Half Note Records: Live from the Blue Note
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 catalogincluding McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz and many othersthe 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 Grammynot just a nomination, but a winand 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 Béla 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."