Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 9: Blue Notes Parts 1 & 2’ 2x2LP/2CD (Jazzman) 5/5

With this eagerly anticipated volume in the ongoing series, one immediate question needs to be posed: where does the legendary Blue Note label fit into the spiritual jazz paradigm? When one might have expected a possible decline in the content of the independent label with its mid-1960s sale to conglomerate Liberty, in actual fact some of the most challenging music it put out was coming to the fore and those Reid Miles cover designs were still outstanding and stand the test of time remarkably well. This compilation focuses attention more specifically on the period 1964-1966 from which the majority of tracks derive, though earlier and later examples can be found. Of the numerous highlights worth outlining here, the name of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson crops up frequently as does that of tenorist Joe Henderson. Both are featured on the magnificent opener, ‘Verse’, from a 1966 album by Hutcherson, ‘Stick Up’, that needs to be heard in its entirety and with a line-up that includes McCoy Tyner on piano and Billy Higgins on drums. This follows on from the similarly minded ‘Mode for Joe’ (1966) album when the leadership duties were reversed into the hands of Joe Henderson. While that recording is not illustrated on this anthology, another from that era is in ‘Inner Urge’ (1965), and from that, the energetic, Latin-themed ‘El Barrio’ is selected and the mighty powerful rhythm is propelled by Elvin Jones no less.

Indeed, as a sideman, the tenorist participated in one of the great mid-1960s albums by drummer Pete La Roca, namely ‘Basra’ (1965). From that stunning recording, which includes the piano of Steve Kuhn and bassist Steve Swallow come two supreme examples of spiritually-tinged jazz in the title track and the Spanish-flavoured ‘Malaguena’, formerly heard on a Latin Jazz percussion album by Jack Costanzo, but which here has been slowed down into a smouldering slice of post-bop. Searching out to distant lands in order to draw inspiration is a common theme elsewhere with Wayne Shorter’s lesser-known offering, ‘Indian Song’, and a classy quartet comprising Herbie Hancock on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. That feeling is reinforced by a second and more familiar Shorter original, ‘Footprints’ from the ‘Adam’s Apple’ (1966) album, a piece which he recorded also as part of the Miles Davis Quintet.

Pianists feature prominently and the name of Duke Pearson is one of the most worthy contenders for inclusion. Of all the albums Person recorded for Blue Note, ‘The Phantom’ (1968), is one of the most unusual, beguiling, and the impressionistic of his entire career. The album cover alone hints at an exotic forest and the use of percussion blends in perfectly with the imagery and the combination of piano and vibes (courtesy once again of Bobby Hutcherson) makes the title track sound like nothing else you have heard previously. More in keeping with the interest in progressive big band jazz that Duke Pearson had, ‘Empathy’ from the album ‘Sweet Honey Bee’ (1966) features an extended brass section with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, James Spaulding on alto saxophone and yet again Joe Henderson on tenor. That larger ensemble setting works equally on a lovely mid-1960s Hank Mobley outing, ‘The Morning After’ from the memorable ‘Caddy for Daddy’ album (1966). In a different vein, Duke Pearson adopts electric piano for a Donald Byrd composition with a strong spiritual theme, ‘Cristo Redentor’ which was an early example of Brazilian ex-patriot, percussionist Airto Moreira, on a recording with American musicians. Andrew Hill gets a look in on the unreleased, ‘Poinsetta’ (1968), that is notable for the use of strings, and Bennie Maupin alternating between flute and tenor saxophone. Another piece by Hill, not included here, but worth investigating is ‘Fish ‘n’ Rice’ from a Liberty album, ‘Dance With Death’ (1968), or piano plus voices on ‘Lift Every Voice’ (1969). Indeed, so unique is the work of Andrew Hill that an anthology of his Blue Note work would be welcomed.

Elsewhere, we find an album that personifies the spiritual approach to music in Freddie Hubbard’s 1965 recording, ‘Blue Spirit’. Hubbard is quoted on the back cover as stating that “Recording the album was a spiritual experience”, and that is backed up by a hefty line-up of musicians including a four-pronged brass ensemble that features Hank Mobley, James Spaulding and Kiane Zawadi on euphonium, with Pete La Roca taking care of drumming duties. Altoist Jackie McLean was present on some of the more avant-garde albums that Blue Note put out in the second half of the decade, and thus choosing a single item was no easy task and, ‘It’s Time’ featuring Tolliver, Herbie Hancock and Roy Haynes is another fine example. From the ‘Action’ (1964) LP, ‘Flight’ impresses with a line-up that includes an early example of trumpeter Tolliver, with no piano, but the vibraphone of Hutcherson and Cecil McBee and Billy Higgins part of the rhythm section, For those in search of wider modal pleasures, be sure to check out the wonderful twelve and a half minute, ‘On the Nile’ composed by and featuring Tolliver from the McLean album, ‘Jacknife’, that covers two sessions from 1965 and 1966, but went unreleased until 1975 and has since been re-issued.

One could quibble with some of the pieces not selected, such as ‘African Village’ or ‘Little Madimba’ from ‘Time For Tyner’ (1968), another stellar pairing of McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson. Then again, there is the alternative version to ‘My Favourite Things’ from a 1964 Grant Green quartet date ‘Matador’ (1964) that features both McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, both integral members of the John Coltrane interpretation. In fact, the Middle Eastern flavoured ‘Bedouin’ on the same album is almost as good, but listeners can readily find such examples on CD and increasingly on vinyl re-issues. Entries from Eric Gale and Solomon Ilori widen the repertoire to incorporate African-American musical innovations and an interest in African culture.

Interestingly, while John Coltrane the tenor saxophonist is not included here (his few recordings on Blue Note date from before his modal and exploratory work for the Impulse label), his towering influence on so many jazz musicians are alluded to on a piece that this writer had not heard before. ‘Searchin’ the ‘Trane’, which is the second of the Bobby Hutcherson recordings under his own name and dates from 1976. As in keeping with other volumes in the series, in-depth and exemplary sleeve notes, with album covers graphically illustrated. A most worthy successor to the preceding volumes.

Tim Stenhouse

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