Blue Note Cover Series

The Blue Note Cover Series
Jazzy all over again
By Mark Ruffin

Last year when Blue Note Records introduced their Blue Note Cover Series, this magazine took them to task. Then hypocritically, we placed Charlie Hunter’s cover of Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread” on our year-end best of list. Collectively, we thought the idea of Bluenote.gif (7626 bytes)re-recording an old album as a dumb idea, and at first Fareed Haque’s tepid interpretation of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Déjà vu,” and Everette Harp’s note-for-note copy of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” proved us right. Then, Hunter, the unique San Francisco guitarist, injected the soul of Bob Marley into his own style and JazzUSA and the rest of the jazz world took notice.

The 1998 edition of the Blue Note Cover Series began in January with Bob Belden doing Carole King’s “Tapestry.” This month the series continues with Ronnie Laws’ covering the Isley Brothers “Harvest For The World,” and a posthumous release from George Howard doing Sly & The Family Stone’s “There’s A Riot Going On.”

Ronnie Laws“When I was first approached, I thought it was an interesting approach,” says Laws who easily compares the series to a current trend in Hollywood. “It’s tantamount to filmmaking when they try to do re-makes of films,” Laws says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Sometimes, it’s a real stretch as far as capturing the spirit of the original version. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t really blame the artists that attempted to do it because that’s what it is, an attempt.”

“Why should a musician not look at any invitation from a record company to record as a challenge,” asks multi-instrumentalist/producer Belden. He put a more historical perspective on the series, which as a Blue Note staff producer he helped to initiate. Belden cited the fact that in 1939 trumpeter Bunny Berigan commissioned a whole album of arrangements of Bix Biderbecke solo piano pieces.

“It goes back to that tradition of interpreting a composer’s work, it’s far more intellectual than a tribute record. It’s tackling a body of work that has a single thought behind it. “Partly the Blue Note Cover Series was the result of discussions between producers who work for the label.” Continues Belden. “(Producer) Craig Street and I had many discussions about these types of projects, which were then positioned to the company. At the time, Street and I were talking about these things for jazz, there were already a lot of pop tribute albums coming out.”

Laws know he was taking a number of artistic risks with his new album, among them the fact that his last album was a concept tribute album celebrating the music of the late saxophonist Eddie Harris. Belden, on the other hand, has built his whole career on concept albums. His niche in the record business has been all-star compilations featuring jazzy interpretations of the music of Sting, Puccini, Prince, the Beatles, Vivaldi and others.

belden.“Those records are very expensive,” Belden says. “My “Shades Of Blue” album had 108 people on it. That was intense, and the more you get into where people who work for you expect for you to pay people X amount of money and for this to be this, it really gets to be more than agonizing.

“With the first batch, the company didn’t approach me,” Belden remembers. “They didn’t want my kind of record. They thought what I would do is get 75 different people and every tune would have a different band. By the time they wanted to do the second batch, I had decided against doing those kinds of records and I started to concentrate with a limited group of people. I really got into Gamble & Huff and realized that you’ve just got to pull back in and really concentrate on your own sound, then you can do anything.

When Fareed Haque was asked to participate, Blue Note gave him a choice of three albums from which to decide. They were Steely Dan’s “Aja,” Joni Mitchell’s “Court And Spark” and the second CSN&Y which he eventually did. Belden gave the company two other ideas to reject before they settled on “Tapestry.” He said the idea of doing the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” was intriguing, but he had just done a Fab Four tribute album. What he really wanted to do was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“They couldn’t deal with that,” Belden says with a laugh before hinting that Blue Note thought the Carole King record would be safer.

“Tapestry” just happened to have a large number of hits. It’s like a greatest hits album that just happened to be the original record. You can’t go to anybody and ask them to name three other records she made, they only know that record.

“When I was young, my sister had the hip stereo and she had that record. She was into that woman power record thing- Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Joan Baez. You know records that had lyrics that they would sit and pour over. I always thought the melodies were kind of hip. I used to listen to her play that all the time.”

It was also family ties that made “Harvest For The World” Ronnie Laws first and only choice as his entry into the Blue Note Cover Series. It wasn’t just the fact that the Isley family grew up in New Jersey as a close-knit, well known musical sensation much like the Laws family had in Houston, Texas.

“They’re a family oriented group and I equated that with my family,” Laws admits. “But not in the same line where everybody’s performing the same kind of music, because in my family we’re a little unique in that individually we all have our own niche.

“Harvest For The World” stood out, because of my own personal experience,” he continues. Prior to the album’s release, I’d just signed my first record deal with Blue Note. I was really in transition as far as buying my first home in L.A. and just sort of really getting started in my family situation. I remember buying my first home entertainment center for the house and that was one of the first albums I bought and I jammed it the whole day was when we got into the place.”

That would during the mid 70’s when Laws debut album “Pressure Sensitive” became the largest selling debut album in Blue Note Records history. Laws had served time in the bands of Doug Carn, Earth, Wind & Fire and Hugh Masakela before venturing out as a solo act. He became a best-selling jazz artist on a number of major labels during the rest of that decade and half of the next one. But from 1985 to 1995, Laws saw his record sales dwindle as he tried to resurrect his career on a number of small independent labels.

Ironically, it was a concept album that got Laws career back on track and back on Blue Note. “A Tribute To The Legendary Eddie Harris,” stunned purists who considered Ronnie Laws a pop performer.

I’m an entertainer and there’s more than one aspect to my craft,” Laws says. “You look at artists like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr., can you imagine what we would have had had we limited their approach to the business. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, it’s just that one of the most tragic things in our business is that we have a tendency to want to limit artists. There are some artists that shouldn’t step out of certain categories because they don’t’ have the wherewithal to do it. Then there are artists who are very versatile and they should be celebrated for that, not put down for that. You can’t satisfy everybody. That’s one thing I’ve learned. I’m 47 years old, you can only do what you feel is your best effort and speak from your heart and that’s what I do, I speak from the heart musically.”

The whole essence of music is life experiences and as a performer and as an artist, I don’t do music that’s out of my character, although I’m very versatile as a musician. But the reason I can do projects like (“Harvest For The World”) is I actually grew up in the era of the music. It was a part of the culture. It’s not a stretch for me to do the Isleys or any other artist that I’m acquainted with. I know that music. I lived that era. If you didn’t live that era, it’s very difficult to capture the real essence of what that music represents and that’s a problem that a lot of artists may encounter, particularly upcoming artists who didn’t live that era, didn’t really understand what was going on during that time, that’s the only way to really capture that.

Laws suggested that Blue Note might have difficulty with younger acts recording whole albums that were made before their time. And he says the company may have trouble marketing this series if they only take the high road. It’s testing the limits of the genre to call what Everette Harp or George Howard recorded jazz music. For Laws, there’s no doubt that his latest album is not jazz.

“It’s absolutely not that. It would be a big mistake to market or promote this as a jazz record. It’s a portrait of the Isley Brothers and I made that very clear with the label, don’t send the product to jazz radio. It is not a jazz record at all.

“The whole series is a recognition of the accomplishments of some of the r&b artists like Sly and Marvin because some of the younger generations maybe have missed what those artists represented and the foundation they established for what we’re even appreciating in today’s music. Even avid jazz listeners who may have overlooked what those artists have contributed musically. It’s sort of bridging the gap between both idioms. The challenge of making it special was on my end as far as performance and the artistic side”

Belden treated the making of “Tapestry” almost like a jam session. He gave the musicians the charts, told them the tempo and feel he wanted and turned on the tape machines.

“The hard thing was to remember that in pop music words are the image and in jazz, the mood is the image and you have to create moods for that music,” Belden says. “The interesting thing is when you’re finished with the music of that particular artist, you can hear the human growth in their songs.”