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Half Note Records: Live from the Blue Note

Bob Kenselaar By

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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.


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