Richard "Blue" Mitchell may not have been the best trumpeter in straight-ahead jazz but he's among the best who didn't become a household name. Mitchell didn't display the the sharp timbre and fanciful trips up and down scales like contemporaries such as Freddie Hubbard or Booker Little. He never developed Miles Davis' affecting, melancholy cadence. But as Orrin Keepnews put it, "players with a real, deep melodic sensitivity and richness of tone are a good deal harder to come by," and he accurately identified Mitchell as one of those rare types.
Coming out of Miami in the fifties, Mitchell's career was helped along by his familiarity with fellow south Florida native Cannonball Adderley, who recommended that Keepnews check out a local live performance. Keepnews was sufficiently impressed to bring the young trumpeter back up to New York (an earlier stint at the Big Apple was short-lived). Soon, Blue was a member of a vital Horace Silver Quintet that thrived from 1958 until 1964.
Mitchell soon afterwards formed his own quintet that featured a couple of young guys who went on to make names for themselves later on: longtime Davis drummer Al Foster and this piano player named Chick Corea.
As for Mitchell's own budding career a few years earlier, his signing to Keepnews' Riverside label not only led to plum sideman work for Silver and Adderley, but began a short but fruitful batch of recordings of albums for the label as a leader that holds their own against some of the most acclaimed hard bop albums of the late fifties and early sixties.
It's perhaps Blue's third album for Riverside that stands out as his best of his pre-Blue Note works: the 1959 minor classic, Blue Soul. It's on this outing where Mitchell achieves a critical level of confidence. What's more, he's backed more than ably by a cast of all-stars: Wynton Kelly (piano), Jimmy Heath (tenor sax), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Sam Jones (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums).
Sam Jones was another Cannonball favorite from Florida who has been discussed on this space before as a vital Riverside sideman, as have the legendary Philly Joe Jones. Wynton Kelly was Miles' piano player at the time and when these sessions were cut, he was just weeks removed from the history-making Kind Of Blue recordings.
Jimmy Heath, the brother of the Modern Jazz Quartet's Percy Heath, was at the time about to embark on his own recording career as a leader, but already getting a reputation as a fine composer. Curtis Fuller was a up and comer at trombone and had already appeared on John Coltrane's lone Blue Note-r Blue Trane. His already-accomplished technique was the unsung hero on that early 'Trane classic.
Mitchell was one of the earliest musicians to recognize the songwriting acumen of saxophonist Bennie Golsen, having recorded the first version of "Blues March" the prior year. This time around, Mitchell adapts Golsen's delightful "Minor Wamp," which was only preceded by Fuller's read on it months earlier. Mitchell even brought in Golsen himself to arrange the tune.
It's on this hard-swinging number where we first notice what a formidable front line Mitchell, Heath, and Fuller made. As a unit they provided a tight, full sound that sounds as substantial as twice as many horns. Mitchell's muted horn makes the most of the short solo turn, with every note being just right. Heath likewise is fundamentally sound, and Fuller cleverly throws in a "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" reference on his turn. Philly Joe is his usual, wonderfully reckless self and Sam Jones is laying down an indestructible foundation right from the opening notes. It's a lot of maximal bop compressed into less than four minutes.
Mitchell's own "The Head" keeps the blowing session party going, only this time he takes off the mute and provides some nice echoes of Clifford Brown, but with his own lightly swinging style. Kelly and Philly Joe in particular sparkle on their solos.
The old standard "The Way You Look Tonight," is another burner but this time, Fuller and Heath lay out. Mitchell's full tone sounds almost like a trombone on this cut and he fills up the void left by the absence of the rest of the brass by pouring in more notes. He manages to do so without sounding like a showoff, though, keeping his customary composure intact.
The other horns take a breather again on another Golsen write, "Park Avenue Petite," the first soft track of the album. Mitchell's lone horn is played with great restraint, committing himself fully for mood and doing a pretty nice job at that.
The next two tunes are Heath compositions arranged by Heath himself. Jimmy even takes the first solo on hard-bop workout "Top Shelf" and acquits himself well, with plenty of Sonny Rollins phrasing of his notes. "Waverly Street" is a highly melodious mid-tempo number where Heath and Mitchell both playing particularly lyrical lines and Fuller is his usual blues-drenched self. Philly Joe's sudden shift into a syncopated beat for the last chorus is an unexpected treat.
The title cut "Blue Soul" is the next selection. As the name suggests, it's a twelve bar blues keyed by Mitchell's highly soulful trumpet, as once again, the other horns stay on the sideline. Kelly supplements with some simple but effective blues lines of his own before Sam Jones takes in a brief solo.
This past April 10, Blue Soul became the latest addition to the excellent Keepnews Collection reissue project helmed by the famed jazz producer, record executive and critic. As it has been for prior Keepnews reissues, this one has been nicely remastered. There's also some alternate takes added of "Minor Vamp," Park Avenue Petite," and Blue Soul" which are all more than passable.
If you've already familiarized yourself with the great works of the big names in jazz trumpet and are ready to explore some of the great talent that fell under the radar, Blue Mitchell is a mighty fine artist with which to start your deeper searches. Blue Soul is a mighty fine place to start with his discography.