Thursday, July 8, 2010

Blue Note - 10” BLP’s/Connoisseur Series CD’s

« The hardest thing about having a jazz label is that you never have enough money to pay yourself and you don’t have the reserves to grow your business. You take every cent that comes in and put it into pressing-plant money or making new records. There’s no time to sit down and think, or put money aside for anything.”
Michael Cuscuna [Cook, Blue Note Records: The Biography, p. 186].

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For fans of recorded Jazz, a wonderful thing happened in the late 1990’s when Michael Cuscuna [God bless him!] – one of the founders and the current head of Mosaic Records – somehow managed to convince the powers-that-be at EMI/Capitol Records to issue a number of the early and largely obscure Blue Note 10” LP’s on compact disc.
Michael has had a life-long interest in Blue Note Records and its founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, and has been responsible for both producing music for the label in its current form, as well as, reissuing on CD many of the label’s most prestigious 12” LPs which largely includes those made from 1957 until July 1967 when its founder, Alfred Lion, stopped producing recording sessions [Alfred had sold Blue Note to Liberty Records in 1965].

Along with discographer Michael Ruppli, Michael is the author of a definitive listing of every Blue Note recording session in The Blue Note Label [London: Greenwood Press, Revised and Expanded Ed. 2001].
A narrative of the historical evolution of this now iconic label can be found in Richard Cook’s Blue Note Records: The Biography [London: Secker & Warburg, 2001] and on video [both VHS & DVD] in Julius Benedickt’s film: Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz.  
In addition to the distinctive sound of its recordings made possible by Rudy van Gelder’s skills as a recording engineer and the fact that the music was recorded direct-to-disc, it’s unique album cover art is the subject of a fine retrospective by Graham Marsh, Felix Cromey and Glyn Callingham who served as the editors of Blue Note: The Album Cover Art [San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991].
Referred to as the Modern Jazz 5000 Series,” Blue Note issued seventy [70] ten-inch LPs before it switched to 1500 series twelve-inch LP’s in 1956.

Of course, the label had been around since 1939 when it issued its first recordings as 78 rpm’s from a series boogie woogie piano dates featuring Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.

Cook has this to say about the reasons why the label began to look past the 10” format:

“[Alfred] Lion badly needed some kind of hit. Although accurate sales figures for records in this period are difficult to come by, it seems likely that an initial sale of a typical ten-inch set might do no better than one or two thousand copies. After that, catalogue sales might put two or three on that, slowly, or it might not, which would account for the extreme scarcity of the more obscure Blue Note ten-inch pressings to this day. Like any small business that tries to expand in a competitive field, Blue Note needed one successful thing which would cover overheads in a way that would keep their heads above water while they continued to build their catalog.” [p.72]

The point Cook makes about “… the extreme scarcity of the more obscure Blue Note ten-inch pressings…” is all the more reason to celebrate Michael Cuscuna’s liberation of some of these 10” BLP’s to CD because it doesn’t get any more obscure than albums made under the leadership of baritone saxophonist Gil Melle’ and French horn player, Julius Watkins.

The format for these Blue Note digital re-issues was the “Limited Edition Connoisseur 10” Series” which advertised “Two LP’s on One CD.”
When I asked Michael about the rationale behind his choices for the series, he offered this explanation:

“Essentially I picked the 10" LPs that did not carry over into the 12" LP realm and therefore not into the CD realm as of yet. Some like the Herbie Nichols material had already made via the Mosaic and Blue Note boxes and the Elmo Hopes via a CD I did adding the Pacific Jazz material to the 2 BN 10"ers.. And the Lou Mecca never made it even with this effort because I could not find suitable material to put with it. I think that's the only one that didn't get taken care of (The Swinging Swedes, Cool Britons and Vogue material were licensed and there were no longer rights to those.).”

Not all of the artists featured on the Limited Edition Connoisseur 10” Series were little known: tenor saxophonist Frank Foster went on to enjoy a highly celebrated career with Count Basie’s band; pianist George Wallington recorded under his own name for the Prestige label during most of the 1950’s; guitarist Tal Farlow and trumpeter Howard McGhee appear on numerous recordings.

While none of the music on these recordings is earth-shatteringly original, most of it is “easy-on-the-ears,” very well-played and excellently arranged; all of which were characteristically similar to a style of Jazz then contemporaneous on the West Coast.

In order to make it possible to sample some of the music on Limited Edition Connoisseur 10” Series, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has developed the following YouTube’s using as audio tracks music from the Frank Foster, George Wallington and Julius Watkins re-issues.

Although the Limited Edition Connoisseur 10” Series has been discontinued, used copies can still be found and some of these albums have been issued as individual Blue Note CDs.

Also in the late 1990’s, Michael spearheaded the limited release of a number of “West Coast Jazz Classics” and these will be the subject of a future JazzProfiles feature.

Michael Cuscuna is still producing Jazz records and you can visit him at