Midnight Blue // Kenny Burrell (Blue Note BLP 4123)

What is it about the color blue that is so expressive, so hip, so cool? Rhapsody in Blue. Kind of Blue. Blue Trane. True Blue. And then there’s Midnight Blue.

The Music

The Tune: “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You”
Recorded: 8 January, 1963 at Englewood Cliffs, NJ
Personnel:

  • Kenny Burrell – Guitar
  • Major Holly – Bass
  • Bill English- Drums

1963

  • 14 days into 1963, Alabama governor George Wallace proclaims “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” in his inaugural address.
  • Mary Lucille Hamilton, a black woman, refuses to answer a judge in Alabama until she is referred to as “Ms. Hamilton”. It was Southern custom for whites to be called “Mr./Ms.” but black people simply called by their first names. Although the court found Ms. Hamilton in contempt, her case eventually landed in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled that black people had the right to be referred to as Mr. and Ms. in court like white people.
  • Medgar Evers is assassinated in his driveway in Mississippi. His murderer is convicted…in 1994.
  • President John Kennedy makes a televised speech calling for equal treatment of black Americans.
  • Children and adults protesting for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama are brutalized by police, fire hoses, and dogs before being hauled off to jail. The resulting newsreels of the melee is viewed around the world.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March On Washington.
  • Four black girls at Sunday School are killed when a bomb is thrown at their church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • JFK is assassinated that November.
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1963 was a seminal year in America’s history. The South was under the impression that the Confederacy was still sovereign and that it was 1863. The North and the West was in denial about its own racial issues. And just when it seemed as though civil rights activists had a president they felt was at least somewhat sympathetic to their cause, JFK was shot in Texas in November, changing forever the trajectory and spirit of America. If there was ever a time that America was feeling that midnight-hour blues, 1963 was it. Amidst all this bedlam, an integrated group of men got together and recorded one of the bluest midnight-hour jazz albums of all time.

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The music that Kenny Burrell and his compatriots made is a rare example of an album’s title perfectly matching the mood of the music. Midnight blue indeed. From the moment Major Holly’s bass swaggers into focus with the backing of Bill English’s drums, you know you’re in for a great time. Add Ray Barretto’s congas and it’s a party. Stanley Turrentine’s soulful tenor sax and Kenny’s guitar chords give it that laid-back, bluesy vibe. The bossa nova wasn’t new anymore by January of 1963, but Kenny Burrell’s studio group reinvents the bossa nova into a soulful ‘rhythm & blues meets Brazil’ fusion. The whole album flows in much of the same unpretentious, lazy vein, alternating between smokey blues-drenched jazz and more Latin-flavored jazz. None of the tempos are above a lively walk, and nearly all of the tunes are the good old 12-bar blues. The music is evocative, conjuring images of a hip bachelor pad (more Sean Connery’s James Bond, not fresh outta college bachelor pad), complete with dim lighting and a glass of wine on hand.

The opening tune, “Chitlins con Carne”, is probably the most popular and well-known tune from the album, but I chose “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” as the feature track partly because I’ve always had a special place for this song (the words, the melody, the chord changes…) and partly because Kenny Burrell really shines on this track. It’s just him and the bass and drums, so there’s nowhere for him to hide. On top of that, the tempo is impossible. On one hand, it’s slow enough that outright swinging is difficult, yet JUST quick enough to prevent it from dragging along. He walks the tightrope expertly. The tempo invites double-timing and overplaying, yet Burrell rides the beat, making for a swing so vicious you might get whiplash. Economical, swinging, and full of taste, with an occasional delicious chord thrown in for good measure. In other words, perfect jazz guitar.

The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: A

What great use of space, color, and placement! This is one of Blue Note’s most aesthetically-pleasing album covers in their library. The small purple-tinted photo of a pensive Kenny Burrell mid-strum framed by the words of the title is a genius move. The plain black background makes the artwork pop all the more while driving home the late-nite vibes. I could go on and on about this near-perfect artwork, but I won’t. I’ll just close by saying that this is a wonderful example of mod-1960’s minimalist style. Amen and amen.

The Back

Venerable jazz critic and longhair Leonard Feather contributes the liner notes, which are solid. His comments on what the blues are not are pretty comical. “I’m not talking about the blues you get when you’re waiting for a $10,000 royalty check and it turns out to be only $9,000, or the blues because your best girl walked out and you had to go back to your fourth wife…”

A common theme among just about all the original Blue Note albums I own is that the back of the album jacket looks like it fought a battle and lost. Now that I think about it, that’s probably why I’m able to afford them…

The Vinyl

I read somewhere that there’s something super duper special about this record, other than its music or album art. Something about this being the only Blue Note album with the catalog number stamped by a machine in the runnout wax? Cool bit of trivia that is. Getting further into the weeds of record collector’s minutiae, apparently a first pressing of this album should have a deep groove on one side and no deep groove on the other. Mine lacks a deep groove on both sides, which apparently makes this a *gasp* dreaded second pressing. Seriously, though, it has labels that match the early 60’s pressing date, along with other indicators of an authentic Blue Note such as the Plasylite ear and ‘VAN GELDER’ stamped into the runnout wax. First or second or third pressing, I personally don’t care or mind. It’s from the initial run and that’s fine with me.

Sound-wise, this album sounds fantastic. My copy is in glorious Van Gelder mono, and the instruments are crisp and upfront in the mix. Van Gelder strikes again. How he could make the musicians sound so punchy and intimate yet preserve a sense of air and space is beyond me. I hate that I’m slowly becoming a fangirl of RVG… Yuck.

The Place of Acquisition

This was among my first Blue Note albums and one of the many that I’ve found at my local record store in Alabama. It was up on the display wall, so I didn’t think I could afford it, yet as I got closer and saw the price tag, I was in disbelief. Only $30?! It must be defective or something. Although it was a bit over my then-collegiate budget for one record, I paid the man for the album and took it back to my record player. At the time, I had an Ion Max LP record player, which is a bougie Crosley turntable. Needless to say, while the record sounded ok, it wasn’t great. I chalked it up to groove wear and kept it pushing. When I finally upgraded my turntable at the beginning of last year, I revisited this album. It was like hearing it for the first time, and it sounded like completely different record. Most of what I thought was groove wear disappeared. For $30 I had a classic jazz album, and it sounded great. My local record store delivered yet again.

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