The venerable Blue Note Records label was founded in 1939, and from the late 1940s onward emphasized what was most modern about jazz. Blue Note became well known, of course, for the hard bop classics recorded under its aegis. But the varied influences that created hard bop led Blue Note to explore how the avenues of soul, rock and blues intersected with that of jazz. Three new releases from Real Gone Music and the reactivated Dusty Groove Records label explore three sonically-diverse titles from the storied Blue Note catalogue circa the early 1970s.
Jeremy Steig, Wayfaring Stranger (RGM-0109, originally released 1970)
There’s an intimate, up close and personal feel to Wayfaring Stranger, the lone Blue Note LP by the flautist. The album takes its title from the traditional tune, heard here in Steig’s expansive arrangement. Though joined on the LP by Don Alias on drums, Eddie Gomez on bass and Sam Brown on guitar, Steig’s exotic, alluring flute alone opens the album. It’s almost two minutes before the rest of the band kicks in, but it’s soon clear that Wayfaring Stranger is a collaborative effort.
As produced by Sonny Lester, there are plenty of highlights in just six tracks. The album’s first side is entirely self-penned, or in the case of the title track, self-arranged, whereas all of Side Two was co-written by the simpatico pair of Steig and Gomez. In the new liner notes by Pat Thomas, Steig remarks that the album was created based on live improvisation. While the entire unit is tight, the emphasis is on the interplay between the funky, howling flute and soulful bass. Torrid rock drums from Alias kick off “Mint Tea,” which also blends R&B and bop influences into its 5+ minutes. Brown’s haunting guitar accents meld with Steig’s more grounded if no less dexterous flute on 11-minute “Wayfaring Stranger.” You can even hear a bit of Gershwin-esque Americana in Steig’s lyrical statement of the folk melody before it veers into funk territory. Gomez, a stalwart also known for his work with the legendary Bill Evans, holds the quartet together as Steig’s flute soars and Alias offers fine brushwork. (Steig had an Evans connection, too. 1969’s What’s New was recorded by the pair as co-leaders.) Gomez’ bass is liquid on the rock groove of “Waves,” while the lengthy “All is One” offers a darker atmosphere with spare interplay. The album closer, “Space,” is an appropriately stately conclusion.
Real Gone’s new reissue doesn’t add any bonus tracks, but contains the original album artwork plus the aforementioned liner notes from Pat Thomas. (This formula is adhered to on all three reissues.) Wayfaring Stranger has been subtly remastered by Kevin Bartley at Capitol Mastering.
After the jump: a look at new reissues from Bobbi Humphrey and Gene Harris!
Bobbi Humphrey, Dig This! (RGM-0110, originally released 1972)
There’s a fun comparison to be had playing Wayfaring Stranger back to back with the second of Real Gone/Dusty Groove’s Blue Note reissues: Dig This!, from another flautist, Ms. Bobbi Humphrey. The first female artist signed to Blue Note, Humphrey’s sophomore album for the label was produced by Blue Note president George Butler. It was recorded in New York City at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studio, a room most sympathetic to orchestras, with arrangements from Wade Marcus, Horace Ott and Alphonse Mouzon. In addition to the strings, the cast of musicians included Ron Carter on bass, Paul Griffin on keyboard, David Spinozza on guitar and Mouzon on drums.
Wade Marcus was a holdover from Humphrey’s debut LP Flute In, and its “sequel” adhered to its formula of original material alongside reinterpreted pop-soul “covers.” For Dig This!, songs were drawn from the catalogues of Bill Withers, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Dave Grusin, and Stevie Wonder, with whom Humphrey played on Songs in the Key of Life. Throughout this bright and accessible album, Humphrey evinces a natural and even ebullient feel for R&B. Her instantly identifiable style is less rough-hewn than Steig’s, somewhat in the style of Hubert Laws. In fact, with the prominent strings on this album, it’s hard not to think of the CTI label, for which Laws recorded in the 1970s. Though it’s not quite fusion, there’s a definite jazz-funk edge on the album.
A pop-like emphasis on melody is clear, but there’s still plenty of room for adventurous improvisation even with the tight arrangements. Humphrey’s mellifluous playing complements the strings and is never overtaken by them. “Is This All” has a wistful, cinematic feel to it, while the film connection is underlined via a lovely performance of an actual film melody. Dave Grusin’s “Love Theme from ‘Fuzz’” (a 1972 cop film with Burt Reynolds and Yul Brynner) is altogether lovely, with Humphrey beautifully stating the melody in straightforward pop fashion. Her rendition of “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” a hit for Motown’s Undisputed Truth, was later sampled by hip-hop artist Common, and it’s not hard to see why. An insinuating, hypnotic groove locks in and hardly lets up. Humphreys can also be sensual, though, as when her flute weaves in and out of the exotic drums-and-percussion-led “Virtue,” one of Mouzon’s two compositions on the album. His other contribution, “A Thing of Beauty,” has straight-ahead funk but also shifts into tense, spellbinding passages. That contrast is no less evident on Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing About You,” in which Humphreys captures the balance between greasy funk and unbridled sweet pop joy.
This appealingly tasty album has never sounded better than in Maria Triana’s new remaster. You’ll leave the disc with your toes tapping as well as an appreciation for an underrated jazz artist.
Gene Harris, Gene Harris/The Three Sounds / Gene Harris of the Three Sounds (RGM-0111, originally released 1971 and 1972)
Blue Note didn’t have much creativity when titling this pair of albums from keyboardist Gene Harris, but thankfully that dearth of originality doesn’t extend to their grooves! If you like your jazz with a heaping helping of R&B, these two LPs presented on one CD are for you. The 1971 album Gene Harris/The Three Sounds features arrangements and compositions by Monk Higgins, plus a cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Despite its title, it did not involve members of Harris’ original Three Sounds, instead featuring Harris’ piano joined by Luther Hughes’ electric bass, Carl Burnett’s drums, Albert Vescovo and Fred Robinson’s guitars, Bobbye Porter’s congas, Paul Humphrey’s percussion, and Higgins’ organ. Like Dig This!, the album was produced by George Butler.
Opening track “I’m Leavin'” might have you asking, “Did I pick up the right CD?” if not for Harris’ recognizable piano. It’s a sung R&B/soul track, the first of his many loose, even sloppily off-key vocals on the eight-song collection. But attention must be paid to Harris’ mastery of his instrument. On the ethereal ballad “Do You Think,” Harris’ tinkling, grooving piano anchors the hushed, high vocals. For the greasy “Put On Train,” Harris’ piano lathers on the funk amidst the sinuous groove laid down by the band. “You Got to Play the Game” and “Hey Girl” (not the Goffin/King hit for Freddie Scott) are both typical of the driving soul rhythms on this album, which is almost a party record! Throbbing guitars and nonstop beats are plentiful, and frequently hot and heavy. As to the playful “Question, Please,” the answer is a rollicking romp of tight, full band interplay. Penultimate track “Eleanor Rigby” pointed forward to Harris’ next album which would feature more cover recordings. The Beatles’ classic was solid choice for Harris, a song so malleable that everybody from Aretha Franklin to Tony Bennett took a stab at it. He performs it here as an instrumental emphasizing Lennon and McCartney’s melody with (rewritten) cries of “Ah, look at all those funky people!”
The title of 1972’s Gene Harris of the Three Sounds was created to emphasize his freedom from his onetime group, and included songs from the ever-popular Bill Withers, plus Luis Bonfa, Duke Ellington and Benny Golson. As on Bobbi Humphrey’s session, the ever-present Ron Carter was among the band members. Sam Brown, also heard on Wayfaring Stranger, contributed guitar along with Cornell Dupree. Freddy Waits joined in on drums, with Johnny Rodriguez on congas and Omar Clay on percussion. On piano, Harris conjures a Guaraldi-esque sound at first on his reinvention of The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django” before it taps into a well of blues and soul. Wade Marcus’ arrangements are less busy than Monk Higgins’ on the 1971 set, and the album as a whole is less overtly funky. Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here” ups that quotient considerably, though. It would have fit comfortably on the first album here.
Harris and the band offer a cover of Withers’ “Lean on Me,” but the oft-recorded song isn’t reinvented. He fares a bit better with a truly shimmering take on Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnaval” and with Johnny Mandel’s achingly sensitive film theme “Emily,” which Bill Evans also transformed on piano. Harris approaches the song in a showier manner than Evans, but the gorgeous melody is ripe for numerous interpretations. Harris swings Marcus’ arrangement of the traditional “John Brown’s Body” and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” and also impresses with a stripped-down reading of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.”
As on the other two albums in this series, Pat Thomas supplies a fine essay. Kevin Bartley is once again in charge of the remastering and doesn’t disappoint. If these three titles are any indication, further trawls through the Blue Note archives by Real Gone and Dusty Groove will prove most welcome, indeed.