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by Seth Colter Walls

May 17, 2014

Blue Note Nuggets Vol. 5: 1961-63

by Seth Colter Walls  |  May 17, 2014

In honor of Blue Note's 75th anniversary, we've launched a series that takes a look back at hits and obscurities from one of the most important catalogs in all of jazz. From blues to hard bop -- and on to fusion and the avant-garde -- Blue Note has been there. Now you can be, too!

Once Ornette Coleman had sketched out the shape of jazz to come, at the tail end of the '50s -- and certainly by the time John Coltrane ventured out into his version of the avant-garde at the Village Vanguard in 1961 -- every jazz record label faced the same question that had been posed to all contemporary musicians: Were you going to go out there with those guys, or what?

Blue Note wasn't the first to dive into the deep end of the experimental pool, but when it got there, it cut a unique profile: albums by the likes of pianist Andrew Hill and trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and Jackie McLean helped the label stay current in the years covered by this playlist. There were attractively strange compositional forms in evidence -- as on Moncur's "Air Raid," from his stellar Evolution album -- and an increased range of freedom in terms of timbre (which saxophonist McLean explored on tunes like "Melody for Melonae"). In addition to showing up as an improviser on Herbie Hancock's My Point of View album, Moncur's compositions played a major role on McLean's tart, wild records [Destination Out] and One Step Beyond, too.

Click play on our attached mix, and you'll hear all those cuts -- but not before you experience the other side of Blue Note's early-'60s sound, which can be summed up with one word (said many times): soul, soul, soul! Grant Green's fleet and bluesy guitar solos exploded onto the scene in 1961. He wasn't just a leader of his own fine albums; he also played a key supporting role on recordings by organist Baby Face Willette, and saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine. Our playlist kicks off with three Green-assisted tunes, and whether uptempo or slow-blues in nature, they all cook.

Blue Note also scored a couple of surprise pop hits in this period, with Lee Morgan's boogaloo "The Sidewinder" and Donald Byrd's choral-assisted "Cristo Redentor." (It's important to note that both Morgan and Byrd were into experimentation in these years as well. Morgan appears on Moncur's Evolution, while Byrd led his own experimental date, Free Form.)

And the early '60s was also a time for experienced hard-bop hands to create new chapters. Dexter Gordon popped back up as an expat in Paris -- along with fellow expat, pianist Bud Powell -- to release the [Our Man in Paris] LP. (In 1962, another band led by Gordon cut the classic albums Go and A Swingin' Affair in the same week -- not bad!) And in this same period, drummer Art Blakey debuted a powerful new edition of his Jazz Messengers group. Introducing pianist Cedar Walton to the mix resulted in some wondrous new tunes, like the bluesy "Shaky Jake" and a little firestarter titled "Mosaic." (Just wait for the beginning of Wayne Shorter's solo on that latter tune; it's first up, around the 1-minute mark, and it'll probably make you want to throw something up into the air.)

Put all these tunes together in our mix -- along with prime selections from albums by Kenny Burrell, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham -- and you've got a rich catalog of music that crosses back and forth over that purported divide between classic forms and new approaches to swing. In reality, though, it should prove easy to appreciate all this music; despite the surface differences that may be observed, by now all these albums belong to jazz's tradition.

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