Bassist and Chapman Stick master Tony Levin has been a fixture on the world’s biggest stages for the better part of 40 years. He has been an integral member of several ensembles that redefined the rules of rock, notably the Adrian Belew-era (and beyond) King Crimson and Peter Gabriel’s solo bands. His recording discography reads rather like a joke about someone with a time machine writing himself into every major development in history, oblivious to the sheer implausibility of someone being involved in so much essential music, and so various, for so long.
Somewhat more behind-the-scenes and with a firmer jazz footing, Pete Levin’s rap sheet is hardly less impressive than his brother’s. A Juilliard grad who specialized in French horn (Tony is an Eastman School of Music man), Pete switched to keyboards and became an essential player and synthesizer expert on the legendary New York City session scene of the ’70s, working in the process with Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Freddie Hubbard and many more.
The “player” world is actually rather small and tightly knit, and Tony and Pete have worked together in various projects over the years, including tours with a little-known global folk troubadour by the name of Paul Simon. But one thing they had never attempted was a proper Levin Brothers band. As logistically improbable as it might seem for musicians with datebooks this demanding, about three years ago they decided to go for it: forming a band, writing the material, making a record and playing some dates.
The Levin Brothers finds Pete and Tony uniting over a shared musical passion of their youths. Belying their reputations as progressive and envelope-pushing artists, The Levin Brothers is a sweet, old-school cool-jazz record. Tonal, melodic, brisk and unfailingly groovy, the only radical twist to be found here is Tony’s lead cello playing. Says Tony, “We were playing music at a pretty young age, and one of the musical things that captivated us back then (I’m talking about the mid-’50s!) was the jazz recordings of Julius Watkins (French horn) and Oscar Pettiford (bass).” Adds Pete, “It’s definitely a return to basics – not in the sense of regressing or changing what we do now, but rather revisiting something that’s a meaningful part of our musical development.”
The Levin Brothers is a refreshing antidote for those who might feel that contemporary jazz has largely lost its sense of the tune. It is a concise, lucid and songcentric collection of throwback originals (plus a cover of King Crimson’s beautiful “Matte Kudasi” from Discipline). “Our plan from the get-go was to create melodic, ‘retainable’ compositions, keep solos energetic but relatively short, and lay it all over a deep groove,” says Pete. “When we first got together to discuss how to approach the recording project, we found that we could still sing some of the melodies – and even some of the solos – from Oscar [Pettiford]’s recordings, having not heard them for more than 50 years. That’s saying a lot about the simple concept of composing a melody.” Tony concurs: “It struck me how well we remembered those pieces we were listening to half a century ago, and how the musicality of the players has stuck with us.”
Longtime mid-Hudson residents, the Levin Brothers called on a couple of regional heavy-hitters to round out the ensemble: drummer and SUNY-New Paltz instructor Jeff Siegel and the Levon-scene core member Erik Lawrence on saxophones. The Levin Brothers was beautifully recorded and mixed by Scott Petito at NRS Recording in Catskill. Only two special guests augmented the base quartet: the legendary drummer Steve Gadd (who went to college with Tony) and the great session guitarist David Spinozza, who, among many other notable credits, played on Paul McCartney’s classic Ram.
While Tony makes the occasional local appearance live and in our many studios, Pete maintains the higher profile as a player in the region and has some thoughts on the state of music in the Valley: “There are great musicians all over the area, well-known and lesser-known. Many of them rarely play in the area; some play here a lot. And there are so many artists, writers and filmmakers in the area. Taking Woodstock as the spiritual center of the area and fanning out from there, the Hudson Valley really is like a large, extended art colony. Recording studios, art galleries everywhere, festivals, minor happenings like the Sunday Drum Circle on the Green. It’s great! The downside for musicians is that there aren’t a lot of performance venues. It’s coming back, but the economy is still weak.”
On Saturday, March 4, the Levin Brothers – with Siegel and Lawrence onboard – kick off a solid month of touring with a show at the Rosendale Café. After that come two weeks in Latin America (“Hopefully, while we’re running around Argentina, Trump won’t put a ban on jazz musicians entering the country,” quips Pete) followed by a week of East Coast dates, including a show at Daryl’s Place in Pawling on March 29.
The Rosendale Café show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20. The Rosendale Café is located at 434 Main Street in Rosendale. For more information, visit http://rosendalecafe.com. For more on the Levin Brothers, visit www.thelevinbrothers.com.
Levin Brothers, Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m., $20, Rosendale Café, 434 Main Street, Rosendale; http://rosendalecafe.com.