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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."

The late Michael Brecker appears on two Half Note albums: as a guest soloist on The Truth by the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine (2004), which was recorded live at the Blue Note in 1999, Jones' last recording as a leader, and on Locked & Loaded (2006) by the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, which featured a total of ten saxophonists, including Joe Lovano and James Carter. Levenson is especially proud of the Pope recording. "You have to find the things that trigger your emotional buttons. It's always a role of the dice to see if people will hear what you hear or if they'll want to support what you hope they support. That record was the culmination of what I had in my head. And that's not a common experience, that the results line up with what you had in your head."

Another Half Note recording where Levenson ventured beyond a traditional jazz setting is Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm & Ancestry (2009), led by the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. It also features Tim Eriksen on banjo and violin, whose playing is steeped in the traditions of Appalachia and New England. The recording was nominated for a Grammy in the world music category. "The beautiful thing about it was that as I immersed myself in the music, a certain theme developed that had not been clear to me at the start. The theme involved the shared rhythms of Africa as learned by a guy from the ports of Havana and a guy from the ports of Charleston. The music was emanating from Africa. The whole thing was about the Middle Passage. Plus, we were making the record during the rise of the Obama presidency. There was poignancy and gravitas there. As a result, the music itself did not invite the kind of 'Live-at-the-Blue-Note' treatment I might attach to other kinds of music recorded at the club. We recorded it there, but we eliminated the audience and eliminated the sounds of the house. The club became the studio for the record—a somewhat different approach."

The Sosa recording was a unique experience for Levenson. Ordinarily, producing the albums recorded live at the Blue Note requires a much different approach than producing a studio recording. "One little secret about doing 'Live at the Blue Note' is that if I do my job well, everyone believes that it's a snapshot of what occurred. Click— that's the show. But what we actually do, typically, is to record two nights' worth of an artist. That's four shows.

At the end of that process, we'll have five or six hours of music. And then, out of that body of music, I'll pull out sixty minutes for the CD. So, a 'Live-at-the-Blue-Note' show is almost always a composite of four or sometimes six shows that have been selected, cobbled together, and organized to reflect a night at the Blue Note."

The mechanics and logistics of live recording can present challenges, as well. "We'll either use a truck or a remote operation that's situated on the second floor in the Blue Note. The stage is fully mic'd, and there are 24 tracks worth of sound being captured. And sometimes it can get really messy on the stage, depending on the size of the ensemble and who's playing. It can be a challenge to make that sound listenable; you're wrestling a beast. That's the province of the engineering team I have. They're great, great guys—Steve Remote and John Duva. They know the sound of the room intimately, so they're able to capture it. It can get very complicated, because you want to try to achieve separation with each of those microphone channels, with a minimal amount of bleed so that you're able to play with each of the sounds and then mix and match and blend and organize. It's like a musical jigsaw puzzle. There are a lot of pieces and parts that are moving around, and you have to integrate them into a whole so that the listener feels he or she is just in the room listening to a show. And if I do my job well, no one will see my fingerprints on the package."

Levenson always seems to be juggling several upcoming projects for the label. "There are probably six or seven balls in the air at the moment, and each of them is at a varying state of completion. One has been captured but not mixed. Another one awaits the photography. One awaits the art direction. By year's end I should have put out about six new releases." Likely among them will be Conrad Herwig's Latin Side of Joe Henderson and a big band recording featuring Joe Lovano with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra doing his original compositions arranged by Gil Goldstein. (Goldstein is also represented on the label with his Grammy-nominated album, Under Rousseau's Moon [2006].)

As if his work at Half Note isn't enough, Levenson is involved in a number of other activities in the jazz world. He's logged in more than twenty years working on the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, co-producing it annually with Leonard E. Brown of the Monk Institute. Levenson finds his work there quite gratifying. "The Monk Competition has served as a launch point for a number of meaningful careers. Josh Redman won in '91, and I remember vividly the moment he won; a host of A&R men rushed to the stage brandishing business cards. There have been a number of people who have benefited mightily from Monk. The exposure has really enabled them to become stars in their own right. In recent years you've seen it with Gretchen Parlato or Ambrose Akinmusire, and even the runners up have done very well, such as Tierney Sutton."

As an outgrowth of his work with the Monk Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., Levenson has produced a number of high-profile events over the years for the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. State Department and the White House. They've featured such musicians as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and included command performances for the President and other political dignitaries.

Levenson is also active in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the organization responsible for the Grammy Awards, and he currently serves as a Governor of the New York Chapter and as chair of the independent jazz committee. "I believe that jazz has often been treated as a stepchild in the pantheon of the arts. It's not a music that commands major mainstream regard or respect for a host of reasons, primarily involving both economics and race. I should probably say that jazz has no monopoly on feelings of neglect. I just happen to live in the jazz world, so I represent its interest. NARAS is a political organization that has a mandate to aid and assist all genres of music and all musicians and professional people who work in music. It's my conviction that we should not determine a music's value by its commercial viability only. I try hard to get jazz represented fairly."

From time to time, Levenson also teaches workshops on the business of jazz, most recently in Brussels, Hamburg and Rotterdam, in addition to having offered them at the New School in New York City in the past. "Kids in jazz programs learn how to master instruments, and they're really well equipped to become musicians in that regard. They learn the history and they learn the technical aspects of mastery. But once they complete their studies they have to apply their skills somewhere, somehow. The workshops I offer give a snapshot view of what real life looks like, what kids can expect once they enter the mainstream, keeping in mind that not every kid wants to make records and wants to be a leader of a jazz group, but may, in fact, want to do other things."

Looking back on his career, Levenson gets a bit nostalgic and philosophical. His start was actually as journalist, first writing jazz reviews and other articles for The Aquarian Weekly, an alternative newspaper based just outside New York City, in Montclair, New Jersey. Around that time, he remembers meeting Dan Morgenstern, the former Downbeat editor and director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. "Dan was very kind to me as an aspiring jazz writer. He was really great, and I'm going to be forever indebted to him." Levenson teamed up with his Aquarian editor, Gene Kalbacher, to found Hot House magazine, and ultimately went on to his longest run as a journalist as jazz editor for Billboard.

"It's so interesting to me that when you look backwards, sometimes it makes sense in ways that didn't makes sense when you were living your life. You're motivated by a desire to do things, and then you're in it. As I look back at the trajectory, I understand it. I had moved from the ranks of being a journalist to a record executive to a producer, and even now I continue to write. I do a column for JazzFM 91 in Toronto, Canada. So there's a full-circle dynamic in play. If you're immersed in a profession that gives you what you need or somehow satisfies whatever your professional desires are, you just do it."

Levenson illustrates his point further with a story about interviewing the late Max Gordon, the founder of the Village Vanguard, sometime in the early 1980s. "I was the East Coast Editor for Downbeat, and I went to interview Max Gordon. I start asking him, how did he know when he began the club in 1936 that he was going to change the course of popular culture? That he was going to redefine how we view jazz and folk singing and even comedy? Did he know how visionary he was? I'm gushing; I'm a kid in front of the great Max Gordon. And he was just so beautiful to me. He had a cigar, and he was listening to me, just going on and on. And then he said, 'Look. Just shut up, OK? I want to tell you how it works. This is it: I got up, and I went to work. And I walked down my steps, and I put on my show, and I counted my money, and I closed my door, and I went home. And then the next day, I did the same thing. I walked down the steps, I counted my money, and I went home. I went to work. I went home. I went to work. If you do that long enough, then, if you're lucky enough, some kid comes up to you and asks you what your great vision is about life and how you changed the course of popular culture. But in fact, I was just doing what I felt like doing.'

"I love that story, because the fact is, if you just do your thing, if you follow your passion and your heart and somehow carve out a way to do some version of what you deem is important, then at the end of this whole thing, poof!, you have a career. And then you can talk about it with great authority as if every part was a measured piece that you put in place. In fact, I just was doing what I was doing. It's like starting Hot House magazine with Gene Kalbacher. Wouldn't it be great if we had a magazine about jazz? And then one thing triggered the next thing, which triggered the next. It's very symmetrical, almost with bookends. It started with the pure enthusiasm about writing about music. I wanted free records. I wanted to go to shows. I wanted to be able to hang out. I like hanging out. And then, I start writing about it, and this happened and that happened, and the White House happened, and there it is. I think if there's any guiding principal here, it's really just about desire. What do you want to do? This is what I wanted to do."

As he goes about his day-to-day work, Levenson is mindful of what brought him to the Blue Note and Half Note Records. "I think my mission was to create a record label that was worthy of the Blue Note name. I considered the Blue Note to be pretty much at the top of the pyramid. To this day, I think in the entire planet there are two jazz clubs, the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. So, when I got here, I knew of the Blue Note's reach. I knew of its overall sense of achievement. I also wanted to set the bar at a particular level, so that I could do the kinds of things that, ironically, were very difficult for me to do both at Columbia Records and at Warner Brothers. In larger record companies, one would think that you would have the benefit of the large corporate machinery to aid and assist you. But, in fact, those gears grind you down and make life really, really difficult.

"I'm a New York kid. I grew up in the shadows of Yankee Stadium. So, this notion that I should be working for a company wants to capture the sound of New York appealed to me a great deal. And I believe that's what's happening. Half Note reflects a particular time and place. This is what it sounds like. This is the sound of jazz.

"When I first got on the scene in the late '70s and early '80s, I experienced a New York that was very, very vital. The previous generation bragged about 52nd Street. I didn't get to see that. I was too young. But in the New York of my time there were a lot of clubs, a lot of action. The musicians ranged from staunch traditionalists to progressive avant gardists. The full range of jazz was being heard on the streets of New York, and I liked that.

"I thought that was emblematic of the spirit that I attribute to us all as New Yorkers. I wanted Half Note to be heard as the sound of New York. And I wanted it to cover stylistic gamuts that fairly replicate what's going on. I don't believe that I have the capabilities to portray every single side of jazz. It's a mighty wide spectrum. But I try to cover a lot of it."

Levenson sees the jazz spectrum as continuing to broaden. "It's expanded and evolved over the years, definitionally speaking. Jazz is something different now than when I started. And I think it's interesting programmatically that through technology and global economics, jazz is now a hyphenated music. Jazz is totally informed and colored by global elements the world over. I just consider that normal growth and expansion and maturation. To the degree that I can either capture that or throw the spotlight on it or gently massage it—I give it my best."

Selected Half Note Discography

Lee Konitz/Bill Frisell/Gary Peacock/Joey Baron, Enfants Terribles: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2012)
Randy Brecker, The Jazz Ballad Songbook (Half Note, 2011)
Kenny Werner, Institute of Higher Learning (Half Note, 2011)
Kenny Werner, Baloons (Half Note, 2011)
Conrad Herwig, The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock (Half Note, 2010)
Kenny Werner, No Beginning, No End (Half Note, 2010)
Omar Sosa, Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm & Ancestry (Half Note, 2009)
McCoy Tyner, Solo: Live in San Francisco (Half Note/McCoy Tyner Music, 2009)
McCoy Tyner, Guitars (Half Note/McCoy Tyner Music, 2008)
Conrad Herwig, The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter (Half Note, 2008)
McCoy Tyner Quartet (Half Note/McCoy Tyner Music, 2007)
Conrad Herwig, Sketches of Spain y Mas (Half Note, 2006)
Gil Goldstein, Under the Rousseau Moon (Half Note, 2006)
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Locked & Loaded (Half Note, 2006)
Kenny Werner, Peace (Half Note, 2004)
Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, The Truth: Heard Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2004)
Conrad Herwig, Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis (Half Note, 2004)
Paquito D'Rivera, Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2000)

Photo Credits
Jeff Levenson photographed by Herb Scher.
The Blue Note photographed by Jesse Merz.


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