Blue Note Records is 75 years old. To see how far it’s come, you don’t have to just look at the unparalleled catalog of timeless music it’s produced during that time— classics from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to Norah Jones and Al Green. If you were lucky enough to be at the Town Hall in New York City on a Wednesday in January, all you had to do was observe the attire of pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran. Both had donned black tuxedos and shell top Adidas.
Such a striking fashion statement speaks to the nature of Moran’s and Glasper’s artistry, not to mention the very ideal that has kept Blue Note relevant all this time— the embrace of past traditions, an emphasis on present styles, and a thoughtful combination of both in an eye-catching and long-lasting presentation. This one-night-only performance not only jump started what is to be a year’s worth of celebratory events to mark the label’s landmark anniversary, but also the hotly anticipated and extended 2014 Winter Jazzfest.
The two-hour show began with Glasper and Moran playing on matching Steinway grand pianos, a hat tip to Blue Note’s very first studio session with Albert Ammons and Lux Lewis back in 1939. To that effect, their first song was a medley from that session, “Easy Rider Blues/Boogie-Woogie Stomp.” Indeed, blues and boogie-woogie were just what they’d been serving up, with Glasper riding the rhythm and Moran attacking the keys with maddening solo skills. All together, the two played five extended pieces, including a touching tribute to their moms that found them taking turns running down slow gospel licks on a Fender Rhodes.
The highlight of this portion was a spirited duel between the two composers. It started off as an improvisational back-and-forth and then turned into a can-you-top-this of popular music, becoming less like a piano duel and more of a DJ battle.
First, Glasper kicked into a lovely rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” leading Moran to offer up “Be Real Black For Me” from Charlie Mann (the sample on Scarface’s “My Block,” for the hip-hop junkies.) Glasper responded with De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” (Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahilliland” for the jazz heads), and then Moran followed with Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.”
The second act of the night was a special set in which Glasper and Moran were joined by an all-star band composed of drummer Eric Harland, bassist Alan Hampton, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (fellow Blue Note artist), and vocalist Bilal Oliver. This sextet was a musical typhoon, anchored by Harland’s restrained but virtuoso rhythm extractions.
The crowd sat in awe throughout their set, marveling at their renditions of “Body and Soul,” Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross,” and Ornette Coleman’s “Toy Dance.” That awe transformed into frenzy when Hampton turned a ferocious solo into the bass line of Glasper’s “All Matter.” Bilal’s vocals on his and Glasper’s Grammy-nominated gem were a far cry from the original, but when dealing with Bilal, that’s to be expected— perhaps the best compliment you could give a singer such as him. His treatment of the microphone was so carefree and insular and Harland crushed the beat while Glasper threw in some “Cantaloupe Island” for good measure.
If this is the kind of star-studded magic we can expect to hear from Blue Note’s 75th anniversary over the coming months, well then, 2014 will be one unforgettable year.