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Tony Levin – A Family Affair (INTERVIEW)

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Bass guitar legend Tony Levin has recorded and/or toured with just about every rock icon of the past three decades – from King Crimson to Peter Gabriel to Paul Simon to John Lennon. But the one musician who hadn’t graced that impressive list was especially close to home: With his latest project, Levin Brothers, the bassist teamed with his keyboardist brother, Pete, for a set of tunes inspired by the 1950s cool jazz of their youth.

Throughout the LP, Tony switches off on cello and bass, sharing the sonic spotlight with Pete’s organ and piano. They’re assisted by a crew of high-profile session players (including drummer Steve Gadd), cranking out smooth, unobtrusive pieces that favor melodic focus over noodling.

Tony took the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to speak with Glide about the Brothers project, the creative challenges of collaborating with a sibling, and the positive vibes surrounding long-awaited King Crimson reunion tour.

Glide: There’s always something really comfortable about listening to jazz rooted from the ’50s, and this album is no exception. It’s a very immediate listen in the purest musical way possible. Is this something you set out for?

Tony Levin: We were clear that the music we want to make for this group is grounded in the cool jazz of the 1950’s — the music we grew up listening to and loving.

You and your brother Pete have been making records for years, but never with each other. Why was this the appropriate time?

Who knows why we musicians take the directions we do at the times we do it…I’ll say one thing, better now than later for us since we’ve already been touring and making records for 50 years! Seriously, part of the reason was my NS cello — a few years ago, I started practicing it seriously and, looking for material, I started playing the Oscar Pettiford songs I remembered from long ago. He’s a great jazz bassist and cellist who notably took the lead voice with his cello. They were fun to figure out, but then I started thinking what special material it was that, after so many years, I still remembered the melodies and some of the solos, too. I told Pete, and he remembered them, too. So we set about trying to write songs that might stick in somebody else’s musical mind in that way.

You kept all the songs on the album relatively short – was there any temptation to stretch things out further in a more improvisational realm? Would you consider this one of your most natural and simplistic recordings to date?

Pete likes stretching things out more than we did on this album. But I kept an eye on the song forms, and especially how many verses a solo would play for. (Usually in jazz that’s an unlimited number — we tried to hold it to one or two!) To me, though, it’d be fun to see where the playing goes. It’s an equally valid style to strive to do your best soloing right off the bat, then move aside for the next guy.

What was the process of writing songs with your brother – did you guys have to work on compromising and deciding what songs worked and what didn’t? What song do you feel makes the boldest collaborative statement in terms of joint songwriting?

We each wrote songs separately then presented the songs to the other, who made some changes. Probably the most changes were by Pete on the chords of the songs I wrote — I think simply, in bass player terms, and his alternative chords were always better than the ones I first charted.

What songs are you personally most fond of on the recording and why?

If I had to pick a favorite, I guess it would be “Bassics.” It somewhat represents the album, being a simple melodic piece with the bass taking the lead — the drum and piano parts are critical to it working, and there’s some great playing there. Also, I asked my old friend Steve Gadd to play drums on that track — he was with me (in our school days) when I first started to play jazz, so it just seemed right on this excursion to have him join in.

You recently got a matching cello to your NS Electric Upright bass. Can you talk some about what that instrument gives you in terms of sound and composition that you wouldn’t otherwise have?

As mentioned before, the cello was a big factor in writing the songs and in zeroing in on the style of the album. You just don’t hear much jazz on cello, and it’s got a delicateness and simplicity that, if the songs are right, can lead to some sweet musical things. Also, bowed, with tenor sax in harmony, it can sound like a traditional two sax ensemble.

With the collaborators on Brothers, you have worked with many or all of them prior to this project; what is it that made you choose these musicians specifically for this record?

Both Jeff Siegel, our drummer, and Erik Lawrence, on sax, have done a lot of gigging with Pete, in various ensembles. For me, it was my first time playing with both of them, and I was very impressed, especially how they jumped on the style we were after and did it so well. Guitarist David Spinozza is a long time collaborator with me, on too many records to count, and we’re in a jazz group called L’Image together.

Levin Brothers

Style-wise, you and Pete have had divergent careers – did you know growing up that your musical resumes would be so different? What do you credit the most to the muse you went?

I don’t really know why our careers went the way they did. I’d describe Pete as a jazz player who has done a lot of rock, and myself as a rock player who has done a lot of jazz. In fact, we both started in classical, so it’s a mystery what took us in those directions. We have played a lot together though the years, of course, noteably on tour with Paul Simon, and on quite a few albums, but this is the first collaboration we formed, and hopefully its a band that will be around a lot of years.

Can you talk about what it was like growing up as youngsters and what was one of the first concerts you and Pete attended together? And was there a certain record that you obviously both called favorites and played numerous times?

We were pretty immersed in classical — Pete a French Horn player (already playing some piano, but hadn’t moved his focus to keyboards yet) and myself an acoustic bass player. We played in local youth orchestras in the Boston area, noteably one, the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, that took us on road trips, including to Carnegie Hall and the White House. Records listened to were at first my parents classical ones, then Pete — the older brother, who could first afford buying records! — got all the records of jazz French Horn great Julius Watkins. I loved those records too, little realizing the influence that bassist Oscar Pettiford would have on my playing. (Even in a rock context, I think I unconsciously try to play, like him, the right notes that best suit the piece, not the flashiest part, and when there’s a chance for the bass to stand out a bit, to fashion the best way to do that.) Pettiford often played melodies on his cello too, and to those who listen to our record it’s obvious that my homage to him is a big part of what I’m playing.

What rock records and jazz records do you feel have most influenced you as a musician over the course of your career?

Not so much the records I heard, though I think I’ve been influenced somewhat by everything good that I’ve listened to. I’ve been actively playing a lot since back in my teens, and with some darn good players — so it’s their musicality and originality that’s most influenced me, causing me to try to jump up to their level. Still happens all the time, when I’m lucky enough to be making music with great musicians.

Having just about wrapped up the King Crimson U.S. tour, how difficult was it to come back and learn the complexities of those compositions? And, overall, how do you feel the tour overall went?

The tour has been great, both for us in the band, and evidently for the audiences, who seem to love what we’re doing. It was a long process to hone in on how to best present this incarnation of Crimson. Robert Fripp, the group’s founder and leader, doesn’t take it lightly, and he has a great sense of how to approach the music in ways that are what I think of as truly progressive — i.e. not like what we’ve done before, let alone what others have done. So, though we’re playing a lot of the music from Crimson’s long history, the approach is as if they’re new compositions, and with the unusual instrumentation — three drummers, sax, two guitars, and bass or Stick — things are wide open for some creative ideas.

It took more than Robert’s vision, though. We spent many weeks rehearsing together — in groups and as a whole, in England and the U.S. I haven’t added up the rehearsal time, but something like seven weeks over the last year, all for a four-and-a-half week tour! I see every night that the work, time, and expense were worth it, because it’s not hard to put excellent players onstage and do something very good, but to break barriers and do something exceptional — that’s not so easy and is worth whatever effort it takes.

Can you describe what it was like for you carrying the rhythm section with three drummers verses two?

That was on my mind when Robert presented the drummers with the challenge to “re-invent rock drumming!” But in fact, the way the drummers worked out their approach to the music (too complex to detail) was very different than just a bunch of drummers pounding the part. It left me, actually, more room to play than the two drummer approach of the ’90s and the last tour. I have changed my usual sound and technique a bit. Hearing less space in the low end for me, (not because of the bass drums, which are wonderfully worked out, but the low power of the drum toms) I dig into the strings harder, have set up a vintage bass with very high action, and play closer to the bridge — all of which increases the midrange a bit on the bass, and has a little less low end warmth. Sorry to get so technical, but I wanted to explain that there was indeed some adaptation to the drum ensemble, though it left me room to play all the notes I want.

You are on the road as a tour musician a good part of each year. Do you feel any differently from touring now than you did when you were younger? And what do you look most forward to about playing live with Pete when you do some smaller club shows?

Good question — I don’t often think back and compare things then and now. I do appreciate the good tours more now — somehow I took it for granted, say in the ’80’, that Crimson and Gabriel would keep busy touring forever! Each tour, each show with these great players, is a precious event, to many in the audience and indeed to those of us up on stage.

As for clubs versus arenas, it’s much more fun to play a club, where you’re aware of the whole audience, and know they can see the subtleties of how the band interact. Of course, a big production like Peter’s is great fun, and I’m not denying that — but the truth is that the magic of a erformance is in the music and the chemistry between players and audience, and that happens easier in clubs that have good sound.

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