Almost 30 years after collaborating with Miles Davis on the historic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Lift to the Scaffold, Barney Wilen had disappeared from view. Then he discovered that he’d become the subject of a popular strip cartoon in the French magazine À Suivre. Written by Philippe Paringaux, the editor in chief of Rock & Folk magazine, and drawn by Jacques de Loustal, the bande dessinée titled “Barney et la Note Bleue” told the story of a French tenor saxophonist — young, white, gifted, bespectacled — as he made his way through a jazz life, all the way to a fatal overdose.
To begin with, Wilen was upset. For a start, he told Paringaux and Loustal, he was still alive. But the episode turned out well. Encouraged by Paringaux (who confessed that the inclusion of a doomed love affair had been based on an incident from his own life), Wilen returned to the recording studio and made an album titled after the strip, following its narrative and using Loustal’s distinctive artwork for the cover. A season at a Paris jazz club drew a new young audience who had followed the fictionalised story in À Suivre. Released in 1987, the album won the French jazz album of the year award, the Grand Prix of the Académie Charles Cros.
After a decade bathed in the light cast by his second coming, and many more concerts and recordings, Wilen died of cancer in 1996, aged 59. Now the Note Bleue album has been reissued, in a version remastered by the original engineer, Hervé Le Guil, and with added outtakes plus a second disc devoted to a set from a Paris nightclub, Le Petit Opportun, in 1989.
Wilen is one of my favourite European jazz musicians of the post-war era, a beautifully balanced post-bop soloist with an inquiring mind that took him into adventurous engagements with free jazz, rock and African music before he found his way back to his original idiom. This celebrated album found him delivering concise versions of some of his favourite vehicles — Consuelo Velázquez’s “Besame Mucho”, Duke Pearson’s “No Problem”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, a legato rephrasing of Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” — plus several originals, Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and a gorgeous, near-definitive reading of Gordon Jenkins’s ballad “Good-Bye”, which he had never heard before it was suggested to him at the session. There’s also an amusing nod to the episode of the strip in which Barney plays a Twist number with a rock and roll band. The other members of his fine quintet are the guitarist Philippe Petit, the pianist Alain Jean-Marie, the bassist Riccardo Del Fra and the drummer Sangoma Everett. The outtakes include a spellbinding unaccompanied reprise of “Besame Mucho”.
The live session features most of the same tunes, performed in stretched-out versions with the brilliant pianist Jacky Terrasson, then 24 years old, Gilles Naturel (bass) and Peter Gritz (drums). The mood is looser, the playing more fiery. Wilen plays soprano on a couple of the tunes, and there are interesting interjections by the compère, Claude Carrière (in French, naturally).
With the two discs comes a booklet including many images captured during the original studio session by the Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec and English texts from many of the original participants, including Paringaux, Loustal, Jean-Marie, Del Fra, Everett, Le Guil and Patrick Wilen, Barney’s son, who supervised the project with his wife, Satomi Wilen.
It’s great to have this wonderful record available again, enhanced by the improved sound and the inclusion of additional music that is not merely tacked on but feels wholly integral, expanding our understanding of the life and work of a great musician.
* Released on the Elemental label, Barney et la Note Bleue is available as a boxed set including a vinyl version of the original album and a paperback edition of the original strip, or as a set of two CDs. The illustration is taken from one of Jacques de Loustal’s preliminary sketches.