Desert Island Discs: Blue Note Records Edition

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Our newest Desert Island Discs poll delves into one of jazz music’s signature labels, as we’re castaway to the isle of Blue Note.

Memorable albums by Horace Silver, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Larry Young each received multiple votes, while artists like Grant Green and Cassandra Wilson drew praise from more than one voter, as well. Lee Morgan and Art Blakey are spotlighted on three separate albums here, while Joe Henderson is mentioned no less than six times.

We even had one respondent who broke his votes out into pre- and post-1965 — further recognition of the rich legacy of music from this imprint …


1. WAYNE SHORTER – SPEAK NO EVIL (1964): A uniformly strong set of compositions from an elite, master composer, held together by a loose theme of mysterious, ominous tone (save for the absolutely gorgeous “Infant Eyes”). Bolstered by premier support by Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Reggie Workman and Freddie Hubbard. If I had to pick just one Blue Note, this one is it.
2. CANNONBALL ADDERLEY – SOMETHIN’ ELSE (1958): A de-facto Miles Davis record during his ramp-up to Kind Of Blue, with Mobley, Blakey and Hank Jones playing in a soulfully majestic manner befitting their own legacies. But Adderley, one of the best alto saxophonists ever, made a terrific parter and foil to Miles, rivaling even the great Coltrane in that department.
3. ERIC DOLPHY – OUT TO LUNCH (1964): On the eve of his sudden, mysterious death, Dolphy attains the staggering out-jazz breakthrough he had been working toward since Out There.
4. GRANT GREEN – THE COMPLETE QUARTETS WITH SONNY CLARK (1961-1962): Two of Blue Note’s finest at their respective instruments (Green, guitar; Clark, piano) make each other even better, and egged on to even loftier heights by — who else? — Art Blakey.
5. LARRY YOUNG – UNITY (1965): Jimmy Smith defined the jazz organ, and then Young went and redefined it on Unity, which is also a brilliant showcase for a teenaged trumpet phenom Woody Shaw.


1. STANLEY JORDAN – MAGIC TOUCH (1985): This album heralded the arrival of a truly original guitarist. His technique amazes in that it sounds as if multiple guitarists are playing simultaneously rather than just one. But he possesses substance in additional to style, rendering lovely renditions of “Eleanor Rigby” and “The Lady in My Life.”
2. BOBBY McFERRIN – SPONTANEOUS INVENTIONS (1986): Before he was widely known as the “Don’t Worry Be Happy” guy, McFerrin had earned great acclaim in jazz circles for his unique vocalizations. Jazz, funk, pop–he could do it all, ranging from the R&B inflected “Thinkin’ About Your Body” to adding a dose of jazz to the Beatles’ hit “From Me to You.”
3. HERBIE HANCOCK – CANTALOUPE ISLAND (1994): Yes, I know this is a compilation. But it provides a brief overview of Hancock’s Blue Note career, containing the now-standards “Watermelon Man,” “Maiden Voyage,” and, of course, the title track.
4. NORAH JONES – COME AWAY WITH ME (2002): Jones’ debut signaled a new era for Blue Note, bringing jazz back to the pop charts and demonstrating their willingness to expand beyond their roots. After all, Jones encompasses pop and country as well as jazz,and has since incorporated even more genres.
5. CASSANDRA WILSON – NEW MOON DAUGHTER (1995): Like Norah Jones, Wilson has a multi-genre appeal, as she delves into blues and soul as much as jazz. Here she applies her deep, evocative voice to such standouts as “Death Letter,” “Love Is Blindness,” and even the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.”


My pre-1965 picks …
CANNONBALL ADDERLEY – SOMETHIN’ ELSE (1958): Not only is this my favorite Adderley recording, it’s my favorite 1950s-era Miles Davis album, too. Adderley is at his personable, blues-soaked best, while Davis may have never offered more cogent thoughts. Don’t sleep on Hank Jones, though — this album’s secret weapon– and Art Blakey plays with a smart understatement.
JIMMY SMITH – HOME COOKIN’ (1960): Smith was a prodigious recording artist, but this is to my ear his best, most focused solo outing. Kenny Burrell is a perfect foil, as Smith turns “See See Rider” into a simmering delight — and then very nearly snatches “I Got A Woman” away from Ray Charles.
DUKE ELLINGTON – MONEY JUNGLE (1963): My favorite Ellington recording, in that it illustrates his power and grace away from the traditional big band setting — and, even more interestingly, finds him tangling with next-gen bop guys like Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
GRANT GREEN – IDLE MOMENTS (1964): Green’s master moment, beginning with a bewitchingly sexy live-in-the-studio opening track — a 15-minute meditation on pianist/producer Duke Pearson’s title theme. It’s like that, throughout: graceful and smartly swinging.
LEE MORGAN – SIDEWINDER (1964): The bluesy, hard-bopping, completely infectious standard for every idea you ever had about Blue Note Records, Sidewinder was part of a furiously productive period for the doomed Morgan — who’d be murdered on stage by his common-law wife in 1972.

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1. HORACE SILVER – SONG FOR MY FATHER (1965): “The Kicker” was one of the first hard bop tunes that I ever listened to — sitting there in New York City on a Saturday afternoon, hearing Joe Henderson drive the band with his repeated phrases, and the four bar breaks in between and at the beginning of the solos maintaining the energy at a scorching temperature.
2. McCOY TYNER – THE REAL McCOY (1967): With a powerhouse lineup of McCoy, JoeHen, Elvin, and Ron Carter, this album is impossible to disappoint. The highlight of the album, “Passion Dance,” is based mainly on a dominant sus chord that leaves room for all to explore without limits.
3. DEXTER GORDON – OUR MAN IN PARIS (1963): Dex takes no prisoners on this album, storming through almost relentlessly at times with raw yet controlled emotion.
4. LARRY YOUNG – UNITY (1966): From “Monk’s Dream” to “Softy as in a Morning Sunrise” this album grooves hard and is a definitive classic. This is the third album on my list that features Joe Henderson, and rightfully so, he is one of the true artists of the twentieth century, and he deserves to be mentioned among the top tier saxophonists of all time.
5. THAD JONES-MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA – CONSUMMATION (1970): There was arguably no other big band during their time that was more musical than the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra who were masters at subtle idiosyncrasies. And, because I play saxophone, my track of choice on this album is “TipToe,” which features saxophone the section throughout.


My post-1965 picks …
ART BLAKEY – INDESTRUCTIBLE (1965): Lee Morgan makes a triumphal return on Blakey’s final Blue Note date as a leader, joining Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman on a fiery date. But it’s Wayne Shorter, as he works his way outside through a series of brilliant solos, who makes this one of my favorites from Bu.
HORACE SILVER – SONG FOR MY FATHER (1965): Silver’s infusion of Brazilian rhythms and textures took hard-bop into a whole new place. Come for Silver’s piano work, but stay for the interplay, on the memorable title track and elsewhere, between Carmell Jones, Blue Mitchell and Joe Henderson.
McCOY TYNER – THE REAL McCOY (1967): Tyner’s first Blue Note record was his best, as he appears again with Elvin Jones — with whom he’d worked as a recently departed sideman with John Coltrane. But Tyner’s own vision, plus the canny addition of Joe Henderson and Ron Carter, ensures that this is no Trane redux.
LONNIE SMITH – TURNING POINT (1969): For me, a special moment of discovery — the first time I’d heard someone play outside of the accepted Jimmy Smith-isms on the organ. Dr. Lonnie moves into more adventurous areas alongside Lee Morgan, Bennie Maupin and Julian Priester, with this mind-blowing take on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” as a highlight.
JOHN SCOFIELD-PAT METHENY – I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE (1994): With one of these guitar greats in one ear, and another in the other, I Can See Your House is as collaborative as it is exploratory — a true meeting of the minds. As much as this is a guitar record, though, repeated listens over the years have revealed important contributions from Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow, as well.


1. CECIL TAYLOR – UNIT STRUCTURES (1966): There are days when nothing else will do but to hear somebody beating the ever living snot out of a piano.
2. ORNETTE COLEMAN – NEW YORK IS NOW! (1968): The Lova Call/New York Is Now! sessions produced records that seem like outliers in the Ornette catalog. Some might say that they’re the least “Ornette-ish” of the bunch. There’s probably some truth there, but that can’t stop “Broadway Blues” from sticking to your musical ribs with all it’s sloppy, loping goodness.
3. DON CHERRY – COMPLETE COMMUNION (1965): While not a huge step away from his work with Ornette, Cherry’s impossibly great band (Henry Grimes, Ed Blackwell, and Gato Barbieri) manages to explode in several directions at once.
4. CASSANDRA WILSON – BLUE LIGHT TIL DAWN (1993): Since there will be no viagra on the desert island, we will have to resort to busting out Wilson’s version of “Come On In My Kitchen.”
5 JOE LOVANO – RUSH HOUR (1994): Worth it for a take on Ornette’s “Kathelin Gray” that just might surpass the original.

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    DAVID GREENBERG: Here are some that came close but didn’t make it — Hank Mobley, ‘Soul Station’; Dexter Gordon, ‘Go!’; Wayne Shorter, ‘Speak No Evil,’ ‘JuJu,’ ‘Night Dreamer’; John Coltrane, ‘Blue Train’; and Cannonball Adderley, ‘Somethin’ Else.’

    S. VICTOR AARON: I loved your list, David. The Jones/Lewis selection is a fine left-field choice, that orchestra has been so much more influential than they’re given credit for.

    DAVID GREENBERG: For sure! Jerry Dodgion, Pepper Adams, Snooky Young, it’s what I think big band music should be all about. I really enjoy listening to stuff like Maynard Ferguson Big Band, and the Buddy Rich Big Band, it’s energy is off the hook. But Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, its even some of the hardest things to play, because of all of the subtle nuances.

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      KIT O’TOOLE: My list draws chiefly from the later years of Blue Note, although I realize that many historic recordings were released prior to 1970. These were the selections have resonated the most with me over the years, though.

      S. VICTOR AARON: I think a list of the later Blue Note releases makes our DID more complete, so I’m glad to see it. I have a few later ones in my honorable mentions list to follow, but this one touches on a lot of great artists that weren’t around during the classic period.

      NICK DERISO: Crazy about that Cassandra Wilson too, Kit, though I’d say my favorite is probably the one from Mark’s list — ‘Blue Light til Dawn.’ Love the deep blues things she does there. Sometimes the simplest things are really the hardest to pull off.

      DAVID GREENBERG: I remember a couple years ago, a Professor from Guildhall came in to work with the big band I was playing with. We could play the charts that were really energetic and in your face without a problem, but we had the most trouble with the so called “easy” charts like Count Basie’s stuff which often has simple lines that are repeated over and over. It was harder because it was up to us to make the music out of it. It wasn’t written on the page if you know what I mean.

      S. VICTOR AARON: My honorable mentions — John Coltrane, ‘Blue Trane’ (1957); Sonny Rollins, ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard, Vols 1 & 2’ (1957); Jimmy Smith, ‘Back At The Chicken Shack’ (1960); Ike Quebec, ‘Blue And Sentimental’ (1961); Freddie Hubbard, ‘Hub-Tones’ (1962); Dexter Gordon, ‘Go’ (1962); Herbie Hancock, ‘Takin’ Off’ (1962); Joe Henderson, ‘Page One’ (1963); Jackie McLean, ‘Destination Out!’ (1963); Lee Morgan, ‘The Sidewinder’ (1963); Horace Silver, ‘Song For My Father’ (1964); Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger, ‘Free For All’ (1964); Herbie Hancock, ‘Maiden Voyage’ (1965); Joe Henderson, ‘Inner Urge’ (1964); Bobby Hutcherson, ‘Dialogue’ (1965); Wayne Shorter, ‘Adam’s Apple’ (1966); Horace Silver, ‘The Jody Grind’ (1967); McCoy Tyner, ‘Expansions’ (1968); John Scofield, ‘Time On My Hands’ (1990); Don Pullen, ‘Random Thoughts’ (1990); and Joe Lovano, ‘From The Soul’ (1992).

      DAVID GREENBERG: This is one of my favorites of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, called “Little Pixie” —

      S. VICTOR AARON: Damn, that’s a knotty arrangement … but still swings like the dickens.