Miles’s instantly identifiable album covers. Artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Art Blakey did some of their finest work for this label.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is framed by a conversation with renowned record producer Don Was as he oversees a recording session featuring the current Blue Note All-Stars and two formidable guests, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. They are passionate and articulate about their music and constitute a mutual admiration society, bridging two generations. There are only a few survivors left to recount the label’s history, but a vintage radio interview with Lion and Wolff and a precious on-camera conversation with legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder paint a vivid picture. Current Blue Note producer and archivist Michael Cuscuna offers important perspective and pulls many of Lion’s contact sheets out of filing cabinets. Lion took so many photos during record dates that director Huber is able to utilize them in a way that approximates animation, bringing the work of great musicians to life in a way I’ve never seen in any other jazz documentary.
Ultimately the movie makes a sharp left turn and chronicles how the rise of hip-hop, and the sampling of older Blue Note recordings, led some of today’s most prominent music makers to appreciate the value of jazz. I never would have believed this had I not seen this film and witnessed the evidence first-hand. I am grateful to Sophie Huber for opening my eyes—and ears. She has made a memorable film that jazz buffs shouldn’t miss.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes opens today at the Metrograph in Manhattan, and on June 28 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Santa Monica. To learn more, go to https://bluenoterecords-film.com/en/