Larry Blumenfeld: To America, and Blue Note

March 5th 2008 10:27 pm

Copyright © 2008 Larry Blumenfeld

By Larry Blumenfeld

If any music label’s identity is staked to that of American jazz, it is Blue Note Records. Beginning with its launch in 1939, and especially since the 1950s, Blue Note has chronicled jazz’s progression, while becoming an intrinsic element of the American musical landscape. The musical ferment of New York City from 1950-70 among a close-knit cadre of jazz players can be fairly well-depicted by a succession of the distinctive album covers designed by Reid Miles, often featuring iconic black-and-white photographs taken by Francis Wolff. The two men behind Blue Note’s formation, Alfred Lion and Wolff, were immigrants from Germany, a detail especially worth noting in light of the fact that, so far this year, the Blue Note banner has been waved most emphatically by two musicians born and raised outside the United States: pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, from Havana, Cuba; and guitarist Lionel Loueke, from Benin, Africa.

Rubalcaba’s new Avatar is his 13th release on Blue Note; whereas, Loueke’s Karibu is his label debut. Rubalcaba, 44, and Loueke, 34, should each be familiar to jazz fans for their distinguished music making as leaders as well as for their work with standard-bearing players. As pianist and arranger, Rubalcaba was largely responsible for the gorgeously restrained ambience of bassist Charlie Haden’s Nocturne and Land of the Sun discs. Loueke was a subtle but provocative element of the core-group sound on pianist Herbie Hancock’s dazzling River: The Joni Letters. He’s toured widely with both Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and he made indelible contributions during his years in trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s band.

These associations were far from random; Rubalcaba and Loueke made instant impressions on the American musicians who would become key boosters and collaborators.

Haden recalls first hearing Rubalcaba perform, at a 1986 festival in Havana. “Gonzalo’s band came on, he took a piano solo, and I nearly fell off my chair. I told the organizers, ‘Take me back to meet him.’ He spoke very little English at the time. But we played for hours.” Haden brought Rubalcaba to the attention of Blue Note label president Bruce Lundvall, who, similarly impressed, signed the pianist — first through Toshiba/EMI in Japan (due to embargo restrictions), then later to Blue Note (once Rubalcaba had moved to the United States).

If a film were to be made of Loueke’s career to date, the pivotal scene would be his audition in 2001 for admission into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. As Blanchard, the program’s artistic director, recalls, “We asked Lionel to play ‘Moment’s Notice.’ He started playing rhythmic patterns and vocalizing off the tune’s melody, and we all looked at each other. We were floored.” Hancock and Shorter were also members of the audition jury. “I turned to Wayne, just as he was turning to me,” Hancock says. “We didn’t even have to say it; we just knew: This guy is bad! We’re going to hear more from him.” Soon after, Hancock and Blanchard found themselves competing for Loueke’s touring time.

Rubalcaba’s Avatar in some ways reprises the many facets of his celebrated career to date: the muscular technical displays of his early albums, the inventive electronic haze of projects such as 1998’s Antiguo; the space and economy of recent work with Haden, and the dips into classical Cuban repertoire found on 2005’s Solo. Yet the pianist challenged himself by assembling a brand-new band of New York-based players and settling into the studio after only three weeks on the road. (The group sounds cohesive enough to have been together for three years, rather than weeks.) Meanwhile, Loueke’s Karibu leans mostly on the trio he formed a decade ago, while at Berklee College of Music. Gilfema includes Loueke, Hungarian-born drummer Ferenc Nemeth, and bassist Massimo Biolcati, who grew up in Sweden and Italy. Karibu features Hancock and Shorter on a few tracks. When they both play on “Light and Dark,” listeners can glimpse how much Loueke’s presence has infused the relationship between these two — one of jazz’s longest and strongest in recent years.

Rubalcaba’s new disc contains a direct link to the Blue Note legacy: a meditative version of “Peace,” first recorded by its composer, pianist Horace Silver, on 1959’s Blowin’ the Blues Away. Loueke’s CD bookends 40-plus years of Blue Note jazz: the last time Hancock and Shorter appeared as sidemen for the label was 1967, on Lee Morgan’s The Procrastinator.

Indeed, this legacy inspired both musicians early in life. Rubalcaba assimilated American jazz during the dawn of the Cuban embargo through scarce but treasured recordings. Among the many Blue Note issues were Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey. Loueke remembers gathering up Blue Note albums as soon as he hit school in the Ivory Coast. “When I was a kid, I was happy just to make a collection of Blue Note. But, a world away, I never imagined I’d be part of the collection one day.”

Larry Blumenfeld is editor-at-large for Jazziz, where this piece originally appeared.

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