Reworking Blue Note: Makaya McCraven, Madlib and Mark de Clive-Lowe Reconstruct Classic Jazz Tracks

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Randall Roberts
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It’s safe to say that few record labels have been as sampled as Blue Note. The classic New York jazz label, which was founded by Alfred Leon and Francis Wolf in 1939 and is currently celebrating its 85th anniversary, has issued thousands of songs and millions of potential snippets for sampling.

The work of Donald Byrd, for example, has reached more ears due to its use in rap and dance tracks than from his original studio albums. Same for Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson and Freddie Hubbard, towering figures whose grooves fueled the rise of hip hop and whose classic albums have become collectors items based in part on the samples within. Early ‘90s artist-producers including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and A Tribe Called Quest created the blueprint; Madlib, J Dilla, and Massive Attack pushed it further.

In the mid-1990s, Blue Note started monetizing and marketing their work to young rap heads looking to follow the grooves to their source. After all, the company owned infinite potentially licensable bits. Why not put them to use to make new work? Since then, the label has undertaken a number of projects worthy of renewed attention. The first sanctioned collection, The New Groove: The Blue Note Remix Project, Vol. 1, tapped a bunch of mostly New York producers-acts (the Roots, Large Professor, Easy Mo Bee) to rework tracks by Byrd, Green, Horace Silver, and others. It’s a spotty collection, truth be told. The best of them is Diamond D’s remix of Ronnie Fosters’ recording of “Summer Song.”

Much better was Blue Note’s second sanctioned remix project, and that’s due entirely to the producer-selector involved. Madlib was born into the sound of Blue Note; his parents were jazz musician-collectors, as were his grandparents. The Oxnard-raised producer’s blood seems to flow blue on Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note. Upon its 20th anniversary last year, producer and Blue Note Records president Don Was interviewed Madlib about the project. It’s a fascinating conversation from the oft-elusive Madlib.

Don Was was such a fan of the Madlib record that when he came on as president of the label, he approved a kind of new-build project for Makaya McCraven, the great Chicago drummer-composer-producer. For the 2021 album Deciphering The Message, McCraven remixed and then augmented work from across the label’s output with newly recorded elements from trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, vibraphonist Joel Ross, guitarists Matt Gold and Jeff Parker, and others.

With the intention of creating a singular sonic environment, McCraven constructed the entirety of Deciphering the Message in the studio from samples and tracks. “When piecing everything together, I wanted to create a narrative that made the listener feel like they were falling into this space or a movement,” McCraven said in release notes. “I was really trying to make a record out of it, not just a series of tracks.”

Another project of note, bluenoteremixed, came out on Bandcamp in 2016. Created by LA producer Mark de Clive-Lowe, the “live-remix mixtape,” as he calls it, was “recorded and improvised live in one take,” read the release notes, and the producer “deploys his drum machine, sample pads, Rhodes and keyboards on-the-fly bringing unique perspective to moments created decades earlier by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, and Donald Byrd. From reminiscing samples that we fell in love with through A Tribe Called Quest and J Dilla, to reimagining sax great Joe Henderson riding a broken-afro electronic frenzy, MdCL paints his own vision of what Blue Note means to him.” Interspersed within the 45-minute, two-track piece are occasional verses from Bambu, John Robinson and Illa J, singer Nia Andrews, and the great bassist Pino Palladino.




On Monday at In Sheep’s Clothing NYC, our twice-weekly Dedicated Listening Session will feature album sides from eight Blue Note classics in our collection. Included are brilliant records from the 1960s and 1970s, and we’ll play full album sides at proper volume to a room full of respectful listeners. The albums we’re playing:

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue
Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles
Wayne Shorter – Night Dreamer
Donald Byrd – Fancy Free
Grant Green – Carryin’ On
McCoy Tyner – Extensions
Bobby Hutcherson – Linger Lane
Eddie Henderson – Heritage

Those who’d like to read something in advance would be advised to check out Tana Yonas’ interview with Joe Harley, who oversees Blue Notes remarkable ‘Tone Poet’ series.

Dedicated Listening Session: Blue Note Records
Where: In Sheep’s Clothing NYM, 350 Hudson St. (enter on King)
When: Monday, March 4, 2-5 p.m.

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