Numbering around 1,000 albums, the Blue Note discography is one of the most revered in the history of jazz. Ranging from bebop and hard bop to soul jazz, post-bop and even avant-garde music, Blue Note’s most essential albums should be in every jazz fan’s collection. But not everything this iconic label recorded during its most prolific years in the 50s and 60s was released, as Grammy-winning producer and Mosaic Records co-founder, Michael Cuscuna, discovered in 1975 when he was given permission to go through the then dormant company’s archives. He found over 100 albums’ worth of sessions that had never been heard before and, understandably, wanted to share them with the world. The results were an extensive archival release program of lost Blue Note albums that could finally receive their due.
What puzzled many listeners who heard them was the sheer quality of these albums. Alfred Lion, the company’s co-founder and main producer between 1939 and 1966, was known to be fastidious and liked his music, above all else, to swing, but even he, when later questioned by Cuscuna, agreed that many of these forgotten Blue Note albums were good, and couldn’t offer an explanation as to how they ended up being neglected.
If quality control wasn’t the prime reason for Blue Note shelving the sessions, what other factors could there be? The sheer scale of the label’s recordings is one. Grant Green, Stanley Turrentine, Lee Morgan, and Hank Mobley – all purportedly favorites of Alfred Lion – were so prolific that they cut more sides than the label could expect to release.
Another possible reason was that Blue Note’s release schedule couldn’t keep up with how fast some of its musicians were developing. Take saxophonist Jackie Mclean. He went from hard bop to a more experimental mode of jazz in the early 60s and, probably because of that, some of his more conservative sessions were put aside as they didn’t offer an accurate reflection of his current musical state.
Sometimes a hit record would alter an album’s trajectory, like The Sidewinder did for Lee Morgan. His follow-up to that album, the more exploratory Search For The New Land – arguably his greatest musical statement – was postponed after The Sidewinder’s catchy title cut became a surprise pop hit in 1964. Its success led Lion and Blue Note to request similar groove-oriented material, and Morgan obliged with 1965’s The Rumproller (Search For The New Land was eventually released two years later).
Other albums weren’t so lucky. Some were assigned catalogue numbers (Blue Mitchell’s Step Lightly) and even had covers designed (Tina Brooks’ Back To The Tracks), only to be inexplicably sidelined at the last moment, waiting to be discovered.
Most of the reasons why so many Blue Note sessions were left to gather dust will probably never be known, but what’s abundantly clear is that much of the music on these obscure Blue Note albums lives up to Alfred Lion’s high standards.
Here is our pick of the lost Blue Note albums you really need to hear (with thanks to Michael Cuscuna for his input). Think we’ve missed one of yours? Let us know in the comments section, below.
Hank Mobley: Another Workout
Alfred Lion must have been a fan of Mobley; the Georgia-born tenor saxophonist recorded 26 album sessions for Blue Note between 1955 and 1970. Curiously, though, seven of them remained in the can and were only issued at a much later date. Another Workout is probably the best of Mobley’s lost Blue Note albums and proves to be a tremendous cache of unalloyed hard bop. It was recorded on December 5, 1961 with a rhythm section borrowed from Miles Davis (bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and pianist Wynton Kelly) with guitarist Grant Green. Mobley supplies three of the set’s six cuts and includes three standards, including a lovely rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers.”The album was released for the first time in 1985, just one year before Mobley’s death at the age of 55.
Check out: “Hello, Young Lovers”
Wayne Shorter: The Soothsayer
Recorded in March 1965, The Soothsayer was the second of two fabulous albums recorded by the Newark-born saxophonist, but which Blue Note locked away in the vaults for many years (the other was Etcetera, recorded in June the same year and eventually released in 1980). It found Shorter, who was six months into his tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet, leading a sextet that featured bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, from Davis’ band, plus trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, alto saxophonist James Spalding and pianist McCoy Tyner. Highlights include the driving “Angola” (which remained in Shorter’s repertoire right up to the 00s), the hard-swinging title track and the tender ballad “Lady Day,” a homage to Billie Holiday. A high-quality collection, The Soothsayer eventually saw daylight in 1979.
Check out: “Angola”
Tina Brooks: Back To The Tracks
North Carolina tenor saxophonist Harold “Tina” Brooks recorded four sessions for Blue Note during the years 1958 to 1961, but only one – True Blue – was released during his lifetime. Though he was a gifted horn player and composer who showed ingenuity when he improvised, Brooks’ short career was blighted with drug addiction and led to an early death, aged 42, in 1974. Recorded in 1960, Back To The Tracks was assigned a catalogue number and had cover art prepared, but when its release was cancelled it lay in the vaults for 38 years before Blue Note finally unveiled it in 1998. The session featured trumpeter Blue Mitchell, pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Art Taylor and, on one track, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Aficionados of hard bop will find little wrong with this absorbing but largely unheralded session.
Check out: “Back To The Tracks”
Bobby Hutcherson: Oblique
Five late 60s sessions for Blue Note by Los Angeles vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson remained unreleased by the label until the late 70s and early 80s. This particular album, a stunning quartet studio date featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Albert Stinson and drummer/composer Joe Chambers (who also contributed two tunes), is probably the best of them. A collection of cool post-bop grooves and moods ranging from the blissful “’Til Then” to the bossa nova-infused “Subtle Neptune” and more avant-garde title track penned by Chambers also includes a spacey reworking of Hancock’s “Theme From Blow Up.” Oblique was first released in Japan on vinyl in 1980.
Check out: “Theme From Blow Up”
Lee Morgan: The Procrastinator
Blue Note couldn’t keep up with trumpeter Lee Morgan’s creativity in the 60s, and eight albums’ worth of material lay in the vaults for over a decade or more. By the time The Procrastinator came out, in 1979, as a 13-track double-album, Morgan had been dead seven years. It was made up of sessions recorded in 1967 and 1969 and found the Philly trumpeter in stellar company: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, George Coleman, Bobby Hutcherson, Harold Mabern, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins all contributed. The music ranged from more progressive post-bop pieces (such as the title track) to languorous ballads (the Wayne Shorter-written “Dear Sir” is a standout) and soul jazz toe-tappers (“Party Time”).
Check out: “Dear Sir”
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Africaine
Recorded in November 1959, Africaine spent 22 years languishing in Blue Note’s vaults before producer Michael Cuscuna rescued it and revealed it to the world in 1981. What’s significant about the album is that it not only marked saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s recording debut with The Jazz Messengers, it was also the first time that Jamaica tenor man Dizzy Reece recorded for Alfred Lion’s label (though, ironically, he only played congas on the session). Given that it’s a strong, cohesive set – and includes the first recorded version of Shorter’s classic homage to Lester Young, “Lester Left Town,” which the Messengers recorded again for their The Big Beat album – it’s a mystery why Africaine was overlooked for release. It was recently reissued on audiophile vinyl as part of the subscription-only box set Blue Note Review Vol.2: Spirit & Time.
Check out: “Lester Left Town”
Grant Green: Matador
No musician at Blue Note suffered more, perhaps, from the frustration of having his albums shelved than St Louis guitarist Grant Green. Recorded in May 1965, Matador was just one of a staggering ten lost Blue Note sessions bearing Green’s name. On it he led a quartet that included pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones (then part of John Coltrane’s famous quartet) along with noted bassist Bob Cranshaw. Originally a disciple of hard bop who became a practitioner of funk during a second stint at Blue Note in the late 60s, here Green can be found mining a deep modal jazz groove on one of the most progressive albums of his career. As well as a couple of self-penned tunes there’s a long, exploratory version of the Coltrane-associated number “My Favorite Things.”Matador, which spent 15 years in the vault before being freed in 1979, proved to be a discovery of huge historical importance as it documented a side to Grant Green’s playing that had never been heard before.
Check out: “My Favorite Things”
Andrew Hill: Passing Ships
The master tape for this gem of an album by Chicago pianist/composer Andrew Hill wasn’t discovered until 2001 and was released two years later. Hill, whose predilection for angular melodies invited comparison with Thelonious Monk, was one of the most avant-garde musicians to appear on Blue Note and this session found him leading a nonet that included a six-piece horn section in whose ranks were trumpeters Woody Shaw and Dizzy Reece, plus saxophonist Joe Farrell. Hill’s progressive tone poems highlight not only his originality as a composer but his skill as an orchestrator. Incidentally, the drummer on the session was a 19-year-old Lenny White, who would later find fame with fusion supergroup Return To Forever.
Check out: “Sideways”
Larry Young: Mother Ship
What John Coltrane was to the saxophone, Larry Young was to the Hammond organ: an innovator who dared to go where no other musician had been before. Mother Ship was recorded in February 1969, just a few months before Young recorded two significant albums as a sideman: Bitches Brew, with Miles Davis, and Emergency, as part of Tony Williams’ Lifetime. The music is mostly highly progressive, straddling the divide between modal and avant-garde jazz, though there’s also a beguiling bossa nova track (“Love Drops”). Assisting Young is trumpeter Lee Morgan (on one of the most outré sessions he ever took part in), tenor saxophonist Harold Morgan and drummer Eddie Gladden. Young’s sixth and final album session for Blue Note, Mother Ship was eventually released in 1980.
Check out: “Love Drops”
Stanley Turrentine: ZT’s Blues
Like Grant Green, the Pittsburgh “Sugar Man”, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, watched in frustration as Blue Note stockpiled his recordings. When he left Blue Note in 1970 after a decade-long tenure with Alfred Lion’s label, he left eight albums’ worth of recording sessions gathering dust in the vaults. Recorded in September 1961, ZT’s Blues was the earliest of the tenor titan’s sessions to be mothballed, but it finally saw daylight in 1985 after Turrentine re-signed to the label. What makes ZT’s Blues so appealing is that it marks an infrequent collaboration between Turrentine and guitarist Grant Green; both were consummate groove masters whom producer Alfred Lion regarded highly for their ability to swing. They are in peak form on this seven-track fusion of hard bop and soul-jazz flavors that also features pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor.
Check out: “The Lamp Is Low”
Jackie McLean: Consequence
Noted for his astringent alto saxophone sound, this native New Yorker went from playing hard bop to a more progressive, avant-garde style as the 60s unfolded. Consequence was cut on December 3, 1965, in the company of trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins, but was one of seven McLean sessions that Blue Note left in the archives. Basically, a hard bop date bolstered with pieces influenced by bossa nova (the fabulous “Bluesanova”) and calypso (“Tolyspso”), Consequence may have been shelved because it wasn’t stylistically in line with McLean’s more advanced-sounding albums of the time, such as Destination… Out! and Right Now! Nevertheless, it’s a strong album and was granted its first official release in 1979.
Check out: “Bluesanova”
Blue Mitchell: Step Lightly
Step Lightly was the Florida trumpeter’s first session as a leader for Blue Note, recorded on Tuesday, August 13, 1963, in the company of a well-honed sextet that included fellow Blue Note artists, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, altoist Leo Wright and pianist Herbie Hancock. Inexplicably, the recording – which was even given a catalogue number for an intended release – was not released until 1980. Beginning with an enticing Joe Henderson-penned Latin nugget called “Mamacita” (which boasts a catchy three-horn hook line and is propelled by an irresistible groove), Step Lightly proves to be a coherent, high-quality set, but its release came too late to be appreciated by Mitchell, who died in 1979, aged 49.
Check out: “Mamacita”
Looking for more? Discover the best Blue Note albums of all time.