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Love, respect, humor underpin storytelling in 'Blue Note Records' documentary

In the Blue Note recording studio, L to R:  Herbie Hancock, Marcus Strickland, Wayne Shorter, Ambrose Akinmusire
Mira Films
In the Blue Note recording studio, L to R: Herbie Hancock, Marcus Strickland, Wayne Shorter, Ambrose Akinmusire

Jewish immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff fled Germany in the 1930s, escaping Nazi persecution.  The childhood friends shared a love of jazz, and together they slowly built an American recording company that became known for its integrity, fairness and nurturing of artists. 

This audio and video feast celebrates the 80-year history of the iconic label that laid claim to presenting “The Finest in Jazz,” Blue Note Records.

In an industry rife with what saxophonist Lou Donaldson politely calls “rascals,” Lion and Wolff inspired trust.  They rarely talked about the horrors they witnessed in Hitler’s Germany, but the musicians they recorded knew that Alfred and Francis understood oppression.

Along with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder and album design artist Reid Miles, they brought forth a brand that is still immediately recognizable. The signature warmth and vitality of the label's audio quality came to be called the "Blue Note sound," as did the specific styles of jazz — such as hard bop — developed by musicians who were encouraged to fully express themselves.

The storytellers in the film “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” speak with love, respect and humor. Donaldson, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter recall their Blue Note beginnings, while present-day artists such as Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin explain the connection between Blue Note jazz and the beginnings of hip-hop. Both generations relate their music to their struggles for personal, racial and creative freedom.

Although Blue Note started or enhanced careers for Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Rachelle Ferrell and a handful of other women, the only woman’s voice in the movie is Norah Jones, the label’s surprise superstar in 2002. Kandace Springs is the latest Blue Note discovery, and it seems odd that she’s not represented in the film.

Still, the well-crafted mix of concert footage, archival radio interviews, outtakes, studio chatter, Wolff’s compelling black and white photos, and the musicians stories make this movie an important document of American music. It's enjoyable from beginning to end.

“My goal was to…let the film be a platform for this incredibly powerful music and the much needed voices that promote unity, humanity and inspire hope,” director Sophie Huber said in a news release from Mira Films.  

See “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” presented by the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on March 24 at 6:50 p.m. at AMC Pacific Place 11. KNKX Evening Jazz and New Cool host Abe Beeson and the Garfield High School Jazz Combo will kick off the evening with music and fun! 

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