As record labels experiment with formats and strategies in an online-streaming age, one major player in jazz is investing in what you might call a super-premium product tier. Blue Note Records has announced Blue Note Review, an objet d’art available only by subscription, twice a year, in a limited edition of 1,500 copies.
A large-format boxed set featuring a compilation of exclusive tracks by label artists, each Blue Note Review will also include music and images from the label archives, along with original writing, artwork and other items. None of the materials in the set will be available in any other form – a policy that extends to the music, which will not be offered digitally. (The first installment is $200, and can be ordered at bluenotereview.com.)
The project is a brainchild of Don Was, the president of Blue Note, and a seasoned producer and musician besides. “For so many of us, Blue Note has always represented a particular sensibility and a culture of cool,” he said in a press statement. “Blue Note Review is our great effort to restore some of that culture, and to re-create that tangible, multi-sensory experience.”
During a recent visit to the Blue Note offices, I spent some time with a prototype of Blue Note Review: Volume One - Peace, Love & Fishing, which will begin shipping on Nov. 13. The box, which is which is manufactured and assembled in the United States, opens to a small trove of material.
Its centerpiece is a double LP of unissued tracks by contemporary Blue Note artists: a recent live take on “Lady Gabor,” by Charles Lloyd & The Marvels; a nearly 18-minute track called “Zero Gravity #913,” by the Wayne Shorter Quartet; a version of Gregory Porter’s “Take Me To the Alley” recorded on a Blue Note Jazz at Sea cruise, with musicians like Robert Glasper on piano and Lionel Loueke on guitar. There are five other tracks on the compilation, which is also included as a 2-CD set.
Among the other items in the box: a 180-gram vinyl pressing of Step Lightly, the label debut by trumpeter Blue Mitchell, which was recorded in 1963 but not released until 1990 (and has fallen out of print); a pair of previously unpublished Francis Wolff lithographs, of Shorter and Stanley Turrentine; a turntable slip mat based on a suggestion by singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, bearing the slogan “Jazz Is Not a Crime”; and a diaphanous John Varvatos scarf that’s modeled by Shorter and Lloyd in each of their cover photographs.
Probably the most unique offering is a matte foldout publication — the label is calling it “a lifestyle zine” — that consists of writings by and about Blue Note artists. I didn’t spend enough time to read it through, but I took note of an interview between Shorter and comedian Jeff Garlin, who begins the conversation in the unwitting fanboy tradition of The Chris Farley Show; Lloyd’s elegy for the drummer Billy Higgins; and a comic, drawn by Keith Henry Brown, that depicts vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson barging in and shaking down Blue Note’s founder, Alfred Lion, sometime in the ‘70s.
Blue Note Review will not, it’s safe to say, do much to broaden the label’s consumer base: it’s an obsessive, expensive product for the sort of fan with a durable loyalty to the brand. (One useful comparison might be to Blue Note Jazz at Sea.) Implicitly, the series trusts that any prospective buyer is as enamored of the label’s “culture of cool” as its president is, and likewise longing for a more tactile listening experience. There’s also an element of exclusivity being promoted here: buying Volume One makes you a “member,” with priority on the list for the next round.
In the meantime — for many of the rest of its fans — Blue Note maintains a robust presence on streaming services, with curated playlists on Spotify and Apple Music, and still releases albums a la carte, on vinyl and CD. So the open question will be whether there’s enough interest worldwide to motivate a small portion of the Blue Note fan base to sustain Blue Note Review, on a continuing basis. The label has put its money, and maybe some of yours, on the affirmative answer.