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My Ten Favorite Blue Notes

Blue Note Records is a jazz record label, established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. Francis Wolff became involved shortly afterwards. It derives its name from the characteristic “blue notes” of jazz and the blues. Historically, Blue Note has principally been associated with the “hard bop” style of jazz (mixing bebop with other forms of music including soul, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel). Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, and Grant Green were among the label’s leading artists, but almost all the important musicians have recorded for Blue Note on occasion, then and now.

Ten personal favorites and recommendations (in no particular order and still available, I checked):

The Sermon! – Jimmy Smith and a gang of Blue Note stablemates from the day, like guitarist Kenny Burrell and many others, with Smith’s Hammond organ percolating under them at all times.

Wahoo! – Duke Pearson. Fabulous composer and arranger and a fine date. Joe Henderson, Donald Byrd, and James Spaulding on alto and flute make up the front line. Available at Amazon on CD or Blue Note remastered vinyl.

Soul Station – Hank Mobley. Mellow and very satisfying. One of the largest selling Blue Notes ever.

Live at The Lighthouse ’66 – The Jazz Crusaders. Compiled from some smoking sets at the old Hermosa Beach nitespot. You are in the club and the atmosphere is lively!  Live Sides is better, tho harder to find and unreleased on CD. With Leroy Vinnegar on bass and bringing it.

Matador – Grant Green. Great bandmates for this date, in my opinion. For me, the title track and My Favorite Things taken in three-quarter time (à la Coltrane) make this Green’s best date. With McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.

Free For All – Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Tenor sax player Joe Lovano, in a Downbeat poll, picked this album as the best Blue Note ever. Smokin’ hot work from Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. Cedar Walton, too, definitely. More spontaneous combustion than the same personnel on the earlier released Mosaic. Best you have a fire extinguisher on hand for this one.

Point of Departure – Andrew Hill. With Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Tony Williams. The first track, Refuge, is compositionally-perfect Hill, and the band really make it happen. With Davis and Williams composing the rhythm section, no wonder. I must add that this isn’t just a great composition or great playing; it is in the ascendant of jazz works known to me. Not the least of which is Hill’s own playing. Best appreciated on vinyl if you’re able. The RVG compact disc release seems kind of flat by comparison. Sharp and detailed, just kind of flat.

Doin’ the Thing – Horace Silver Quintet. Live at The Village Gate with long-time bandmates Junior Cook and Blue Mitchell blowing the blues away. Tokyo Blues is a fine date, too, also with Cook and Mitchell.

Tom Cat – Lee Morgan. Thank you Michael Cuscuna for rescuing this from the Blue Note vaults. Jackie McLean and McCoy Tyner’s playing on the date make this the one for my list.

Somethin’ Else – Julian Cannonball Adderley with Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Sam Jones, and Art Blakey.  A classic.

Honorable mention: Portrait of Sheila – Sheila Jordan. Her first album released under her own name. George Russell used to feature her live and in the studio. She went on to make several duo albums with bassist Harvie Swartz that are better still on the PAJ label.

Where is Blue Train, do I hear someone murmuring? Well, your favorites may vary and my editor and I would like to know what they are and why, lest you be a turkey, and for the benefit of our other readers.

Thank you.

Readers' comments

    Hi Jim – a great article, as usual! It just occurred to me a few minutes ago that I might be able to preview some of these online. I know it’s not going to be the same as what you have with the original source material but as a way to get yourself introduced… tell me what you think about this idea. I’m listening to Jimmy Smith right now, on Grooveshark – http://grooveshark.com/#/album/The+Sermon+/1825119

  • John- Oh, heck yeah. Nice work! The band, too.

  • No “Out To Lunch” ? This alone renders your list as moot.

  • Sorry, haven’t heard that particular Dolphy album. But, I’m aware of it now because of your rancour over at Gearslutz.com. This is you, right? If the article was about the Prestige label instead of Blue Note, I would have included his two live dates with Booker Little at The Five Spot. Those, I have heard many times over along with his Last Date album recorded in Holland just before his death.

  • I am a huge jazz fan and have heard most of the Blue Note catalog. I have spent in inordinate amount of time obsessing over Blue Note LPs – amazing label! I get together with a couple of fellow jazz freaks and occasionally this topic – a Top 10 list for Blue Note albums – comes up. It always results in some healthly debate. I noticed you actually slipped two more LPs in your list to make it an even dozen. Making a top 25 list would be difficult. Nice to know others out there appreciate this music like I do.

    For what its worth – here is my Top 10 Blue Note album list (for now!) –

    1) “No Room for Squares” – Hank Mobley – presence of Lee Morgan is always sweet but the inclusion of Andrew Hill makes this more special!
    2) “Inventions and Dimensions” – Herbie Hancock – simultaneously sparse and yet rich, an unusual LP that gets me everytime
    3) “Complete Communion” – Don Cherry – tremendous quartet session with every player a giant!
    4) “Evolution” – Grachan Moncur III – desert island disc all the way, Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean here for good measure to assist one of my favorite trombonists and a top-notch composer too!
    5) “One Flight Up” – Dexter Gordon – perhaps one of my more emotional pics, as most would pick other Gordon efforts, but the first few notes of the opening track “Tanya” (18 mins long!) just grabs me!
    6) “Cape Verdean Blues” – Horace Silver – a remarkable musical achievement, easily one of my favorite jazz LPs period – Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, and J. J. Johnson make this a true gem!
    7) “Adam’s Apple” – Wayne Shorter – remarkable quartet date – so Shorter’s horn gets full focus, as well as his well-honed composing skills – classic!
    8) “Street of Dreams” – Grant Green – your pick of “Matador” is hard to argue with – it is amazing! – I chose this LP mostly because of the interplay of Green with vibist Hutcherson – which is breathtaking, and then you add John Patton’s organ underneath and all around and you really have something!
    9) “Unity” – Larry Young – wow, wow, wow! – this smokes – it is stupid-good, with an unusual quartet of Young, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, and Elvin Jones!
    10) “Expansions” – McCoy Tyner – amazing LP which I challenge anyone to play softly! – with a frontline of Gary Bartz, Woody Shaw, and Wayne Shorter – a definitive inside/outside date from Tyner – this LP brings it!!

    Let the debate begin!!

    • I have a lotta admiration for Hard Bop’s favorites. You are a knowledgable jazz lover, I do believe, and I will listen to several of your picks. Some I am aware of already, Others I am fixin to be. Thanks.

    Bopdaddy, nice! Emotional picks are encouraged, sure thing.

  • I have to agree with Jason, a good list, but if you dont own a copy of Out to Lunch I suggest you “do your self a favour” and run to the nearest record shop

  • Hi, Caddis, and welcome. I may just do that.

  • This list is transposed from Audio Circle and from much smaller labels than Blue Note but is too alluring to me not to mention:

    ” Yo Miles! has gone beyond the fundamental with songs that breathe the spirit of Davis to create an atmosphere that resonates with a fire and an essence of their very own. Kaiser and Smith’s knowing explorations through Miles’ complex electro-funk realm revisits the dread while expanding the beauty.”-All About Jazz.

    Yo Miles! comprises 160 minutes of music, presented in 2 CD-long suites developed from original Miles Davis themes and compositions plus an orignal composed by Wadada, and encoded in sonically superior HDCD format. It is the first recording to explicitly explore the alchemical implications of what Miles himself was doing in the peak electric period, 1973-’75.

    To journey with them on their own expeditions, Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser created a core band with guitarists Nels Cline (of Geraldine Fibbers) and Chris Muir, drummer / percussionists Wally Ingram and Lukas Ligeti (son of the famous composer Gyorgi Ligeti), and bass guitarist Michael Manring.
    Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo SMith. Yo Miles!

    Sabir Mateen is one of those highly active free jazz musicians who play in many bands (TEST, William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, The Other Other Quartet, Earth People to name but a few). By comparison, he has released relatively little as a leader, and that’s a pity. Apart from Mateen on tenor, alto, flute, clarinet and alto clarinet, the band further consists of Raymond A.King on piano, Jane Wang on bass and cello and Ravish Momin on drums, talking drums and percussion. Mateen has always been a free jazz man in heart and soul, enjoying the rhythms, enjoying the freedom, enjoying the expressiveness, enjoying the interplay, and going at it to the full. Mateen is great on this album, and so is the band, and they are at their best in the high energy full steam moments, when the four musicians push each other forward relentlessly… http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/2008/07/sabir-mateen-other-places-other-spaces.html
    Sabir Mateen Quartet. other places other spaces

    Nicole Mitchell/Harrison Bankhead/Hamid Drake, Indigo Trio, Live in Montreal. Recorded during a 2005 tour of Canada, this trio of stalwart, AACM inspired artists truly lays out a gem with this recording. These are three of Chicago’s finest improvisers doing what they do best in front of an enthusiastic , festival audience. To say the least, Greenleaf Music is proud to have this recording in the catalog . Here’s what Nicole Mitchell has to say about Indigo Trio, Live in Montreal: ” This concert in Montreal was our first performance as a trio, although we’ve played together for many years. The music was recorded live at the Suoni per IL Popolo Festival on June 13, 2005. Hamid and Harrison have played together since they were fourteen, Harrison and I have worked together in Frequency with Ed Wilkerson since 2000, and Hamid has played and recorded over the years with my Black Earth Ensemble . Indigo Trio features the adventurous music of our friendship: connected, intuitive and playful. http://www.greenleafmusic.com/liveinmontreal Indigo Trio Live in Montreal.”


  • Hold your horses, guys. You all left out the most brilliant collection of jazz compositions ever penned – Speak No Evil. Wayne Shorter is genius.

  • I’ll be checking THAT one out, Miniguy. I’ve heard the title track performed by another band and it’s right down my alley. Thanks. Btw, Caddis, I have Out To Lunch on order.

  • 1. Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue
    2. Grant Green – Idle Moments
    3. John Coltrane- Blue Train
    4. Horace Silver – Song for my Father
    5. Sonny Clarke – Cool Struttin
    6. Bobby Hutcherson – Happenings
    7. Tina Brooks – True Blue
    8. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin Else
    9. Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder
    10 Grant Green – Green Street.
    Too many more to list. Most of these suit my current mood ( laid back and mellow). So thats tonights list. But Blue Note also has any number of brilliant , innovative cutting edge albums that really challenge and reward long term listening. That would be list no 2. For another time.

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