Blue Note Records—the name itself holds much weight in the minds of even the most uninitiated jazz fans. The legendary record label started by Alfred Lion in 1939 came to redefine the jazz aesthetic, especially with the records it produced through the 1950s and early ’60s. Albums by the likes of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Freddie Hubbard, and John Coltrane form the cornerstone of what many consider the golden age of recorded jazz. Now, for Blue Note’s 70th anniversary, the still-vibrant record label is revisiting the music of this era by framing it in a more modern context.
The idea behind Mosaic is simple: Gather of group of today’s finest jazz musicians to rework classic songs from the Blue Note catalog. The resulting Blue Note 7 consists of New Orleans native son Nicholas Payton on trumpet along with saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Steve Wilson, guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. These accomplished musicians do an impressive job adapting this music into the idiom of modern, mainstream jazz.
The album opens with a rousing version of “Mosaic,” the Cedar Walton masterpiece popularized by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1961, arranged here by Lewis Nash. Nicholas Payton plays with depth and charisma on this track but it is Ravi Coltrane’s soulful solo, rich in melodic creativity, that really makes the song shine. Another highlight is Peter Bernstein’s arrangement of the bluesy Duke Pearson ballad “Idle Moments.” Here Bernstein’s guitar work is sublime, played with uncompromising lyricism and deep feeling.
Pianist Renee Rosnes, who does not play on Mosaic, nevertheless contributes two of the albums finest arrangements. First is a poignant version of McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace,” then a colorful, rhythmically nuanced treatment of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” The former showcases pianist Bill Charlap playing in a delicate, composed style reminiscent of Bill Evans. The latter is an impressive group effort that sees the septet deftly maneuvering through subtle changes in mood and dynamic.
While listening to Mosaic, one can’t help but draw comparisons between this album and the original recordings from which it stems. The originals obviously capture a truer, more pure spark of creativity, which is what makes them timeless. Modern, mainstream jazz is, by nature, derivative, and this highlights the disheartening subtext of Mosaic. Over the last 50 years, jazz has become institutionalized and because of this, it often comes across as sterile. Blue Note 7’s Mosaic may not be the album to turn people onto jazz the way that, say, John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” could, but it is still a great album for those listeners who appreciate the subtlety and discipline of modern jazz.