Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue – Blue Note ST-84123 (1963/2014) stereo vinyl, 35:39 *****:
(Kenny Burrell – guitar; Stanley Turrentine – tenor saxophone; Major Holley Jr. – bass; Bill English – drums; Ray Barrette – conga)
Kenny Burrell started playing guitar at twelve years of age in Detroit. As a student at Wayne State University, he broke into the jazz scene recording with Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1951. In that same year he recorded a single, “Ground Round” at Fortune Records. A stint touring with Oscar Peterson in 1955 introduced him to a national audience. Over the course of the next six decades, Burrell recorded over 100 albums as a sideman and band leader. His collaborative efforts include Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Chet Baker, Gene Ammons, Paul Chambers, Jack McDuff and a host of other jazz and blues legends. As a solo artist, he has recorded over sixty critically acclaimed albums, many with Blue Note, Prestige and Verve. His technical skill and melodic ear were a natural fit to any session. In addition to his illustrious career as a jazz musician, Burrell is a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
Burrell’s most significant contribution to jazz recording (according to many) is his 1963 Blue Note release, Midnight Blue. Featuring Stanley Turrentine on saxophone, Major Holley Jr. on double bass, Bill English on drums and Ray Barretto on congas, this album represents the most flawless amalgamation of traditional blues and cool/bop jazz. It consistently ranks among the greatest jazz albums of all time. As part of their 75th anniversary, Blue Note Records has re-released Midnight Blue on vinyl. Over fifty years later, it is still a testament to good music.
Side A opens with “Chitlins Con Carne”, a latin finger-snapper that would define Burrell as a songwriter. It has been covered by Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Horace Silver and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Conga player Ray Barretto combines with bassist Major Holley Jr. on a relaxed finger-snapping tempo that leads to Burrell’s first solo. Turrentine enters on tenor, but in a quiet way to caress the melody, eventually trading licks with Burrell. “Mule” is also understated, but confident. Burrell and Holley Jr. tap into old school blues. As Turrentine’s slight vibrato solo unfolds, he is backed up by guitar chords, bass and cymbal. Burrell’s guitar solo is delicate and emotional. Continuing the emotional interpretative eloquence is the solo guitar track, “Soul Lament”. Burrell’s ruminative, graceful lines are tender and demonstrate the power of subtlety. The title cut finishes Side 1. The dynamics shift to an up tempo, swinging groove fest. Burrell is equally as comfortable in this rhythmic pattern.
Side 2 gets off to a rousing start on “Wavy Gravy”. Propelled by a cool jazz, walking bass line, Burrell delivers succinctly accented guitar riffs. Turrentine joins in with his compelling saxophone that adds to the ambiance. The band interacts fluently, and Burrell alternates between solo and rhythm guitar. Delving into 1930s blues, “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You” is an exercise in guitar, bass and drum fluidity. The finale, “Saturday Night Blues” is appropriately close to this treatise on jazzy blues. It is an evocative nightclub performance. Full of attitude, it still operates within the mellower, complex rhythms of the album. Turrentine wails on his solo, but with restraint. Burrell prominent solo dovetails at the end of Turrentine’s, as a fade concludes the glowing musical journey.
The acoustics of Midnight Blue are excellent. Rudy Van Gelder’s minimalist engineering technique fits Burrell and company. Instrumental shading (bass, cymbals, congas) is low-key, but rich in texture. The tenor saxophone is never shrill, even when Turrentine is wailing. The guitar is crystalline, with enough amplification to showcase Burrell’s technical bravado. Also, this historical vinyl is available at a reasonable price (around $17).
Side 1: Chitlins Con Carne; Mule; Soul Lament; Midnight Blue
Side 2: Wavy Gravy; Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You; Saturday Night Blues