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Live review: Blue Note 7 at Royce Hall

January 23, 2009 |  4:05 pm

From an artistic perspective, tribute concerts can be a dicey thing.

By nature what they celebrate is past achievements, something a bit at odds with a genre that's as theoretically committed to evolution and forward-thinking improvisation as jazz. But if ever there was a label that deserved whatever kind of party it wants, it's 70-year-old Blue Note Records.

Boasting a genre-defining back catalog that rivals any imprint in the business for depth and consistency (particularly during its 1950s and '60s peak), the label staged a concert at Royce Hall on Thursday night featuring the Blue Note 7, a septet supergroup of sorts led by pianist Bill Charlap charged with reinterpreting classics from the label's considerable glory years. (The tour comes to the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight and Saturday.)

Loaded with such young but seasoned players as saxophone scion Ravi Coltrane and New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, the band drew heavily from Blue Note's revered post-bop era for its recently released CD "Mosaic." The set list for Thursday's concert held to that pattern while also adding a few welcome surprises to an already loaded songbook.

Wayne Shorter's "United" got things off to a running start as the ensemble traded solos, highlighted by a turn from Payton that began with a mournful, slow-burning economy  before gathering strength and stretching to the rafters.

While the ensemble's album was a faithful if a bit too polished affair, the evening's performances thankfully gave the players far more room to stretch out. A reinterpretation of Lee Morgan's "Party Time" was a highlight -- led by Coltrane's quicksilver saxophone tone and a lengthy solo from bassist Peter Washington.

A reworking of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's "Bouquet" found all the players expertly circling the song's meditative, three-note center, including a gentle turn on flute from saxophonist Steve Wilson. Cedar Walton's "Mosaic," originally performed by Art Blakey, closed the show on a raucous note with Charlap racing from one end of the keyboard to the other before an appropriately thunderous solo by drummer Lewis Nash.

Though the  set list certainly showed impeccable taste in also honoring such composers as Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson, it was difficult to shake the feeling that the choices offered an incomplete picture of Blue Note in its 70th year.

While there's certainly no way to begrudge a program offering such an excellent, two-pronged attack that both encouraged rediscovery of the label's past masters and its talented new guard, it would have been nice to hear from other branches of the label's considerable family tree, such as its fertile avant-garde period with Sam Rivers and Andrew Hill.

Such quibbles with song selection are inevitable with any effort to compile the best from an era, artist or movement, and  speaks to the wealth of material at Blue Note's disposal.

While attempts to sum up such a far-reaching legacy in merely one ensemble or 90-minute evening are doomed to fall short, it's still a pleasure watching a group of talented musicians try.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Nicholas Payton performs with the Blue Note 7 at Royce Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times