Courtesy of David Bazemore

The Blue Note Quintet performed as a part of the UCSB Arts and Lectures program at Campbell Hall on Feb. 8, 2024.

The Blue Note Records label is a revered name in the jazz world. In fact, naming an influential artist who hasn’t produced an album with them is far easier than naming all of those who have. Still, their ranks include legends from Herbie Hancock to Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich — the label, since its inception, has been a leader in the industry, advancing the quintessentially American jazz language and style. From representing the sound of swing and bebop to fusion and beyond, the Blue Note Records label has been there, and celebrating its 85th anniversary, it created a quintet featuring the label’s newest rising stars to tour nationwide — Matt Brewer on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano, Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone and Joel Ross on vibraphone. 

Before the night properly began, Campbell Hall’s stage, one usually blasted by unforgiving overhead light during the day, greeted patrons with a soft, blue hue that gave the instruments and their sonic potential a mysterious aura, one that the musicians would soon explore. The quintet then walked on stage to the applause of a warm crowd, a contrast to the cool Santa Barbara winter night outside.

Without saying a word, audio began to play: a recording of various voices speaking to the impact of jazz, the creative process and what the genre means. Slowing, a soft murmur of piano joined the audio — Clayton’s improvising. This union of recording and live performance continued throughout the night, as each member would solo and create a deeply intimate and personal experience between each chart. This fusion allowed for reflection about and reverence for the art form. “Do as you feel at the time you feel it,” one audio clip advised about jazz improvisation.

No one seemed to embody that aforementioned quote as much as the vibraphonist Joel Ross. With each solo by Ross, he engulfed the listener in sound as the vibraphone timbre whirled around the hall. The beauty of live performance is seeing the musician and their process as each note or chord is played. With each hit of the mallets, Ross brought the audience into his world, hitting the tone bars of the instrument with confidence or playfulness. It was beautiful to see an experiment in sonal space right before one’s very eyes.

In its simplest form, music is either sound or silence, and no one experimented with it quite like saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. His style was so varied — interjections of the warm, reedy tone of an alto saxophone into the vast open space of Campbell Hall, runs up and down scales or a host of other techniques to test out within each song. Wilkins was playful, clearly making others in the quintet laugh with his use of sound and silence. Whenever he paused for a drink of water, he made quiet quips, unknown to the audience, that made the other quintet members have to hold in their laughter as the chart continued on.

Within each piece performed by the quintet, one experienced not only the most serene stillness, a silence only being cut through by a sudden shout from the performers, but also chaotic, vibrant energy. Within each peak, piano, drums, sax, vibes and bass all swirled around the listener as the room filled with musical conversation. Listening to the whole gave the impression of a unified force, a hivemind that permeated the stage; however, turning one’s ears to a single player allowed one to hear the language of jazz take shape. Each player listened to the others and what each was saying with a solo or recurring chorus, then took that sentence and responded in kind. Questions were met with answers or perhaps further questions, and at the height of each song, even in pure cohesion, the quintet produced a myriad of musical flavors for one’s palate to explore. 

Even in unified sound, audience ears were drawn to the drum set. Manned by Scott, pure, unadulterated fun and energy emanated from the rhythmic driver of the group. Smiling and clearly having a good time on stage, the drummer connected with every other instrument. If anyone could possibly have telepathy — the ability to see into other people’s minds and respond with super-human speed — it was Scott. Each soloist was perfectly accompanied by his rhythmic decisions, and crashes and splendor announced each momentous arrival in each chart. Scott’s solos were also filled with this same enthusiasm and energy. Playing with time and the timbre of the various parts of the set, he crafted a sonic world that was fully realized but only became more serene and beautiful as he gave way for others to shine in it.

The rhythm section, composed of Scott, Brewer and Clayton, provided an amazing canvas for others to paint on. Clayton’s use of the grand piano and keyboard, accompanied by Brewer’s deeply resonant bass twang, changed the types of colors and materials the other artists could create masterpieces with.

Each ensemble member was a powerhouse, but when they came together, each was allowed to shine even more as the others respected each other’s genius. 

Jazz is so deeply American but also so deeply human. It is a genre that allows your imagination to run amuck and perhaps, eventually, find something worth sharing with the world. As the world evolves and changes, so too does jazz. From a smoky speak-easy in the 1920s to mainstream appeal and the various evolutions and subgenres between now and then, jazz is not old; it is more present and more important than ever. 

There is one universal language in the world: music. The rules of jazz are not inscribed on a table at the top of a moment, never to be changed; they are ever-changing. That is what the Blue Note Quintet showed us all on Thursday night. We respect our past, and we respect the progress made in the genre, not by remaining stagnant but by pushing the sound to new places not yet explored. Listen to old jazz, new jazz, jazz that hasn’t made it mainstream yet, and just see the humanity. Jazz is human, and jazz is for everyone.

Jazz is constant and consistent experimentation. That is what the quintet did on stage, and that is what we must continue to do in all our lives. So go out and explore, find what speaks to you, and enjoy life.