Interview: Bassist Tony Levin returns to Ytsejam.com
When ever you hear one of those classic jazz albums, you can only imagine a platter on the turntable, with say, the blue and white logo of the Blue Note label, the red Columbia releases with their ‘eye’ logos on the sides, or even Verve’s illustrated trumpet player – how about the orange Impulse label as well; all spinning while the needle transmits the tunage from the grooves out to the stereo and into the ears. It was that type of music that inspired Tony Levin and his brother Pete to create an album filled with the vibe of classic cool jazz interpreted by their own touch.
Having toured and appeared on records together, The Levin Brothers marks the first time both Tony and Pete did a project that they could call their own, making this a long awaited release. Written over the past couple of years, the two thoroughly enjoyed composing music that would shape the album, and we all know what happens when musicians or anybody who is creative enjoys the creative process. Synonymous as a bassist’s bassist, within a sea of projects and appearances and on the cusp of King Crimson’s reunion, Levin returns to Ytsejam.com to speak about the new album with his brother, the appearance with The Crimson ProjeKCt, influences, and everything else that is keeping him busy. Oh and yes, you can see the new Levin Brothers record spinning on the turntable as it is available as limited edition on colored vinyl, just like those albums from the era that swayed character on the new album.
TOMMY HASH: First off, you and your brother Pete have just unleashed a jazz CD, how did the idea come about to make a record that reflected upon some of the classic cool jazz?
TONY LEVIN: Actually the idea came about because of an instrument – not the way albums usually are born. For some time, I have been playing a great bass, the NS Electric Upright, on albums like Peter Gabriel’s… and I decided to get their matching cello. Practicing it (this is about 4 years ago now) I found myself playing the melodies and riffs I remembered from jazz records my brother Pete was playing back when we were kids, in Boston, in the 1950’s. The bassist/ cellist on those was the great Oscar Pettiford. Anyway, when I mentioned it to Pete, he remembered all those songs too. Soon the idea came up to write new material, but in that particular style – cool melodic songs with short solos – and, after all our years playing on other peoples’ records, to make our first “Levin Brothers” album.
It was a fun process writing a lot of songs, throwing out the least succesfull and keeping the best. Meanwhile, I was using that to practice the cello more, so I could use it to take the lead and solo on some of the songs.
HASH: And the players on the records besides you and your brother, including Jeff Siegel, David Spinozza, Steve Gadd & saxman Erik Lawrence, you have worked with them prior to this project; what is it that made you choose these musicians specifically for this record?
LEVIN: First we determined that it’d be great to have a sax on some of the record, to give some variation from the cello, piano and organ being the lead instruments on everything. Erik Lawrence is a great player, whom Pete gigs with a lot. Likewise, drummer Jeff Siegel plays shows with Pete a lot. I brought in guitarist David Spinozza, with whom I’m in a jazz band, though of a different style of jazz. And for one song particularly, I thought it’d be really great to bring in my old friend and rhythm section mate, Steve Gadd, on drums. Back when we were in school together, Steve had pretty much mentored me in my early years playing jazz, and that song, titled ‘Bassics” features the bass and drums.
HASH: How is it that you guys came up with the arrangements?
LEVIN: One or the other of us would write the song, present it to the other — usually not many changes were needed, but we made sure we were both happy with the end product.
HASH: What were some of the life changing albums for you that influenced you and really changed your perspective on music along the way?
LEVIN: Well, I’d start with the ones that inspired this album – those are a series of records featuring French Horn player Julius Watkins, and bassist/cellist Oscar Pettiford. As was typical in those days, they released albums under each players name, but with the same players.
Through the years, many more albums influenced me, of course — it’s hard to put my finger on any particular one — many Rock records, and a surprising number of Classical ones. I enjoy a number of musical styles, and in addition to the whole of the music, I always notice the bass playing, and if that’s really good, I can be excited about, and learn from an album that’s maybe not even that good overall.
HASH: Are there any modern releases /bands that you are really impressed with at this time?
LEVIN: My favorite band is still Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, even though they’ve split up a few years back. Having said that, I try to get inspiration from any of the really good music I hear.
HASH: You were recently involved with Jordan Rudess & Marco Minneman on a recent album, tell me how that came about and how you guys worked together to make the music really cook like it did.
LEVIN: That was fun, and I felt it really came out well. I started things off by writing some of the material, then sending it to Marco to play on. Turned out he was really good at writing material in that style, even playing bass and guitar – though he’s a drummer. So we ended up with a lot of material to then send to Jordan. Jordan did a super job of bringing it all together — it’s hard to be the last guy to play on material and to still have a big influence on it — he did the best job of that I’ve experienced.
HASH: Since the last interview, you also did two records with Stick Men, both Open & Deep.
LEVIN: We have a new one coming out just this week, a double CD called “Supercollider” We’re starting out by selling it at live shows on the King Crimson tour I’m currently on. But when Stick Men tour in October, we’ll have the new cd with us at shows.
HASH: As a bassist what advice would you give any aspiring bassist to study and concentrate on musically – Plus a musician, what advice would you give any musician wanting to make it in the business and what to look out for as you have been through all ends of the music business over the years
LEVIN: I’m not expert at teaching or directing players — in fact, the bass playing I love hearing the most is when the player didn’t do it the way most players would. I guess if there’s anything of use I can contribute it’s this; there are times in the life of any musician when, sadly, some rejection comes along – maybe from a band, or an album you played on that you were excited about, and find out you’re not on the final version. It happens to all of us, at all levels, and maybe it’ll be a little help if that should happen anyone reading this (though I hope it will not) to know that you needn’t take it personally, it’s an unfortunate part of the music world.
Let’s also look at the wonderful positive side of being a musician: we’re very lucky to be able to make good music in any way, and to actually spend a career doing it (and occasionally getting paid for it!) is something very special. Having been doing that for a long time, I’m epecially grateful that, no matter how the biz treats me, I’m getting to be part of wonderful music. That’s why I became a musician, and that in itself is the reward.
HASH: With King Crimson reuniting, how does it feel to be doing that again with Robert Fripp & is there any possible album in the works, a follow up to The Power to Believe?
LEVIN: Good question – there’s no answer at this time. We’ll see how the tour goes and then make plans for the future. I certainly hope there’ll be recording and more touring.
HASH: There was also the release from The Crimson ProjeKCt ‘Live in Tokyo’ this past year, appearing with you is bassist Julie Slick.
LEVIN: That’s a project I have toured with quite a bit, around the world, and we’ve had a good time with it. The live album features the fun and musicianship of the players. Julie is an amazing bassist, and I’m sure the music world will be hearing more of her.
HASH: With your multitude of releases that you appear on, can you give us an update on what else of you working on at this time as far a future projects, returning to past projects (Levin, Torn, White), or even creating something new again?
LEVIN: The near term future is pretty full with tours of King Crimson, Stick Men and Peter Gabriel. Next year the Levin Brothers will hit the road and do some jazz clubs, but those dates haven’t been set yet.
As for more recordings, I’m sure I’ll be doing some, but none is scheduled til I’m off the road.
Copyright & Publishing: 2014 Tommy Hash for Ytsejam.com
PLEASE ALSO VISIT: