It’s Groundhog Day at Blue Note Records. Someone wakes up and thinks (again), “You know, our early-seventies catalog doesn’t really hold up on its own. Donald Byrd and the boys had some moments, but how are we going to keep selling misfires like Brother Jack McDuff’s Moon Rappin’?
“Wait a minute,” continues Someone. “What if we turned some hip-hop and dance producers loose on our collection? They’ve been digging around our bins for years. They should be able to do something with what we’ve got, especially the funky 1970s catalog. Maybe if we throw a little money at some hot producers to resuscitate our back catalog, people will remember how important and groundbreaking Blue Note used to be. Maybe some of our groundbreaking new artists, like Norah Jones, will start selling.”
Less than a year after the success of Shades of Blue, in which hip-hop producer Madlib remixed Blue Note classics like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” the label has again opened its vaults, this time to a roster of international producers. The producers do what hip-hop has done from the very beginning: pare a song down to its most addictive, danceable part and rebuild it into a party. This time around, most of the producers took to the most danceable part of Blue Note’s entire catalog: 1970s fusion. Madlib cleverly reprises Shades of Blue highlight “Stepping into Tomorrow” before launching into a rambunctious reworking of flautist Bobbi Humphrey’s “Young Warrior.” His comrade Jaydee redeems the only redeemable chunk of Brother Jack MacDuff’s Moon Rappin by riffing on the haunted-house organ of “Oblighetto.”
The formula works for twelve tracks, but it doesn’t break any new ground. London’s Bugz in the Attic takes Gene Harris’s “Los Alamitos Latinfunklovesong” for an epic ride, but they don’t accomplish anything that Ubiquity Records’s New Latinaires series didn’t accomplish four years ago. With today’s production technology and ease of dissemination, we expect more of today’s pioneers. Assembly can be much more imaginative (see the Books) than any of these producers show here. Not that these songs aren’t rich enough to reward repeated headphone listenings. But no matter how much technology advances, doing more with less remains the fundamental principle of good design.
Englishman Matthew Herbert recognizes this, and he ups the ante on Revisited‘s last track. By simply hacking a solo piano rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” to pieces and putting it together again with no extra instrumentation, he has created a masterpiece. The chunks he chooses to reassemble display an amazing sensitivity to jazz phrasing, and the serrated rhythm of his collage gets into the listener like a fishing hook through the foot. Herbert’s creation is unforgettable; it renders the rest of the album nearly obsolete. He could dig into any bin — Blue Note or otherwise — and make a mountain out of any molehill.
And that’s the problem. Why did Blue Note restrict such an incredibly talented group to its own vaults? They’d do better to sign producers and allow them the freedom to mine any material they want. But that would require Blue Note to get over its current identity crisis. Is it a museum? That’s fine — there is nothing wrong with promoting its stellar back catalog. Are they stepping into tomorrow? If so, they are going to have trouble getting there if they keep stepping back thirty or forty years. If Blue Note wants to remain relevant, they need to redefine their identity beyond jazz. Or else they need to redefine jazz to include adventurous electronic music and let their producers out of the vault before the oxygen runs out.