Recording of the Week,
Blue Note Re:imagined
It takes a lot to keep a label going as long as Blue Note has been. Ever at the forefront of new developments in jazz, there’s no shortage of famous names they’ve championed throughout the years, and this week’s featured recording sees the storied label pulling together some of their best young players - all from the UK - to celebrate its past. The project, known as Blue Note Re:imagined, features an all-star cast of UK jazz players across its sixteen tracks, all tunes taken from the label’s vast back catalogue. Regular readers will no doubt recognise recently highlighted players like cosmic saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and rising star Nubya Garcia, while London punks Melt Yourself Down and the Afrobeat-tinged Ezra Collective also make appearances. Outside of the immediate ‘jazz’ circle, but no less welcome, are neo-soul vocalists like Yazmin Lacey and Jorja Smith, and guitarist-singer-emcee Skinny Pelembe. Rather than constraining contributors to more conventional sounds, Blue Note Re:imagined embraces styles from the outer fringes of the label’s immediate coverage.
In keeping with the styles popular on the contemporary jazz scene, many of the players here lean heavily on a modern neo-soul sound that employs subdued chordal keys playing and slightly off-kilter rhythms inspired by the sound of hip-hop producers, and tunes also feature vocalists from a more R&B tradition. Blue Note is no stranger to the fields of hip-hop; the esteemed label’s history with the genre is well-documented, with the likes of Robert Glasper appearing on its roster with a similar fusion of hip-hop, jazz and soul. Then there’s the classic Shades of Blue by American producer Madlib, where the underground hip-hop veteran plundered the label’s back catalogue for beat samples. Indeed, the cyclical bond of jazz and hip-hop has seen this new generation of jazzers taking many cues from their sample-slinging forefathers, who in turn were directly taking licks from bebop players before them and less directly referencing jazz poetry.
The album opens with a nu-jazzed-up cover of French producer St Germain’s ‘Rose Rouge’ by Jorja Smith, who sings the vocal lines originally sampled from Marlena Shaw’s ‘Women of the Ghetto’, itself taken from the album Cookin' With Blue Note at Montreaux. Smith’s version keeps the shuffling house beat while colouring the space with its own instrumentation and a slight modulation towards the end - perhaps a less obvious choice for an opening track, but nonetheless showcasing Blue Note’s historical influences in styles inside and outside of jazz, as well as their embracing of alternative styles. The following track is a more traditional tune; Ezra Collective’s version of ‘Footprints’ sees the swinging drums swapped with a snappy off-time beat, the piano ostinato replaced with densely voiced piano chords locked in with the drums, though the iconic head melody is left wholly intact. Another early highlight of the album early is Poppy Ajudha’s interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’, bearing more funk similarities to his Head Hunters version (as opposed to the Takin’ Off 1962 original). A nice detail on this tune is the vocalist mimicking the intro of the tune that was originally played on beer bottles, which in itself was mimicking the polyphonic style of Pygmy hindewhu singing. Nubya Garcia’s version of Joe Henderson’s ‘Shade of Jade’ also retains the tune’s head melody, melding well with Garcia’s tight and controlled technique; this version doesn’t take off quite like the original does, instead sticking by a steady groove, though Garcia’s soloing throughout gives us plenty to pay attention to.
Re:imagined embraces the less strict genre confines of the modern UK sound, and the results offer some unique interpretations of (mostly) classic jazz tunes. In a scene where bandleaders prefer to play their own material rather than call upon the standards, hearing some of these players give their own takes on old tunes is interesting in itself. That they’re able to be so creative with these old charts is something else.