The most famous of all jazz labels had it all! Five-star artists, original repertoires, ingenious associate artistic directors, exceptional sound recording, sublime album covers, a variety of genres (Bebop, Hard Bop, Soul Jazz, Modal Jazz, Free Jazz)… The label was launched in 1939 by Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, two Germans who had fled the Nazi regime, and had everything going for it. Qobuz has picked 10 key albums from its ample catalogue. Some of them are celebrated classics. Others are underrated marvels. But all of them played a vital role in shaping Blue Note as a label.

John Coltrane – Blue Train (1958)

John Coltrane was ready to cut many ties to finally become his true self by the time of Blue Train. Recorded on September 15th, 1957 by Rudy Van Gelder and produced by Alfred Lion, it was the saxophonist’s sole album as a leader for Blue Note. Trane had already handpicked his musicians, seasoned artists who worked with Miles Davis and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: Lee Morgan on the trumpet, Curtis Fuller on the trombone, Kenny Drew on the piano, Paul Chambers on the double bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. At the time, Coltrane was playing at the Five Spot Café in New York, in Thelonious Monk’s quartet. Stylistically, this album can be described as slightly atypical Hard Bop. It had a typically Coltranian sound that hadn’t been fully established yet. What remains is an incredibly classy album filled with beautiful themes (all authored by Coltrane himself apart from the Mercer & Kern classic I’m Old Fashioned) played by six musicians who brilliantly jump back and forth between each other. It’s also worth paying attention to the formal modernity of the improvisations!

Grachan Moncur III – Evolution (1964)

Recorded in 1963 and released the year after, Evolution is the first album from a very discreet giant. Grachan Moncur III finally became a leader after working on recordings with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Jackie McLean and Art Farmer (who hadn’t even turned 25 yet)… Here, the New York trombonist brought together several members of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff’s label: trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Jackie McLean, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Tony Williams. Together they performed an incredible arrangement of avant-garde and fascinating neo-Hard Bop music, composed in its entirety by Moncur himself to create a highly ambitious, often mysterious, and rather dark piece, not forgetting to insert a lot of space among such wild exchanges. The singularity and character of the album grants Evolution one of the top spots in Blue Note’s discography.

Herbie Hancock – Inventions & Dimensions (1964)

Talking about Herbie Hancock and Blue Note almost always leads back to Maiden Voyage, an album released in 1965 that can be considered an essential for the beauty of its five themes (Maiden Voyage, The Eye of the Hurricane, Little One, Survival of the Fittest et Dolphin Dance) and the original playing style of its author. But with time, it seems Inventions & Dimensions may have become one of his most underrated records. After Takin' Off (1962) and My Point of View (1963), the pianist, 23 years old at the time, opted for an atypical configuration, purposely putting an emphasis on percussion instruments. Paul Chambers on the double bass, Willie Bobo on drums and timbales, and Osvaldo "Chihuahua" Martinez on percussion for a swerve into experimental and Afro-Cuban Jazz which was quite avant-garde for its time. On this recording from August 30th, 1963, his third for the label, his performance on the piano is particularly impressive, somewhere between virtuosity and purity. With its uniquely handled Latino touches, its skilfully distilled complex rhythms and its repetitive motifs sprinkled here and there, Inventions & Dimensions was way ahead of its time.



Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil (1965)

Cover! Casting! Compositions! Recorded on Christmas Eve 1964, Wayne Shorter’s sixth album is a masterful blend of Hard Bop and Modal Jazz. After joining Miles Davis’ famous second quintet, the saxophonist deployed two key elements in this particular project: Herbie Hancock on the piano and Ron Carter on the double bass. What about the other two scoundrels on this heist of the century? Drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. For this session, Shorter wrote six new pieces for which he described his inspirations in the album cover notes, explaining how he thought about “misty landscapes with wild flowers and strange dimly-seen shapes, the kind of place where folklore and legends are born. And then I was thinking of things like witch burnings too”. The six tracks remind everyone he’s without a doubt one of the most talented Jazz composers of the second half of the 20th century… The back-and-forths between the five men, the changes in rhythm and the master’s phrasing are all part of what makes Speak No Evil so wonderful! And despite it all, the album wasn’t particularly well.

Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music Vol. 1 & Vol.2 (1951)

Ever since his early days as a leader at the end of the 1940s, Thelonious Monk has had a style of his own. A Cubist playing style, unsettling tempo stalls and genius compositions (Straight No Chaser, Round About Midnight, Well You Needn’t and Ruby My Dear are all featured on these historic recordings!)… Thelonious Monk and his piano ventured towards avant-garde new horizons of beautiful dissonance and ingenious melodic perversion. This style of modernity nonetheless respected a certain form of tradition. But the American pianist enjoyed defying the rules both in his writing and playing style. With these historic arrangements recorded for Blue Note in Autumn 1947 with Art Blakey on drums, Idrees Sulieman and George Taitt on the trumpet, Danny Quebec West, Billy Smith and Sahib Shihab on the saxophone, Gene Ramey and Bob Paige on the double bass, Monk was simply inventing what would eventually become modern Jazz.

McCoy Tyner – The Real McCoy (1967)

For his Blue Note debut, McCoy Tyner came in with a bang. Already with six personal albums behind him, the Philadelphia pianist decided to leave John Coltrane’s quartet. For the recording of this album on April 21st,1967 he surrounded himself with three top talents: Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. The Real McCoy is like a frantic train moving at full speed. It’s a swerve into Jazz which is completely stripped down and free of any commercial compromise. At 29 years of age, McCoy appeared to be on the run, rolling down the mountain at full speed as if nothing could stop him. His accomplices stood tightly at his side and were not only keeping up but seemed galvanised by the fervour of their leader. One can easily picture Alfred Lion stuck behind the studio glass and thrown to the back of his seat by the sheer vitality and percussive yet intelligent piano style. The improvisations here remain some of the most impressive from that era of Jazz.

Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1965)

Andrew Hill has never been the most publicised pianist in Jazz history. Nevertheless he remains an essential and above all original stakeholder. At the top of the Chicago artist’s discography is a Blue Note session recorded on March 21st, 1964 that perfectly highlights his style, risk-taking and ability to communicate with his accomplices, namely Kenny Dorham on the trumpet, Eric Dolphy on the alto saxophone, the bass clarinet and flute, Joe Henderson on the tenor saxophone and flute, Richard Davis on the double bass and Tony Williams on drums. As if ahead of its time, their Jazz shines throughout the five complex and beautiful themes and never rests on the laurels of an easy and safe swing or daddy’s Hard Bop. The composition is a complete firework display of solos and back-and-forths. Over half a century after its recording, Point of Departure remains a relatively avant-garde recording. The conquering of new territories (obvious on Departure which concludes the album) was even more extensive the following year on Compulsion which Andrew Hill also released on Blue Note.

Horace Silver – Song for My Father (1965)

For the Horace Silver chapter in the great golden book of Jazz, the focus is often on Song for My Father, a beautiful tribute to his father whose photograph is on the album cover. For this piece of work, recorded in three sessions (October 1963, January 1964 and October 1964), the great pianist, influenced by Blues, Gospel and Rhythm’n’Blues, gives us Jazz built on Funk, Blues and even Bossa foundations. This is understandable as he started off this project after a trip to Brazil. Here, Horace Silver backs up his style with strong rhythmics, a key element to his art, which gives a pioneer groove to his masterpiece. His hands-on piano playing throws the music into the torrent of a mighty swing, and in the most restrained parts (Calcutta Cutie) Silver becomes almost cat-like, advancing with great subtlety. Song for My Father strings together a series of legendary compositions and catchy melodies that had a strong influence on numerous musicians. In an interview for NPR in 2008, bass player Christian McBride explained the reasons behind his worshiping of this music. “Horace Silver's music has always represented what Jazz musicians preach but don't necessarily practice, and that's simplicity. It sticks to the memory; it's very singable. It gets in your blood easily; you can comprehend it easily. It's very rooted, very soulful.”

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Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch! (1964)

On February 25th, 1964 Eric Dolphy took part in his only session for Blue Note as a leader, but in about forty minutes propelled Jazz into new territory with avant-garde tracks; the beginnings of free Jazz in a way… With his bass clarinet, flute and alto saxophone, the musician shook up the Hard Bop style that was reigning at the time, helped in his disruptive attempt by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bass player Richard Davis and drummer Tony Williams, who was just 18 years old at the time! Dolphy’s motivations are beyond clear on Straight Up and Down, a drunk and wobbly track! Hat and Beard, a reference to Thelonious Monk, was also a complete overhaul of the genre… At the time, audiences weren’t familiar with Dolphy’s often-atonal aesthetic and unexpected changes in rhythm. But the man wasn’t a brainy poser aiming to unnecessarily shock his audience. And not a single second in Out to Lunch! feels gratuitous. But four months after this session, the artist suffered a fatal heart attack at just 36 years old…

Lee Morgan – Search for a New Land (1966)

In the summer of 1964, Lee Morgan released The Sidewinder, one of the best selling albums in Blue Note’s history. Five months before this essential pure Hard Bop record coated in Soul, the trumpeter had recorded a much more daring and avant-garde session, which the label kept safely hidden away until July 1966. With Search for the New Land, Morgan embarked upon bold and adventurous compositions. On the long eponymous theme – over fifteen-minutes long – he stretched the canons of Hard Bop giving a very abstract and rich narrative to the piece. To bring more colour to his work he gave complete freedom to his five accomplices (saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Grant Green, bass player Reggie Workman and drummer Billy Higgins) who enjoyed it wholeheartedly. A genuine marvel!

Translated by Cécile Kleszcz.