Almost Blue — Album Covers Inspired By Blue Note Records

This year Blue Note Records celebrate the 70th anniversary of the label’s founding by Alfred Lion (as well as the 25th anniversary of the label’s re-launch in 1984). It is hard to miss – it is the only record label that puts its inception date in the logo. Blue Note Records have exerted a profound influence not only on 20th century music but also on graphic design. As this perfectly fits in our My Type of Music series I’ve tried to find an angle to write something about the seminal covers that graced their records. Though I admire the designs, with a preference for the bold 50s and 60s releases, I must admit I know very little about the history and background, nor about legendary Blue Note art director Reid Miles who was with the label from 1956 to 1965. His sleeves are collected in Blue Note: Album Cover Art – The Ultimate Collection, the paperback compendium of both Chronicle’s classic Blue Note: The Album Cover Art and Blue Note II, and the history of the label is told in Blue Note Records: The Biography. There are also a number of galleries on the internet, like this one on Pixagogo which has the designs in random order, and the Japanese Vintage Vanguard gallery which lists all the releases from 1950 to 1969 in chronological order.

Typical of Reid Miles’ style is the dramatic cropping of photographs, black and white images on flat colour with knocked out type, striking compositions, and use of rhythmical elements. His typographic treatments are flawless. Whether it’s classic serif type or dynamic, sometimes even experimental sans serif typography, he uses a recognisable and consistent type palette. Type is arranged asymmetrically, stacked, in waterfall, and is even used to crop the image. Miles occasionally experiments with punctuation, multiple readings, repetition, type as image, cut up and distorted type. In many of his designs he inverts the hierarchy by having the type play the lead role, and relegating the photograph of the artist to a tiny little box.

Doing more research yesterday – I know I wasn’t supposed to because May Day is a holiday here, but hey, sue me – I stumbled upon an interesting gallery on community site Rate Your Music. RYM user Monocle (alias for Michael Sean) seems to have a thing for album covers and lists. One of his album cover galleries is Almost Blue, an overview of sleeves that are based on specific releases by Blue Note Records, or that are designed to evoke the classic Blue Note cover art style. Many of Reid Miles’ designs still look ground-breaking today, so it is understandable that contemporary graphic designers sometimes refer to his work. To me it is not always clear whether these new album covers are homages or plain rip-offs, as it is indeed a fine line. Below is a selection of covers from the Monocle gallery – make sure to visit it for more examples. I have added the originals for comparison and some information about the typefaces. The first batch of covers are inspired by – and sometimes even straight-up copies of – specific Blue Note albums.

This one is cheating a bit, because Yule Struttin’ is also a Blue Note Records release. The jumpy Helvetica Inserat nicely visualises the album title(s).

Although the pose is identical (albeit different cropping) the Clarendon used in the original was replaced by a hand drawn serif face and a signature-like treatment of the artist’s name.

The Madness The Heavy Heavy Hits compilation mimics the cut-up typography of Horace Parlan’s Us Three but sticks to Compacta instead of the eclectic mix in the original.

The You Am I cover was originally listed in the section Covers That Mimic the General Blue Note Look, but I’m pretty sure it references Miles Davis (All Stars) Vol. 1 & 2. Futura is completely miscast: I don’t remember ever seen it used like this on a Reid Miles cover. They’d better have stuck with the wide grotesque which I believe is Annonce Grotesque (very similar to an extended Venus, now available as Vonness from The Font Bureau, Inc.).

This one is almost literally lifted except for changing the condensed Basic Commercial into ITC Frankin Condensed. The photographic treatment is so much stronger in the original, and it nicely illustrates why the originals of these covers are unequalled.

In the Midnight Blue sleeve the “g” of Aurora Condensed in “midnight” was customised to make it fit above “blue”. The credits are set in News Gothic on the left, and Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed on the right.

Although it enhances the “Blue Note style”, the black bar at the top of the James Taylor Quartet album cover renders it a little claustrophobic. The – perfectly positioned – Aurora Condensed in the original was replaced by a condensed grotesque paired with a Clarendon.

I think we can safely classify this one as satire – a denture!? Helvetica is wrong; it should have been Basic Commercial. The use of News Gothic is consistent.

This design shows how a little change in attitude can alter the atmosphere in a design. I was intrigued by the “Wrecker” on the right – it looks a bit like a customised Antique Olive Nord but it is in fact quite different, most notable the “C”. FontFeed reader William Hastings revealed it is Information Bold Extended, a font that has sadly become unavailable in digital format.

FontFeed reader Tracy Graham pointed out the obvious similarities in the above covers. This is one of the designs where the Blue Note Records logo also is remixed. It’s a shame the digitally condensed Helvetica looks awful – Helvetica Ultra Compressed is much closer to the original.

Some album covers reference Blue note covers more subtly, and one might even wonder if the tribute was intentional.

The second section in Monocle’s list showcases album covers that mimic the classic Blue Note look but are not derived from any specific sleeve. The Raphael Saadiq and Joe Jackson covers are not in the list; they are from two My Type of Music reviews.

And Reid Miles’ influence even crosses over to moving images. In 2004 Burning Vision Entertainment produced a music video for Helicopter Girl‘s Angel City. The surprising video interprets the art from various Blue Note LP sleeves. It all looks fabulous, except for the totally inappropriate use of Arial in a couple of screens and some dubious wavy transitions in the text. I know I sound like a broken record – a fitting metaphor in this context – but they could have gone the extra length and chosen their typefaces a bit more carefully. I have added eight of the album sleeves the video is based on for comparison.

FontFeed reader Aleksander Nikolić notified me of another video referencing Blue Note Records album covers. In Gabin’s Into My Soul featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater from 2005 the frame occasionally freezes and type is added to it to make it look like an album sleeve, without mimicking any specific one. This video is by Italian director Daniele Per­sica.

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  1. Great piece Yves!

    Posted by William Berkson on May. 2, 2009
  2. Thanks. :)

    I am greatly indebted to Monocle who did the research when compiling his list. Make sure to visit his gallery, there’s more than what I show here. I’m trying to find a way to contact him BTW.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 2, 2009
  3. Loving this! I used to have some of those records!
    That was some great shine–back when an album cover was a real showpiece and big enough to have impact.

    Well done, Yves!


    Posted by Chris Lozos on May. 2, 2009
  4. I’ve got a couple of them as CDs, and though they look great indeed the format is too small to really appreciate the impact. But I think that nowadays there are artists that understand how to design for that smaller format and use the sequential aspect to their advantage.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 2, 2009
  5. You might be interested in “Gabin ft Dee Dee Bridgewater – Into My Soul” video as well.

    Posted by Aleksandar Nikolić on May. 3, 2009
  6. Nice find, Aleksander! I’ve added the video to the article and will try to find out who made that one.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 3, 2009
  7. Director of the video is Daniele Persica.

    Posted by Aleksandar Nikolić on May. 3, 2009
  8. Wonderful. :) D’oh, next time I’ll just ask. You’re a life-saver, Aleksander.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 3, 2009
  9. totally awesome. thanks yves!

    Posted by Simon Robertson on May. 3, 2009
  10. Yves,
    The orange type on the Wreckers album cover is called “Information Extra Bold Extended.” It’s a favorite of mine, and I have some additional info on it if you’re curious.

    Posted by William Hastings on May. 3, 2009
  11. Yeah, definitely. Old, obscure, and as of yet not digitised yet?

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 3, 2009
  12. Information Extra Bold Extended
    Designed – Friedrich Karl Sallwey
    Released 1955
    Foundry – Klingspor

    I believe Linotype now owns the rights, and I am positive they have digitized it, but they’re not currently offering it. I wish I knew why. That said, if you have access to an older copy of FontShop’s FontBook (like, 1998 or so), you’ll see it listed! At some point, FS pulled it from their offerings!

    I’m fed up with waiting on Linotype to reissue, so I’m in the process of digitizing Information myself, utilizing letterpress proofs I pulled from genuine 66pt metal foundry type. It looks AMAZING at that size!
    ( I also letterpressed an Information specimen poster using the same type )


    Posted by William Hastings on May. 3, 2009
  13. That said, if you have access to an older copy of FontShop’s Font­Book (like, 1998 or so), you’ll see it listed! At some point, FS pulled it from their offer­ings!

    It was offered in the three weight volume Information BQ (Sans 113): Bold Condensed, Extra Bold Condensed, and Bold Extended. FontShop didn’t pull it from their offerings; they simply stopped distributing Berthold fonts. I don’t exactly know why, but I do know the guy who is supposed to take care of the Berthold collection hasn’t been very popular in the type business the last decade. Berthold doesn’t seem to offer the fonts anymore neither.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 4, 2009
  14. The use if Arial in the Helicopter Girl video made me vomit in my mouth a little. It’s hard to imagine the person making the video not seeing it as being so inelegant and out of place. It’s so jarring when it appears. so much so as to nearly induce vomiting.

    But the article itself? Bravo!

    Posted by foresmac on May. 4, 2009
  15. Good timing — I just posted a project I’m working on that re-imagines a bunch of Wu-Tang albums as Blue Note releases. It’s tentatively called Wu Note:

    Posted by logan on May. 4, 2009
  16. oh man,ohhhh man, I’m delirious, in college I did jazz show (70’s) and I lived and breathed Blue Note – I have the books, but this was a great randomly generated refresher. BN was a total Everest of popular design ALL HAIL REID – wow, getting light headed – gotta go ** thud

    Posted by nick on May. 5, 2009
  17. Posted by tracy graham on May. 6, 2009
  18. Oh, great — I’ll add them. I do hope Monocle finds this thread and completes his gallery. I tried to contact him through RYM but no luck so far.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 6, 2009
  19. If you’re still feeling guilty, you could replace Yule Struttin’ with Them Jazzbeards’ Dirty White Loafers.

    Posted by bs on May. 7, 2009
  20. Hah! Now that’s a fun one! Great find. :)

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 7, 2009
  21. u forgot this one…

    Again, I’d like to stress that I only show a selection of the gallery by Monocle. If you want to see everything go over to his Rate Your Music page.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 7, 2009
  22. Donald Byrd with the car headlamp instantly spurred my memory of Tone Loc’s forgotten followup.

    Posted by Keith T. on May. 8, 2009
  23. Indeed Keith, the Tone Loc album is in the Monocle gallery. This is only a selection of that gallery. If you want to see every­thing go over to there.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 8, 2009
  24. Cunning stunts, what a great album.

    Posted by rennox on May. 9, 2009
  25. Hey there,

    Sorry for the late response, but it’s been a crazy week.

    I love the article! Nicely done. As both a music lover and a graphic design nerd, I’ve been a reader of FontFeed for awhile (My Type of Music is a favorite feature). It had been a few weeks since I visited the site, so this was a nice surprise. I’m glad to see my lists have been useful for something other than my own amusement.

    I’ll work on updating the list with the new suggestions. The Atmosphere take-off of Andrew Hill was already on the list, and it doesn’t look like Them Jazzbeards are in the RateYourMusic database yet, so I’ll have to add them.

    I have a few other typography related album cover lists that your readers my find interesting:

    Letter Jackets: Typographic Design As Album Art

    Word Jazz: The Typographic Design of Blue Note Records

    and A Play in Words: Fun With Typographic Design in Album Art

    Thanks for the nod. You and the other FontFeed guys have provided plenty of inspiration to me in the past, so it’s wonderful to have been able to return the favor.

    Keep up the great work!

    ~Michael Sean

    Posted by Michael Sean (Monocle) on May. 10, 2009
  26. Hey, Michael, thanks for chiming in. Great to have your feedback.

    You and the other Font­Feed guys have pro­vided plenty of inspi­ra­tion to me in the past, so it’s won­der­ful to have been able to return the favor.

    Well, judging from the reactions, the Tweets about this post, and the incoming links you have provided plenty of inspiration to a whole lot of people. Great job.

    BTW I totally overlooked the Atmosphere album in your list — sorry for the double mention.

    Posted by Yves Peters on May. 11, 2009
  27. I hate the “wrecker” monomen poster rip-off.
    The one on the left (I’m calling “roll”) uses the woman’s contrapposto so the letters expertly roll down the right side of her body. The wrecker poster has the gal’s posture moving away from the letters, not actually bumping them, like I would imagine a wrecker ball swinging into the side of a building. In fact, she has almost no effect on the letters, whereas the presence of the gal in the “roll” poster, makes such an impact that they all appear to align on her. Excellent typesetting.
    The wrecker’s just a wreck. It could have been awesome if she bumped the letters and the top one fell off, like they attempt.

    Posted by benxamin on May. 13, 2009
  28. Here another cover inspired by Blue Note I didn’t see on any list.

    Thanks for the great Font Shop News. It always jazzes up my inbox.

    Posted by Scott R Maurer on May. 13, 2009
  29. Beautiful artwork!

    Posted by Aniat on May. 13, 2009
  30. The Mono Men record sleeve is my favorite in this set.
    The author, Art Chantry, is a master in graphic design. All of his work is done “the old way”, so no computers, no fonts, no graphic softwares. Just hands, ink and real type.
    Check out his book “Some People Can’t Surf”! He’s doing something more than rip-offs…

    Posted by Vandalo on May. 13, 2009
  31. Nice collection/contrast. Thank you for the inspiration.

    You might also enjoy the work of Roland Clyne, he designed a fair number of interesting modernist LP covers for Smithsonian Folkways.

    His cover for Todd Dockstaders “Eight Electronic Pieces” is outstanding (download the PDF liner notes).

    Posted by Scott Allison on May. 13, 2009
  32. We found our inspiration for this World Vision project from these same sources!

    Great piece.

    Posted by Gordon on May. 15, 2009
  33. Wonderful piece, Yves. The imitators, as excellent as some of their work is, only make me realize just how brilliant and fully formed nearly all of Miles’ covers were. I’ve loved them since I understood what graphic design was, and it seems these designs get better and better with age.

    Posted by Patrick Barber on May. 26, 2010
  34. Great article. Regarding the videos, Madlib’s “Slim’s Return” will be of interest as it mimics various iconic Blue Note sleeves. It’s very appropriate given that it was from a record of reinterpretations of jazz classics by Madlib and was actually released on Blue Note.

    Posted by Jaap on Oct. 18, 2010
  35. There’s a recent video, using and abusing of the Blue Note album covers, but, in a animated way!

    Posted by Marcelo Donati on Feb. 9, 2012
  36. Marcelo, if you click the Blue Note Records tag at the bottom of the article you’ll find this post. ; )

    Posted by Yves Peters on Feb. 10, 2012
  37. Just stumbled on this page–fantastic!!
    Wondering if anyone could tell me the font used in the actual Blue Note logos–two of them specifically (for there are 3 or 4 design variations, I think).
    The first would be on display in Midnight Blue and New Perspective covers, and the second would be on display on Grant Green’s Green Street, or Duke Jordan’s Flight To Jordan. I’ve always wanted to know the precise fonts used in those logos as I create my own BN compilation discs and make cover art for them as well.
    Thanks a bunch!!

    Posted by Erik C. on Feb. 20, 2012

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