Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Blue Note Records

Within my first two years of being in business I got two big introductions to Blue Note records. The first came when a guy named Bob came into the store. I immediately recognized him as a guy who used to work at Kingbee records on Evans near D.U. He then went on to work at Record Revival (later Jazz Record Revival) on Broadway. He was always a nice guy and had recommended a few albums to me over the years that I really liked. This day he was selling a handful of CDs. He pointed one out to me. “You ever heard this one?” He shook his hand like he was putting out a match. “Hot Stuff.” The CD was Cornbread by Lee Morgan. I took it home that night and played it. It was indeed a magnificent jazz album. Morgan had such a strong tone and melodic sense on trumpet, his band was red hot and the recording was really present and snapped with the tight arrangements.
The second event came when someone dropped a stack of free magazines at the store. It was a guide to independent record stores nationally. I thumbed through it and was surprised to see our store in there. I’ll never forget it. They said we were a good store with a lot of nice used stuff. Then the author explained how he had gotten a couple of rare Blue Note pressings for way less than they were worth out of our racks. I was stung. Not by the loss of revenue, but at the perceived lack of knowledge. It changed the way I approached my job. I thought, if I’m going to do this, I have to know at least as much as the average customer (a ridiculous thought-there is no average customer).  It gave me a kick in the ass to both really learn about label variations and to understand better what the mystique was with Blue Note.
It took a few years before we got to the point that we were buying large collections every day, but it did finally happen, and I started to see some Blue Notes come through the door. A regular character who bought a lot of jazz named Shelby passed away and his family sold his records and he had a handful of great titles. They were beat to shit, but I decided to take a couple home and try them out. I will never forget the sense of revelation I had when I put that first original Blue Note pressing on my turntable and the exciting sound recording mastery thundered out of the speakers. I had never heard a record sound so alive! And remember this record looked like hell. Once the needle fell into those grooves, the scuffs and grime disappeared and, like magic, it sounded like you were in the studio with a room full of great players. I would learn this was no fluke. Blue Note records were largely recorded by a man named Rudy Van Gelder in his home in New Jersey. A dentist by trade, he loved jazz and sound, and he combined those two passions to create an undying legacy. The first generation or two of Blue Note are unparalleled recordings. Van Gelder’s abilities, the musicians, the times, and the pressing technology-I’m not sure exactly what all the factors were, but nothing sounds like a Blue Note.

A number of Blue Note recordings became some of my favorite albums. One in particular blew my mind. Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music is an incredible mix of jazz, funk, gospel and conscious soul unlike anything else. It is cosmic and earthy at the same time. It’s one of the records I’ve tried to turn people on to over the years. Finally, an original mono copy of Lee Morgan’s Cornbread came in to the store. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. I took it home that night and breathlessly put it on the box. I wish I had the words to convey exactly how amazing that first listen was. From the opening notes of Larry Ridley’s bass and that first blast of horns from Lee, Jackie McLean and Hank Mobley I couldn’t believe how present the music was. You could literally feel the room the album was recorded in. You could see where each player was in your mind’s eye. This was why I was collecting records. This exact feeling of presence-like you were there. I have played that record, I’ll bet, a thousand times. When people come over and want me to show off my stereo or collection, the night will always include Cornbread, usually with me holding the record up and saying “this is why we are still in business!” And I believe that. The specific magic contained in a well-pressed piece of vinyl is something that can not be undervalued. It is the medium through which the magic of music can best be expressed (short of live performance). After the many, many playings, Cornbread has lost none of that magic. The record still sounds amazing-no surface noise, just the pulse-quickening greatness of the original session. It is my go-to audiophile recording. Nothing sounds better to me.
The magic and mystery of Blue Note is well known in the collecting world. They are rare as hen’s teeth and highly sought after. Thus, the prices have become very “dear” as it were. Even so, if you see a nice one, and if you are excited by the art and science of recording, as well as great jazz-there is no more rewarding investment to be had in the record collecting world.
Here are some of my favorites.

No comments: