The Blue Note 4000 Listening Project

Updated 1/25/21


Like many jazz obsessives, I consider Blue Note’s ’50s and ’60s LP catalog to be the pinnacle of the art form. And I say this referring strictly to the music. [Blue Note should make any “Greatest Jazz Discography” short list because of either Rudy Van Gelder or Reid Miles alone, but that’s another topic.] No other jazz-focused label has ever had a greater breadth of talent and styles. Nor has there been a label with more consistently great albums. But, alas, there are many titles I haven’t heard yet.

As a jazz consumer, I am sure I am like many others. I have been listening for many years, have listened to all of the Greats, and have my favorites. And because the improvisational nature of the music meant that top jazz artists could generally record more often than rock and pop acts, there is a huge back catalog to explore. (Consider one example: Lee Morgan was on more albums in 1957 than are in the Rolling Stones’ entire studio discography from 1964-1980.) My point is simply that the sheer amount of music out there by our favorites can lead us to miss some truly great records.

It is for this reason that I have issued myself the following challenge: Over the next several years, listen to every pre-Liberty Blue Note record from the 4000 series and write something about each of them here at Jazzopath. By my count there are 225 titles. Indeed, my work is cut out for me, but I am excited to finally make time to hear the records that have somehow escaped my attention.

Ground Rules for the Project

The Music

I’ve chosen the 4000 series for personal reasons. It spans my favorite era in jazz and features my favorite jazz artists/records. If this project is completed, perhaps I will cover the 1500 series in the future. But there are so many records in 4000 that I am looking forward to engaging with that 1500 can wait.

Originally, the plan was to listen to every release in the 4000 series, including those recorded in the early ’70s. However, upon a closer study of the discography, that started to make less sense from a musical perspective. Once you start getting into the Liberty era, the label moves slowly away from what many of us consider to be the classic Blue Note sound. (In March 1967, Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind was the final album to be released before the label’s sale to Liberty.) Thus, to maintain a more coherent strategy, I’m restricting my project to the Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff years, for it was their vision that gave Blue Note its identity.

Finally, my listening will only include songs that were originally on the original releases. Although CD and streaming reissues often feature great previously unreleased tracks (Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue CD reissue comes to mind), the purist in me must hear the albums as they were originally sequenced. They picked the track order for a reason.

The Content

As I plan to include over 200 albums in the 4000 series, my comments/reactions will tend to not be full-blown reviews. I envision this being a work-in-progress, but will certainly include (but not be limited to) my takes on:

  • how a record fits into an artist’s discography
  • a record’s historical/musical/social/cultural importance and relevance
  • my own stream-of-consciousness reactions

I am not a vinyl purist, per se. I love vinyl and have a small, carefully-curated collection of classic LPs, some of which I’ve written about (e.g., here, here, and here.) But for obvious reasons, this project would be impossible from the start if I had to own all of the music I am planning to listen to and write about. Thus, I must prioritize the music itself, not the format. I’ll use the records I do have, and music streaming services for everything else.

The Time Frame

As if you couldn’t guess, this website is not my job. It is something I do because I am passionate about music, and occasionally I feel like saying something about it. Thus, I will post updates to this project when I am able to. I wish I could commit to a record per day, but I know that will not be possible. If the project takes me several years, so be it. If it takes me the rest of my life, I’m OK with that, too. Hopefully, some readers out there will find some of my “quick takes” interesting/entertaining/inspiring/diverting along the way.

As always, I welcome any feedback and would love to hear from you in the comments.

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