Jazz is an art form that can be examined any number of ways — historically, racially, structurally, even philosophically — but choosing one of those runs the risk of ignoring the equally-important rest. Sophie Huber’s thoughtful but unfocused documentary “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” falls short primarily because it tries too much, examining history, modern-day impact and legacy all in one.
Nevertheless an engaging thumbnail overview of the record label’s heyday, its key players, and the descendants and disciples committed to carrying on its name and vision, “Beyond the Notes” succeeds better as an introduction to Blue Note and jazz in general than as an expert or in-depth examination of the musical genre or one of its most iconic distributors.
Part of the challenge is deciding where to start: With the musicians who pioneered the genre, or the earliest fans-turned visionaries who helped get them heard? Huber begins with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, childhood friends and German Jews who fled to New York in order to escape Nazi persecution. Inspired by a love of Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, they created the label with left-wing academic Max Margulis, recording their heroes at a financial loss just to celebrate their genius.
Their reputation for kindness — and importantly, fairness — to the artists on their label grew, and they soon amassed a roster that included jazz luminaries who would utilize the freedom they were given to expand the genre in vibrant, unexpected new directions. Working with engineer Rudy Van Gelder and designer Reid Miles, Blue Note quickly developed an adventurous sound and a unique look that stood out from competing labels such as Prestige, Impulse, Columbia and Verve.
But even as the work that Lion and Wolff facilitated transformed the form of the music itself, success proved to be their biggest challenge, forcing the duo to try and find a balance between their philosophy of non-interference in the creative process and the demands of a marketplace that unevenly wanted what their label produced. In the meantime, they gave a platform to the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Lou Donaldson, Sidney Bechet, Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Ark Blakey and hundreds of other groundbreaking artists.
The film opens with a roundup of interviews from a “Blue Note supergroup” formed just a few years ago from artists currently on Blue Note’s roster, such as Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akin-Musire and producer-turned-label head Don Was who, inspired by their forebears, hope to carry its mantle forward. Quite frankly, a movie could be made just about these artists without the history lesson that ensues; their talent is slightly less well-known but still equal to the artists that inspired them, and seeing how they interpreted the label’s institutionalized lessons of preparation, innovation, and collaboration feels like its own case study in exploring the creative process.
But the balance between past and present becomes unwieldy once Huber condenses most of Blue Note’s ’60s output onward to just a few short scenes, and lingers on a recording session featuring these young performers jamming with Hancock and Shorter on a piece that, to be fair, epitomizes the exploratory nature of the label but doesn’t vividly showcase the interplay between virtuosos that was emphasized earlier in the film.
As informative as “Beyond the Notes” can be, it repeatedly veers away from historical or artistic contexts to offer decidedly more visceral insights from contemporary musicians; it’s a valuable perspective, but the film avoids doubling down on any one point of view to provide more context as to why some particular element resonated, be it individually or culturally.
For example, Huber references Monk’s transgressive piano playing, mentioning how, by any commercial measure, it was not the kind of style on which a label would or even should build its foundational sound. But the payoff to this revelation is a genial “Lion and Wolff didn’t care about money” anecdote that insufficiently drills down into what made Monk’s talent so singular at that moment, and it mostly glosses over the immediate financial impact of that executive decision.
There absolutely is a fascinating documentary to be made about multiple generations of virtuoso musicians, and about how an older generation inspires and influences a younger one, which the filmmakers touch on several times, albeit largely anecdotally. But documenting the first 20 years of the record label’s history and then switching to modern-day studio sessions is not the best way to do that.
And by the time Norah Jones and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammed swoop in with a late-breaking chronicle of Blue Note’s commercial rebound thanks to hip-hop sampling and Jones’ Grammy-winning crossover debut, there’s little sense of anything meaningful happening at the label for several decades — an oversight with which many jazz fans would rightly take issue.
To date there have been three feature-length documentaries on Blue Note’s history, the first two German-produced, and this Swiss production. Ken Burns, meanwhile, produced his “Jazz” miniseries, which explored the birth of the genre in much more detail over many, many more hours. At just shy of 90 minutes, “Beyond the Notes” simply doesn’t have enough time to account for this one label’s full history, and certainly not when they’re juxtaposed with contemporary artists who are creating their own path and have intriguing but scattershot opinions about the music as a whole.
Blue Note’s single engineer, Van Gelder, and his collaborations with hundreds of geniuses in thousands of combinations, is worthy of a film of his own. The studio Blue Note built, a three-story Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building in New Jersey that was mistaken for a church, where literal hundreds of bona fide classics were recorded, deserves more attention. And certainly, the various shifts, stylistic developments and creative risks musicians took under the Blue Note umbrella should be more deeply explored.
But until someone else comes along and creates the great, encyclopedic story of Blue Note, its roster and its history, “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” will unfortunately have to suffice. It will probably get the job done for casual jazz fans — after all, it features clips of some of the most incredible, enchanting and inspiring recordings ever made. Those already familiar with the genre may be disappointed to discover that it mostly sticks with the notes they know and very seldom ventures beyond.