Uncompromising Expression - Blue Note
By Richard Havers
(Thames & Hudson large format paperback)
Books this beautiful cannot simply be read. They must be cherished, too, as artistic statements that should both be filed alongside the records they document, and stand alongside then, too.
In short, it’s a pictorial history not only of the Blue Note label (itself a gold standard to which every label, whatever its genre, should aspire), but of jazz itself, for so much of the music’s history was directly related to developments at Blue Note.
The fact that, in many ways, the text is overwhelmed by the quality, and sometimes rarity, of the photographs is a consequence of that. Even Blue Note’s art department rose a step above any other, and with so many album sleeves illustrated, alongside shots of the artists and studio personnel (and more), what are words but the squiggly black that fills the empty spaces between the pics?
Delve into said squiggles, however, and author Havers has written a book that deserves those pictures; deserves them and compliments them as he takes you inside the rooms where the musicians are seen, overhears their conversations, maybe even reads their minds - until he’s not simply telling us how those records were made and those sleeves were designed, he lets us into the secrets of why. Thus, while he might not be the first author to take us down such a path, he’s definitely the first to share so much pictorial evidence.
It’s a vast book, a weighty book - 400 pages, with the story lasting all the way to the end - tiny print ensures a voluminous index takes up just three pages at the back. Full color throughout, at least inasmuch as there are color illustrations to be had; much of this era was documented in black-and-white, and maybe it’s just because we’re used to that by now, but it could not have been any other way. The photo session that accompanied Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland is reproduced, and we simply don’t need to know what color was the sign outside the door. It’s Birdland. That’s all that matters.
Contact sheets and session out-takes abound; we see the poses rejected for Jimmy Smith’s Midnight Special, and the “sexy ankle” out-takes from Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin. Pages from session notebooks, yellowed leaves and scratchy biro, studio scenes and a full labelography; and both text and art bring the story up to date.
If you love Blue Note, this book is probably the most important purchase you’ll make this year. If you don’t - pick it up anyway. You need to see (and read) this story.
Review by Dave Thompson