Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, directed by Sophie Huber, showcases the history of Blue Note Records, home of many groundbreaking jazz musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Filled with clips and photos of the artists at work and underscored by their electrifying music, this film is a worthy tribute to the iconic label.
Review by FF2 Intern Julia Lasker
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes opens with a lively jam sesh between seasoned jazz musicians. Dan Was, Blue Note’s president, explains from the control booth that the musicians have gathered to create a commemorative set for the record label’s 75th anniversary. The enlivening music and feel of a long history set the tone for the rest of this melodic documentary.
Mainly serving its purpose as a historic documentary of the iconic Blue Note Records, the film begins with the story of the label’s founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. The two were German immigrants who came to the US, notably with no professional knowledge of music—jazz or otherwise. Upon hearing the genre, they were instantly in love with its sound and joined forces to create Blue Note Records. Because Lion and Wolff knew nothing of music themselves, they gave their jazz players full agency over what they played and how, allowing their music to be innovative and unique without forcing it to fit into money-making molds.
This hands-off style allowed some of jazz’s most iconic musicians to blossom: artists like Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes showcases the wonderful results of Lion and Wolff’s patronage both visually and auditorily: the film is set to a beautiful and electrifying backdrop of jazz and is filled with incredible photos of the artists taken by Wolff during recording sessions. Director Sophie Huber spotlights each iconic jazz player—Ambrose Akinmusire, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Norah Jones, and so many more—detailing their journey with Blue Note Records and their incredible contributions to the jazz world.
Later, the film seamlessly moves to the future of jazz, which finds its home in hip hop. As rapper and record producer Terrace Martin explains, hip hop found its origins in the Bronx, where black teens lacked access to musical instruments and instead used the beats from records, many of them jazz tracks, as backdrops for rapping.
One of my favorite moments from the film is footage of a recording session with Blue Note All-Stars, a group formed to commemorate the anniversary of the record label: Ambrose Akinmusire, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Lionel Loueke, Kendrick Scott, Marcus Strickland, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. They’re recording “Masqualero,” a piece originally composed by Shorter in 1967. One at a time, each artist takes the spotlight, showcasing individual genius while blending effortlessly with the rest of the piece. In a way, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is just like “Masqualero,” taking turns at every moment to keep the listener on their toes and bringing together a plethora of amazing talent to create an incredibly enjoyable product. Just like Blue Note founders Lion and Wolff, the film lets talent speak for itself, recording it lovingly and creating something for everyone to enjoy.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes isn’t just for jazz aficionados, either. By connecting the genre with issues of race and placing it in the context of modern hip hop, the film makes jazz feel relevant and accessible, which, though I love jazz, I can acknowledge isn’t always the case. In fact, this alluring and exhilarating film may be able to foster a new passion for the genre among audiences of all ages.
Beautifully composed and full of rich history and bright talent, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an absolute must-see.
Q: Does Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
A: No. There is actually only one woman in the whole film – Norah Jones – though this may be more reflective of how gendered jazz music has been historically than of the sexism of the film itself.
Photos: Credit to IMDB.
© Julia Lasker (06/20/19) FF2 Media