It says something when arguably the most important label in jazz comes to London to find artists to cover classic tunes from its enviable back catalogue. And what it says is London is where it’s at in jazz today. Blue Note Re:imagined consists of 16 tunes chosen by a Who’s Who of contemporary British jazz artists alongside soul and R&B performers who bring a whole new take to some classic and lesser known tracks.
The titles chosen give a good idea of which artists from back in the day have maintained a reputation over 50 years since they were in the studio, sax player Joe Henderson for instance gets two covers as do Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The line-up assembled for the Re:imagined project includes horn player and composer extraordinaire Shabaka Hutchings, keyboard groover Alfa Mist and female saxophonist, Nubya Garcia. Alongside them are hipsters like Ezra Collective, Steam Down and Jordan Rakei, while the soul and R&B world is represented by Poppy Ajudha who has written words for Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’, and Yazmin Lacey singing ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’.
Being a woman in what’s long been a man’s world has made Nubya Garcia the darling of the scene, lauded by the likes of Gilles Peterson for her talents and the breadth of her work. Here she takes on Joe Henderson’s ‘A Shade of Jade’ from 1966, she’s backed by fluent keyboards and a drummer who knows just how far to push things when it comes to keeping the beat interesting but on track. Which leaves plenty of space for Garcia to trace and expand on the themes set down by Henderson. The sound is punchy and dense with little of the analogue openness found on Blue Note’s originals, here the emphasis is on groove rather than instrumental virtuosity, which is why these artists appeal to a younger listener; essentially it’s more accessible and that’s got to be a good thing.
Steam Down bring a very fresh vibe to Wayne Shorter’s ‘Etcetera’, they are described as mixing afro-swing, grime, jazz and future soul, singer Ahnansé citing Shorter as a long time favourite among jazz composers and saxophonists. Not that there are any saxophones on this, vocals and keyboards take the lead over dynamic drums and a backdrop of synth and other sounds. The chords are really the only aspect that clearly come from the original.
Alfa Mist sticks a bit closer to Eddie Henderson’s ‘Galaxy’ from the 1975 album Sunburst, it’s a great tune and required little more than a sonic update to make it fit. The artist has a lovely touch on the Fender Rhodes electric piano and the choice of atmospheric sounds works a treat, especially when the bass sax of Shabaka Hutchings joins the fray. Both musicians understand the need for light and shade, they guide the sound with skill and finesse and deliver one of the most enduring tracks on this collection.
Hutchings himself chose the very fine ‘Prints Tie’ by vibes legend Bobby Hutcherson, an inspired choice possibly influenced by the presence of tenor player Harold Land on the 1970 original. Once again his bass sax oozes its glorious tone over the soundscape, building in restrained fashion to a controlled climax with electric guitar, double bass and drums. The atmosphere is electric and the subtlety of the rhythm section a distinct change to many of the tracks around it. Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ forms the basis of Mr Jukes’s (Jack Steadmand from Bombay Bicycle Club) contribution to Re:imagined, his Rhodes keys augmented by a strong beat and expansive backing vocals on a version that is very easy on the ear. Jorja Smith picked the most up to date track in St. Germain’s stand out ‘Rose Rouge’ from 2000. This is a bona fide ‘choon’ and a hard act to follow given that that Ludovic Navarre sampled Marlena Shaw on the original, but Smith does it justice merely by having the nous to get it on here.
I enjoyed the variety and vitality of these renditions and the fact that the album revealed so many forgotten gems in the Blue Note catalogue, if you want to get a handle of British jazz in the year of the plague look no further.