Saturday, September 21, 2019

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

Biopic / Music
Theme: Feel the Beat
Country: United Kingdom, Switzerland, USA
Director: Sophie Huber
Screenplay: Sophie Huber
Production: Sophie Huber, Susanne Guggenberger, Chiemi Karasawa, Hercli Bundi / Mira Film GmbH
Duration: 85 min
Rating: 7
    Orig. title:
    Language: English
    Subtitles: N/A
    Distribution: Eagle Rock Entertainment
    Print source: Eagle Rock Entertainment
    Cinematography: Patrick Lindenmaier, Shane Sigler
    Editing: Russell Greene
Embassy of the United States of America
Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF) Love & Anarchy.
Viewed at Kinopalatsi 5, Helsinki, 21 Sep 2019.

Production notes (quoted by HIFF): "One of the most important record labels in the history of jazz – and, by extension, that of American music – Blue Note Records has been home to groundbreaking artists such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Art Blakey, as well as present- day luminaries like Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and Norah Jones."

"Founded in New York in 1939 by German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the history of Blue Note Records goes beyond the landmark recordings, encompassing the pursuit of musical freedom, the conflict between art and commerce and the idea of music as a transformative and revolutionary force."

"Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is a revelatory journey behind the scenes of the iconic label. Through rare archival footage, conversations with the artists and current recording sessions, where legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter come together with next-generation musicians, the film reveals a powerful mission, offers an intimate window into the creative process and illuminates the vital connections between jazz and hip hop."

"Tracing decades of history, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes celebrates the core values that jazz embodies – freedom of expression, equality and dialogue – values that are just as relevant today as they were when the label was founded in 1939." Production notes (quoted by HIFF)

AA: A wonderful survey into the 80 year trajectory of one of the most important record labels of 20th century music.

Among the first tracks heard is Sidney Bechet's searing interpretation of "Summertime". The despair seems to convey something beyond individual experience. Undoubtedly it is about existential agony, but we are also reminded of the state of the world in 1939 when Blue Note Records was founded.

The founders Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff were refugees from Nazi Europe. The urgent danger of racism, nazism and violence was a link between the producers and their black artists. That gave a special edge to the "blue note" heard at once in the delta blues style guitar introduction of "Summertime". The blue note is like a question mark to the official success narrative.

Sophie Huber's rewarding documentary focuses on the evolution of the Blue Note Records sound in the 1950s and the 1960s. We learn about Thelonious Monk, we visit "the Art Blakey university", with him as a model bandleader, urging everybody to freedom of expression while keeping the band playing as an ensemble. Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder is among the records on which the movie focuses.

Sophie Huber had access to Frank Wolff's photo collection, and we visit its present site.

The film boasts also generous helpings of Reid Miles's album cover art. These two sources (photos by Wolff, art by Miles) give Huber's film a visual unity. In the cd reissue age we see these covers mostly in diminished formats. Here we see them blown up to full cinema screen size.

The artists seen include Ambrose Akinmusire, Art Blakey (archive footage), John Coltrane (archive footage), Michael Cuscuna, Miles Davis (archive footage), Lou Donaldson, Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Derrick Hodge, Norah Jones, Lionel Loueke, Terrace Martin, Thelonious Monk (archive footage), Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Kendrick Scott, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Strickland, and Don Was. Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff appear on audio. The legendary audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder was interviewed before his death three years ago.

The earliest film footage is of Meade Lux Lewis playing one of his great boogie woogie tracks. Also Albert Ammons belonged to the first artists of the label. While the focus is on the avantgarde, we hear also samples of the pop hits of Blue Note Records, such as "Cantaloupe Island" by Herbie Hancock.

The Sidewinder and Horace Silver's Song for My Father were hits so big that they disturbed the balance of the label. Retailers pressured the company to produce more hit records so hard that it lost its independence. Lion retired in 1967 and Wolff died in 1971.

A new kind of creativity emerged in hip hop with Blue Note samplings. And a brilliant contemporary singer joined Blue Note: Norah Jones. A basic philosophy persists: openness to creativity and vulnerability, simultaneous attention to freedom and collaboration, and a fundamental (though usually not explicit) political mission: "Never do I hear 'defeated'."

Simultaneously, Eric Friedler has completed his own 80th anniversary film It Must Schwing - The Blue Note Story (Germany 2018, produced by Wim Wenders) which I have not seen.

In Huber's film, the music tracks are understandably usually heard in samples. It's a good idea to refer to the soundtrack album afterwards, available on the usual web services.

”Me artistit tavoittelimme yhtä päämäärää. Sitä, että annamme musiikin syntyä ilman minkäänlaista kahlitsemista. Ja Blue Note -levy-yhtiössä tuettiin tätä.”

Yhdysvaltalainen jazzpianisti Herbie Hancock tiivistää jotain hyvin olennaista legendaarisen jazzlevymerkin hengestä Sophie Huberin ohjaamassa dokumentissa.
Vuonna 1939 perustettu jazziin ja sen lukuisiin alagenreihin erikoistunut levy-yhtiö Blue Note syntyi vapauden etsimisestä. Saksan juutalaiset Alfred Lion ja Francis ”Frank” Wolff pakenivat natsihallintoa New Yorkiin. He halusivat julkaista omaa mielimusiikkiaan, joka elää ja hengittää vapautta, uudistumista, kaikkien rajojen − ja kahleiden − rikkomista.

Lion antoi artisteilleen tilaa luoda rohkeasti uutta, samalla luottaen ääniteknikko Rudy Van Gelderin ammattitaitoon. Yhtiökumppani Wolff tallensi historiallisia levytyssessioita mustavalkokuviinsa, joita graafinen suunnittelija Reid Miles hyödynsi kansitaiteessaan luoden Blue Notelle tunnistettavan visuaalisen tyylikkyyden.

Haastattelut ja kattava arkistomateriaali kutsuvat katsojan tutustumaan yhdysvaltalaisen jazzin historiaan ja nykypäivään, klassikkolevyihin ja tuleviin lupauksiin. Blue Note tullaan muistamaan levy-yhtiönä, jossa musiikki vapautettiin nuottiviivastojen ulkopuolelle.

Katariina Kantola

Huom! 27.9. klo 17:45 näytöksen jälkeen Savoy-teatterissa kuullaan herkkupaloja Blue Noten kultakaudelta Aleksi Heinola Quintetin tulkitsemina. Elokuvan ja keikan sisältävänä kombolippu 25 €. Keikkalippu 20 €.


BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND THE NOTES explores the unique vision behind the iconic jazz record label. Through rare archival footage, current recording sessions and conversations with Blue Note artists, the film reveals a powerful mission and illuminates the vital connections between jazz and hip hop.

One of the most important record labels in the history of jazz — and, by extension, that of American music — Blue Note Records has been home to such groundbreaking artists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell and Art Blakey, as well as present-day luminaries like Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and Norah Jones. Founded in New York in 1939 by German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the history of Blue Note Records goes beyond the landmark recordings, encompassing the pursuit of musical freedom, the conflict between art and commerce and the idea of music as a transformative and revolutionary force. Through rare archival footage, current recording sessions and conversations with jazz icons Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and today’s groundbreaking Blue Note musicians, BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND THE NOTES reveals a powerful mission and illuminates the vital connections between jazz and hip hop.

Technical Details
Aspect Ratio
Original Language
German, French, Italian
Switzerland, USA


With (In Alphabetical Order)     

Ambrose Akinmusire

Michael Cuscuna

Lou Donaldson

Robert Glasper

Herbie Hancock

Derrick Hodge

Norah Jones

Keith Lewis

Lionel Loueke

Terrace Martin

Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Kendrick Scott

Wayne Shorter

Marcus Strickland

Rudy Van Gelder

Don Was


Sophie Huber

Director Of Photography             

Shane Sigler

Patrick Lindenmaier


Russell Greene


Hercli Bundi

Chiemi Karasawa

Susanne Guggenberger

Sophie Huber

Executive Producers                                 

Geoffrey Kempin

Terry Shand

Anke Beining-Wellhausen

Associate Producer                       

Vadim Jendreyko


Mira Film

In Association with

Eagle Rock Entertainment

Isotope Films

Final Cut USA

BBC Music

In Coproduction with

Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen

Radio Télévision Suisse, SRG SSR


With Financial Support From     

Zürcher Filmstiftung

Media Desk Suisse

UBS Culture Foundation

Verein zur Filmförderung in der Schweiz – IWC Filmmaker Award

Stiftung Kulturfonds Suissimage

Succès Passage Antenne

Ernst Göhner Stiftung and Stage Pool Focal

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
A Story about People who followed their Passion

Director's Note

The story of Blue Note spans over eight decades and includes about a thousand records. Behind each record is a human being, an expression of our time.

Through the film I would like to transmit the depth of the music – of human expression – and how affecting and necessary it is.

In an era where racism and xenophobia are dangerously present, it is particularly important to tell the story about this consequential collaboration between African American artists and the German Jewish immigrants who recorded them. The legacy they built together continues to inspire across generations and genres, including hip hop.

As one of the young musicians says about the iconic artists of the past: “Never at a point do I hear the music and hear them being defeated. Regardless of what they were fighting with, they’re going down in history creating something that influenced my life in a way where I felt freedom. Where it brought me joy, where it made me wanna write music that gave people hope”.

What moves me particularly about the Blue Note story is that throughout the testing time of its existence, a core of humanity and integrity has always remained: This is a story about people who followed their passion and - against all odds - built a lasting platform for a music they loved, a music that was cathartic for them, that represented freedom, both to the German Jewish founders and to the African American musicians. The founders’ vision is still palpable today, with Don Was as Blue Note’s president and a new generation of very talented young musicians that continues to move the music forward, leaving their own imprints.

As Herbie Hancock says, jazz reflects American history and human values such as democracy, tolerance, the search for the new and the risks that go with it. It is moving to me how this philosophy has been passed to the young musicians as well and how they aspire to make a difference that goes beyond music.

My goal was to extend this quest onto the screen and let the film be a platform for this incredibly powerful music and these much needed voices that promote unity and humanity and inspire hope.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
The legacy of Blue Note Records

Blue Note

It took the joining of many natural forces to create and define one of the greatest Jazz labels there has ever been: Jazz-loving German immigrants on the run from Nazism (Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff), a New Jersey optometrist moonlighting as a recording engineer (Rudy Van Gelder), a classical music-loving commercial designer (Reid Miles), and slews of the most incredible musicians that have ever walked the earth. The elements that each brought to the table—impeccable A&R instincts, elegant and insightful photography, sterling sound quality, strikingly original cover artwork, and consistently transcendent music—were all essential to the label's early success. Together they created a vivid Blue Note aesthetic. The whole could not have existed without each of the parts.

Blue Note’s legendary catalog traces the entire history of the music from Hot Jazz, Boogie Woogie, and Swing, through Bebop, Hard Bop, Post Bop, Soul Jazz, Avant-Garde, and Fusion. Blue Note’s legendary catalog includes a true Who’s Who of Jazz History: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, and many more.

After a brief dormancy from 1981-1984 during which producer/historian Michael Cuscuna kept the label’s legacy alive with a series of reissues on EMI, Blue Note returned reinvigorated by the leadership of Bruce Lundvall and has since established itself as the most respected and longest running Jazz label in the world, remaining home to some of the most prominent stars and cutting-edge innovators in Jazz while at the same time broadening its horizons to include quality music in many genres. Under Lundvall’s leadership, Blue Note remained a haven for the most creative voices in Jazz, and also had its share of commercial successes from Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Us3, Norah Jones, Al Green, Amos Lee, Medeski Martin & Wood, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis.

In 2011, veteran record producer and musician Don Was joined Blue Note as Chief Creative Officer and soon became President of the label with Lundvall continuing to provide guidance as Chairman Emeritus. With Was at the helm, Blue Note has renewed its dedication to Lion’s original vision that “any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression.” In the 21st century Lion’s words still ring true and provide a blueprint that includes Robert Glasper’s visionary melding of Jazz, R&B, and Hip-Hop; eclectic singers from Norah Jones to Gregory Porter to Kandace Springs; and the full spectrum of jazz artists including legends like Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd and rising stars such as Ambrose Akinmusire and James Francies. Blue Note Records is one of the flagship labels of the Capitol Music Group.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
I wanted the musicians to tell the story

Interview Director

Christine Loriol: Sophie Huber, how does a Swiss woman from Bern get to make a film about the renowned American Blue Note- Jazz Label?

Sophie Huber: Don Was, the current president of Blue Note Records, liked my documentary about the actor Harry Dean Stanton ("Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction"), in which music plays an essential role. We met to discuss whether Blue Note would release the Harry Dean soundtrack. The record eventually appeared on a different label. But this contact led to the film about Blue Note.   

CL: What attracted you to the Blue Note project?

SH: I’ve known about the label since childhood. We had some of the classic Blue Note records at home. Apart from the music, I am moved by the humanity that runs through the entire history of Blue Note. The collaboration between the German Jewish founders, who fled to New York in the 1930s and the African American musicians and how together, they found an expression of freedom in jazz. Especially today, when xenophobia and racism are omnipresent, it is important to tell this story and expose this extraordinary music and its lasting influence to a younger generation.  

CL: A key feature of the film is the recording session with jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and the young Blue Note artists. How did this come about?  

SH: For the 75th anniversary, Blue Note planned a recording session at legendary Capitol Studios in Los Angeles with the current “Blue Note All-Stars" Ambrose Akinmusire, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Lionel Loueke, Kendrick Scott and Marcus Strickland. Since I wanted to tell the story from a present day perspective and through the musicians, this session was a perfect opportunity to explore this angle. I also wanted, to bring together different generations of Blue Note musicians to highlight a tradition in jazz, where one generation mentors the next generation of musicians. When I discovered that Herbie Hancock and Wayner Shorter - both of whom made their first records on Blue Note - were performing at the Hollywood Bowl around the same time, I asked Don Was if he could invite them to the All-Stars session. And luckily, that worked out.  

CL: They had a single day to do it. How did you proceed?

SH: A morning was planned for the session. The musicians had already played together in other configurations, but never all together. They agreed to play "Masqualero", a 1967 composition by Wayne Shorter, which had also been recorded by Miles Davis. The theme was briefly rehearsed, and then the musicians recorded two very different, consecutive takes. It was quite magical and everyone felt that something special was happening in that room. After the session we filmed the interview with Shorter and Hancock.

CL: Hancock and Shorter show themselves to be very open in the film, you can feel their long relationship and human depth. How did that happen?

SH: Obviously I prepared myself for the interview and I knew which topics I wanted to cover. But I also wanted to be able to respond to the moment. So it became more of a conversation than an interview. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are extraordinary people, very open, present and full of curiosity. By the way, these are qualities that I also noticed in the young jazz musicians. I think that this has to do with their way of musical interaction, of improvising.

CL: What was your concept, your strategy for the film?

SH: It was important to me that the music and the musicians were at the center of the film and that they would - whenever possible - tell the story themselves. The knowledge has always been passed from one generation of musicians to the next, and Blue Note has always encouraged this. I wanted to continue this tradition in the hopes that the film would serve as an educational tool itself and inspire kids to pick up an instrument. It was also clear that I wanted to tell the story from today’s point of view. Nothing illustrates the lasting influence as clearly as today's musicians, who build on this heritage, contribute their own voice, reflect their own time and add to this ever evolving genre.

CL: In addition to the recording sessions and interviews, the film contains a wealth of archival material: legendary record covers and photographs of classic Blue Note sessions, concert footage, old radio interviews and so on. How did you find all this material?

SH: It was clear that we had access to the very powerful and evocative photos of Francis Wolff, one of the two founders, who photographed nearly every recording session from the early 1940s to the late 1960s. We found recordings of outtakes, banter between the takes, that – together with the photographs - brings the old sessions to life. I wanted to juxtapose the past and the present throughout the film, highlighting how palpable the influence of the musicians of the past remains today. For our live recording sessions, we were looking for an aesthetic that was reminiscent of Frank Wolff's photos to create a visual connection. It was also clear that we wanted to use concert footage of icons such as Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk. And then I found old radio interviews with Art Blakey and John Coltrane. Whenever possible, I wanted to include the musicians own voices.

CL: What was the hardest part for you?

A: The biggest challenge was to condense the entire story of Blue Note, which spans almost 80 years, includes nearly a thousand records and many musicians into a 90 minutes film. What is the common denominator and how can I weave it through the entire film? How can I find something personal that unites all these works and people and the history of the label throughout the different eras? What all records share is that they are an expression of a human being at a specific time. I wanted to explore this need to express, how we absorb our surroundings and translate them into art.

CL: What does Blue Note mean today?

A: With Don Was as President – a musician himself and a legendary producer - Blue Note continues to follow the vision of the founders, giving the musicians complete artistic freedom and supporting them to push the threshold, bringing the music to new places. Jazz is a constantly evolving genre of music. Even today an evolution is taking place, as evidenced in the connection to hip hop for example.

CL: What do the young musicians have in common with the old ones?

SH: An openness, depth and a true sense of responsibility. A strong identification with the music and its heritage, both musically and politically. I admire how they strive to keep the music alive, current and relevant.

CL: What did you personally learn while working on this film?

SH: I relate to the musicians’ quest, and I admire how they fight for their values and take their responsibility as artists seriously. For the young drummer of today's All-Stars, as well as for John Coltrane 60 years ago, the music remains a statement, an instrument to create hope and to confront the negative with the positive. This approach has been passed on from generation to generation, from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock to the current generation of Blue Note artists, but also to hip hop producers like Terrace Martin. The film is a platform for this vision and I hope it resonates with the viewer. Wayne Shorter says in the film that he wants to create value with his music. I hope to create value with this film as well.

Interview: Christine Loriol

Ambrose Akinmusire     ...     Himself
Art Blakey     ...     Himself (archive footage)
John Coltrane     ...     Himself (archive footage)
Michael Cuscuna     ...     Himself
Miles Davis     ...     Himself (archive footage)
Lou Donaldson     ...     Himself
Robert Glasper     ...     Himself
Herbie Hancock     ...     Himself
Derrick Hodge     ...     Himself
Norah Jones     ...     Herself
Lionel Loueke     ...     Himself
Terrace Martin     ...     Himself
Thelonious Monk     ...     Himself (archive footage)
Ali Shaheed Muhammad     ...     Himself
Kendrick Scott     ...     Himself
Wayne Shorter     ...     Himself
Marcus Strickland     ...     Himself
Rudy Van Gelder     ...     Himself
Don Was     ...     Himself

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