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Half Note Records: Live from the Blue Note

Half Note Records:  Live from the Blue Note
Bob Kenselaar By

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Jeff Levenson has been at the helm of Half Note Records since 2002, just a few years after it got off the ground. Through a combination of his leadership and vision and the great artistry of the musicians represented in its catalog—including McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz and many others—the label has clearly made its mark in jazz over the years.

Founded by the Blue Note Jazz Club in 1998, Half Note Records started out by quietly releasing albums recorded live at the club and didn't really get the jazz world to sit up and take notice until Paquito D'Rivera's Live at the Blue Note won a Grammy in 2001.

"I think that was the moment when the Blue Note family recognized that this record label was really viable," says Levenson. "The Grammys serve as one of the ways we keep score in the industry. You get a Grammy—not just a nomination, but a win—and you're real."

Levenson took the reins at Half Note after having worked as a Vice President at Columbia Records, where he was executive producer of Grammy-winning albums by Branford Marsalis and Bela Fleck, among many others. And prior to that, he was a VP at Warner Brothers, where he produced Bill Evans' Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings (1996). Levenson also had a history with the Blue Note Jazz Club that went back to its founding, first when he was soliciting ads from the club for Hot House, a jazz magazine he co-founded. "The club opened in the fall of 1981, which coincided perfectly with the start of Hot House," Levenson recalls. "I was spending a lot of time at the Blue Note in those years, and I worked for the club, too. Ever since, I always felt to be a member of the Blue Note family. So when [Blue Note President] Steven Bensusan approached me about coming in to do Half Note Records, it was a return home for me."

One of the early projects Levenson brought to the label came at the suggestion of trombonist Conrad Herwig. "Conrad and I are friends. He had nice success with The Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place, 1996). When I was still at Columbia Records, he approached me and said, 'I have a great title for a record; I want to call it Another Kind of Blue.' I said, 'Let's do it. Tell me what it's about later; I just love the title.' I couldn't make it happen while I was at Columbia, but I decided that I wanted to do it somewhere, somehow. So we did it for Half Note, Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis (2004)," and it was nominated for a Grammy."

Herwig and Levenson have continued working together on other albums for Half Note in a similar vein, all recorded live at the Blue Note: Sketches of Spain y Mas (2006), The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter (2008), The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock (2010) and a forthcoming recording, The Latin Side of Joe Henderson, featuring Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone. "Conrad is a very interesting and resourceful guy. Out of his work 'Latinizing' these traditional jazz composers, he's been able to create a working franchise with an extended shelf life, including a 'Latin Side' touring ensemble."

Another musician well represented on Half Note is pianist Kenny Werner. "It's my belief that Kenny is a supreme musician, a prodigious talent," says Levenson. "When we first started working together, ten years ago, I thought he was oddly under- recognized. He was an insider's musician. A lot of his colleagues and confreres knew about his talent, and he had written a very influential book, Effortless Mastery (Aebersold, 1996), which touched a lot of people." As an illustration of the impact the book has had, Levenson recalls a moment he experienced as co-producer of the Thelonious Monk Competition. "I was sitting in the judges' chambers with Quincy Jones and Herb Alpert, and they began talking about this genius pianist who wrote this book, and they couldn't believe how great and awesome it was. They were talking about Werner. I felt a tremendous rush of both awe and pride that he had really penetrated the upper stations of our industry."

Werner's Institute of Higher Learning (Half Note, 2011) is an example of the recent releases on Half Note that have been recorded at locations other than the Blue Note- -in this case, in Belgium. "One thing about our long relationship with Werner is that each of the projects showcases a different facet of what he does. A lot of people know him as a killer pianist. He's also a killer composer and conceptualizer. Institute of Higher Learning has him with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra in a big band context. Before that we did Baloons(2011), a quintet record with Randy Brecker, David Sanchez, John Patitucci and Antonio Sanchez, live at the Blue Note. And earlier we did Peace (2004) with Johannes Weidenmueller and Ari Hoenig, his classic trio, also at the Blue Note. The idea has been to develop projects designed to showcase this great, 360-degree musician."

An especially important recording of Werner's on Half Note is No Beginning, No End (2010), which presents the composition that won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, written in tribute to his daughter, Katheryn. "She was a vibrant, vital young woman who embodied the life spirit that we all love to see and celebrate," recalls Levenson. "She died tragically, and Kenny was in a place that none of us really want to even know about, just very deep pain. And he composed a masterwork of incredible beauty, warmth and emotion. I've worked very closely with him over the years, and I was stunned that he had this stuff in him. To this day, he's convinced that at that moment in his life he was a channel. Something passed through him. It's a really awe- inspiring creation. The record involved a hundred musicians. Kenny had a lot of friends who wanted to pitch in and dedicate themselves to the healing process. He got help from Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano, very dear friends who were close to Katheryn, and we had help from New York University and Dave Schroeder, the director of jazz studies there. I'm extremely proud of the record. It's like nothing else that I've heard in the jazz canon."

Another pianist with a close connection to Half Note Records is McCoy Tyner. To date, he's recorded three CDs jointly released by Half Note and McCoy Tyner Music: Solo: Live from San Francisco (2009), Guitars (2008) and McCoy Tyner Quartet (2007). "McCoy is an important part of the family," says Levenson. "The Blue Note isn't just a jazz club in New York. There are the clubs in Milan and Japan. The Blue Note books festivals elsewhere. There's the recording division, Half Note. And the Blue Note manages artists, including McCoy. When he came here close to ten years ago, he was eager to work, eager to do things. I think McCoy is one of these guys who could not function unless he worked. Being on the road is home for him, as oxymoronic as that sounds. Doing projects with him has turned out to be a lot of fun. We did the solo record at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. The Guitars album was really interesting, paring him with Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Marc Ribot, Derek Trucks and Béla Fleck. I guess we cheated a little calling it Guitars, since Béla is in the mix. I've never asked him if he was insulted by being referred to as a guitarist." In addition to Fleck and the guitarists, the album features bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The personnel on the 2007 quartet release is equally impressive: saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.

Levenson is convinced that Tyner will continue to produce a good deal more great music in years to come. "He has a hunger to do things. Many people would assume that at his age he'd want to phone it in or give it a rest, but that's just not his nature."

Levenson is especially enthusiastic about a series of projects for Half Note that he's working on with trumpeter Randy Brecker, beginning with a Brecker Brothers Band reunion. "It was originally designed to serve as a summary effort that could recap the years he spent together with his brother Michael. And then it really turned out to be a canvas for him to paint new material. It's really interesting. He put together this band with [guitarist] Mike Stern, [drummer] Dave Weckl, [bassist] Will Lee and Randy's wife, Ada Rovatti, the saxophonist. Randy has really become one of our emeritus figures. For me, it's an emotional issue, because one of the very first records I purchased when I was a young was the Blood, Sweat & Tears record, Child is Father to the Man (Columbia, 1968). Randy's on that record; he's on the cover, in fact. He looks like he's 12 years old, like it's a Bar Mitzvah picture or something. That record was really powerful for me at that time. I was about 15 years old, and here I was, hearing music that's kind of rock-ish, kind of jazz-ish. It's got horns, and it's got vocals, and I don't know what it is, but I'm touched by it. And it has stayed with me, a portal through which I entered. The idea that this record has been inside me for 45 years, and now I'm working with Randy Brecker—it's an important piece of my personal puzzle. I feel a strong sense of continuity. I feel like I'm fulfilling something that was given to me when I was too young to understand it. I understand it now, and I love that I'm working with him."

The trumpeter already appears on the label as a sideman on recordings by Kenny Werner and Conrad Herwig, as well as on an album under his own name, The Jazz Ballad Songbook (2011). "I would love to take credit for producing that record, but, in fact, all I did was recognize how great it was. It was recorded in Copenhagen. I heard it, and I flipped. I picked it up for Half Note to release in the U.S., because I wanted it to be a showcase for Randy. I think he's really one of our great trumpet players, and I thought that record was very rich. His playing was beautiful, and it got four Grammy nominations."

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