To describe Kenny Burrell as an integral part of the Blue Note story is to sell this still-thriving guitarist short. Perhaps better than any of his contemporaries, Burrell represents the level of versatility and consistent quality that transcended individual record labels and created the fertile jazz recording scene of the 12-inch LP's first decade.
He was everywhere, as a sideman and a leader, after launching his East Coast career with two Blue Note albums in 1956. And one suspects that certain excellent sessions he cut for other companies with Coleman Hawkins in place of Turrentine; or A Night at the Vanguard -classic trio Burrell- might have more substantial reputations today if they had been issued under the Blue Note logo. Consider such gems as Bluesy Burrell, cut for Prestige/Moodsville four months before the present session with Holley and Barretto aboard, Tommy Flanagan's piano added and Coleman Hawkins in place of Turrentine, or A Night at the Vanguard with Richard Davis and Roy Haynes that Argo taped in 1959 less than a month after Blue Note had documented a Burrell quintet (with Tina Brooks and Art Blakey), On View at the Five Spot Cafe.
Yet if such masterpieces from other catalogues (and others like Kenny Burrell with John Coltrane and The Tender Gender) can be imagined as Blue Note releases, no rival label could possibly have provided as fitting a home for Midnight Blue. Leonard Feather's notes report what the music so clearly reveals; that Burrell had a clear overall vision for the album, involving a program of blues and related material that might shout (but only in context) yet would also explore the feelings to be uncovered at lower volumes and slower tempos. It was a concept that must have taken producer Alfred Lion back to his earliest ensemble project with the Port of Harlem Jazzmen.
Given the particular affinity of the guitar and the blues, space was needed to allow the instrument its full expressive potential. Lion was willing to give Burrell the necessary room where other producers of the time might have insisted upon a piano or, especially given the album's theme, an organ. Taking further advantage of the textural possibilities by adding Ray Barretto's conga drums to Bill English's trap set was also within the Blue Note tradition. Candido had teamed with Kenny Clarke on the label's Introducing Kenny Burrell, and Barretto had assumed the role of house conguero for both Blue Note and Prestige since important 1958 recordings with Lou Donaldson, Red Garland and Gene Ammons. Bassist Major Holley Jr and English were Burrell regulars who worked and recorded frequently with the guitarist in these years, while Stanley Turrentine, the only Blue Note leader among the supporting artists, had first shown a penchant for making indelible music with Burrell on the 1960 session that produced Jimmy Smith's Midnight Special and Back at the Chicken Shack.
In various combinations, Burrell, Turrentine, Holley, English, and Barretto brilliantly realize the original goal. While the album is filled with great moments, like the guitarist's naked emoting on "Soul Lament" and the propulsion he generates while locking into tempo on "Midnight Blue", the overall plan and pace create one of the most subtle cumulative moods ever conjured on two sides of vinyl. Hear how the waltz tempo of "Wavy Gravy" arrives like a seismic shift in terrain, and how affirmatively things are concluded on "Saturday Night Blues". The seven original tracks form a complete statement, a considered presentation that in no way contained the spontaneity at the music's heart. The bonus track "Kenny's Sound" is particularly enlightening in this regard. It was the first piece done at the session and clearly did not enhance the aura of the final album, yet it served as a perfect muscle-flexer that allowed the musicians to loosen up and prepare for the highly focused task ahead. The other added title "K Twist", was recorded again nearly two years later on a session designed to produce material for release on 45. The later personnel is quite similar, with everyone from this session save Holley returning, but the addition of Herbie Hancock's piano creates a less fluent if more commercial veneer.
Midnight Blue did not need "K Twist" in order to generate a hit, since in "Chitlins Con Carne" it had one of the most ingratiating blues lines of the periods. "Chitlins Con Carne" might seem rather basic to some players and listeners more impressed by complex scales and harmonic substitutions, yet it holds profound lessons about telling a story through music and functioning as a collective unit missing from most texts and exercise books. It also establishes a level of music discourse that is sustained over the remainder of this timeless album.