Blue Note Records is a label for which the visuals carry almost as much artistic cachet as the music. Its covers tend to employ generous amounts of white space, splashes of color, prominent shading and themes evoking introspection and celebration — all of which frequently translates to the music inside. The high-concept designs, by Reid Miles, are anchored by the black-and-white photography of the label's co-owner, Francis Wolff.
A new book, Blue Note Photography (Jazzprezzo Books), collects some of those familiar images and many others in a large format that allows an intimate session with the label's tradition. But the book also moves that tradition forward by featuring photographs of a new generation of Blue Note artists, taken by New York jazz photographer Jimmy Katz. Since the early 1990s, Katz has been witness to the rebirth of the Blue Note musical tradition as a photographer for recording sessions by musicians who were influenced by the original roster.
Here, I've selected five photos from the book, with an emphasis on musicians who represent the best of the new Blue Note philosophy. And I've included jazz elders who were part of the original Blue Note generation; each is still creating vibrant music that employs generous amounts of white space, splashes of color, prominent shading and themes evoking introspection and celebration.
When Les Paul died this past August, we lost a technological innovator and a hell of a guitar player. This track with one-time disciple Pat Martino certainly feels like a first take: Their playing is imbued with energy and risk, a testament to Martino's under-appreciated talents and Paul's trademark melodic humor. The telling moment in Katz's photo of the two is Paul's glassy-eyed gaze toward Martino; he's obviously lost in the magic of collaboration and improvisation.
Dianne Reeves is one of the finest jazz vocalists of her generation. She expertly pulls off the daunting task of acknowledging a rich jazz vocal legacy while creating an unmistakable place for herself in that tradition. Katz's photo of her in the studio during 1996's Grand Encounter sessions evokes Francis Wolff's intimate shots of musicians in mid-thought.
Pianist and composer Andrew Hill was one of the new Blue Note artists who were also old Blue Note artists. Probing, thought-provoking and soulful, Hill's song "Malachi" is performed on solo piano. Katz's wonderful portrait of Hill captures those same qualities in his character.
Jason Moran has a wandering spirit. Ever on the lookout for new approaches to jazz, he uses his piano as a tie to tradition while still pushing musical and sonic boundaries. The shot of him walking away from the famed Village Vanguard in New York literally captures that wandering spirit in mid-stride.
"Impressionistic" is represented by a photo not of saxophonist Joe Lovano, but of drummer Elvin Jones. It was shot during a session for Lovano's 1998 trio date with Jones and bassist Dave Holland. In the photo, Jones is captured mid-beat, displaying the perfect technique that drum teachers drill into their students. ("Play with the wrists!") What strikes me most, though, is the regal reflection of age and wisdom on his face — the same kind of age and wisdom that propels this song.