June 28, 2009

SYNONYMOUS WITH COOL:

Blue Note keeps 'em lookin' as smooth as they sound (Mike Doherty, 6/26/09, Weekend Post)


When German emigrés Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff founded the Blue Note record label 70 years ago in New York City, jazz held most of the market for recorded music. Nowadays, it's decidedly a niche genre. So why do so many artists with mainstream success, from Norah Jones to Anita Baker, still want to record music for the legendary bastion of small-group instrumental jazz?

"The label has always stood for high quality," says its CEO, Bruce Lundvall, a former president of CBS Records and lifelong fan who helped resurrect Blue Note in 1985, after it petered out in the '70s. Even the fact it lay dormant in the heyday of airbrushed synth-pop feeds into Blue Note's matchless cachet - the label is synonymous with "cool." [...]

Lundvall has intentionally strayed from Lion's lead in other ways: He records vocal music (to which Lion wasn't attuned) and has signed pop and soul artists. He used to divert such projects to sister label in Manhattan as a matter of course (e.g., Bobby McFerrin's breakthrough, Simple Pleasures), but he gave in to Norah Jones's insistence on releasing her 2002 debut, Come Away with Me, on Blue Note. Since then, a number of her peers have followed suit, from Van Morrison through new signing Kristina Train, a singer of blue-eyed southern soul who, Lundvall says, "doesn't sound like anyone but herself, which is what we always look for."

Branching out from jazz, the CEO admits, has been an economic necessity, not only to keep the label in the black, but also to help to fund the work of jazz musicians he considers to be ahead of their time. During his tenure, Blue Note has crossed over into Latin jazz, using its clout, for instance, to sign phenomenally proficient Cuban pianists Chucho Valdés (playing fests across Canada this year) and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (playing Toronto and Montreal). And despite his focus on acoustic music, when Lundvall first heard Us3's acid jazz, based on uncleared Blue Note samples, he decided to sign them rather than sue.

Lundvall's devotion to eclecticism has brought criticism from purists but has won unlikely converts: Even Wynton Marsalis, whom he signed to CBS in 1981 and then to Blue Note in 2003, is apparently "becoming a little more open-minded than he was a few years back, where if [music] didn't swing a certain way, it wasn't jazz, and so on."

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 28, 2009 6:48 AM
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