A lot of jazz labels have mattered, but none has mattered the way Blue Note did — and, thanks to a proudly hip-hop-inflected present, still does. It’s the gold standard of recorded improvisational music. Sophie Huber’s briskly reverential documentary, “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” lets us see and hear why. It runs at the Brattle Sept. 4-12.
Started in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two Jewish refugees from Germany — gee, imagine that, refugees enriching the culture of their new home — Blue Note began recording boogie-woogie and traditional jazz. There are few recordings in any genre more beautiful than Sidney Bechet’s version of “Summertime.” Soon enough, the label was making the world safe for bebop, recording Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
During the mid-’50s and much of the ’60s, Blue Note was the Valhalla of hard bop and beyond. Such LPs as John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’ ” (both 1958) and Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station” (1960) and Herbie Hancock’s “Empyrean Isles” and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “Free for All” (both 1964) and Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” and Joe Henderson’s “Mode for Joe” (both 1966) and . . . oh, you get the idea . . . still sound as fresh and vital and urgent as they did more than half a century ago.
Blue Note mission control was the late Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. “A lot of people thought when I first came to town, ‘Oh, look at that, it’s going to be a church,’ ” he recalls of the three-story structure when it was being built. Those people weren’t wrong.
Lion and Wolff sold the label in 1969, and the ’70s were as tough for Blue Note as they were for jazz generally. Under new management, the label reemerged in the ’80s and ’90s. That unmistakable Blue Note sound — crisp and immediate, forceful yet restrained — was no more. But such new artists as Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones brought a new range to the label — and in Jones’s case, unprecedented sales.
Huber does a solid job of balancing past and present. The most charming talking head is altoist Lou Donaldson (who made his Blue Note debut in 1952!). A close second is the current honcho, Don Was. If the man were any more hip, he’d be banned in Utah. Was helped put together the Blue Note All-Stars, a band that features such contemporary players as the pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and drummer Kendrick Scott. They do the talking-head thing, too, as do Shorter and Hancock. Watching them play Shorter’s “Masquelero” with the All-Stars is a treat.
Besides film of the studio session, new interviews, and period footage (much of it marvelous), Huber has a secret cinematic weapon. Blue Note was a look as well as a sound, thanks to art director Reid Miles’s superb album covers and Wolff’s photographs. The documentary includes lots, and lots, of both. “The Beatles looked cool,” Was says. “Jimi Hendrix looked cool. These guys looked cooler.” So much of that coolness had to do with the loving expressivity of Wolff’s photographs. He had an eye to match his musicians’ ears. Everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. Wolff’s are worth just as many notes.
BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND THE NOTES
Written and directed by Sophie Huber. At Brattle. 86 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: occasional musicianly conversational swearing, including the Oedipal obscenity).