©2011 Master Seven. All rights reserved.
Interview with Howard Levy
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
Is there a certain type of presence you guys have established among yourselves as to know when to be in the spotlight as opposed to being supportive, yet big?

One of the very interesting reasons for that is there is no bass player. All three of us take turns being the bass player. Sometimes it’s Gene’s cello. Sometimes it’s Glen’s low frame drum where there is really no bass line for tunes like “Miriam’s Prophecy.” And sometimes it’s the left-hand of the piano. So it’s something that each of us enjoys--playing these multiple roles of being the bass player, the chordal player, the solo line player, and the percussionist. We all do all of those things alternately rather than saying: I’m the solo; I’m the woodwind; I’m the bass player; I’m the drummer. The fact that all three of us are composers allows that we all have an equal voice in every perspective.

What can you tell us about the tune, “Off the Top”? The liner notes indicate that it is “a free improvisation with no prior discussion or preparation” and “we didn’t know that Chris [Steinmetz, the recording engineer] was recording us.”

The real story with that is I knew we were recording -- Gene and Glen didn’t. I had worked a lot with our producer and engineer Chris Steinmetz, who’s really fantastic. He’s a very well-known person in Chicago and nationally. He knows what I’m like. As soon as I sit down or walk up to a microphone he starts recording because a lot of times that’s going to be the best stuff. The other guys thought we were just testing the sound or something. But then they all got into it. When we were through I said, “You know we recorded that.” We never listened to it until I heard it much later and said, “We have to figure out a way of getting this on the record.” I just edited out a few little blips in the beginning and pretty much left everything else the way it was.

It’s an absolutely wonderful piece. How would you compare that kind of experience to when you played with Donald Fagen on “Morph the Cat”?

Oh, it’s totally different. One is a free improvisation with three friends. And the other is me as a hired gun walking into the studio overdubbing by myself. I actually enjoy being a hired gun. I’ve done a lot of work like that where I try to keep a fresh perspective – not listen to something too much. In that case, I don’t think I heard it at all before I walked into the studio. I actually prefer that.

So it wasn’t the typical Donald Fagen and Walter Becker experience as in Steely Dan, where they were known to be very particular during their recordings.

Oh no. It really wasn’t like that. [Donald] had heard me play and knew what I sounded like. I have a good intuition for playing fills. He was very particular but I have such great respect for him. I really like him too. We had never met but we just instantly hit it off. I got nervous at one point and I said, “I’m a little nervous.” And he said, “Well, of course.” We laughed. After I expressed that I calmed down and kept playing and I was fine. We had a great time. We talked all about Coltrane. It turned out that we both went to the Vangaurd [in New York City] when we were teenagers. We sat in the back and drank cokes. We bought all of our jazz albums at the same record shop on Eighth Street in the Village. It was an unexpected direct communication. I know … [Donald and Walter] have a reputation for nitpicking and being very precise but it’s because they’re trying to get something so strong across. They’re not going to be sloppy about that. If you see them live, Donald is an incredibly soulful guy. The song I played on was about Ray Charles. It was like a dream he had talking with Ray Charles after he died. I opened for Ray Charles one time and I’m a huge Ray Charles fan. So I really loved playing on that particular tune.

Can I assume that you watched the movie Ray?

Oh yeah! They could have shown him shooting up two or three less times. I guess it was supposed to make you feel sick. But I got it after about five times. That was an amazing performance by Jammie Foxx.
Would you say that although technology has taken away certain markets, it has also enabled people to create new markets independently?

Absolutely! It has enabled people to have their own independent production and to put out all sorts of things that never would have seen the light of day in the big label - dominated business. But there are just less and less musicians needed to play music now because of the way technology has overwhelmed the pop music market…. It all started in the 80s with the first sequencers. It was seen as a novelty. The techno thing was kind of interesting. There are generations now that have grown up thinking that is normal. The idea of going to see a live show does not excite a lot of young people because they don’t really look at music as being performed by musicians.

Are you telling me that 100 years ago they did not use Auto Tune?

(Laughing) Don’t get me started. Kids like the way mechanical stuff sounds. They like to hear that chopped off in-tune thing. It’s novel.

Howard, who would be a good candidate for your harmonica school?

A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of taking a lesson with me. They wouldn’t want to call me up or email me and ask, “Could I come over to your house?” So, this way, you’re online. You don’t have to talk to me. You don’t have to email me. You could watch anyone of the hundreds of lessons at all levels and all styles. Therefore the school is really good for an absolute beginner, for somebody who plays blues a bit and wants to play blues better, for someone who plays blues and is frustrated and says there must be more, and for people who are actively playing all different kinds of world music and jazz on the harmonica and who want some help. It’s good for everybody. The part about it that’s really cool is how much of a community there is between the members of the school. They all can communicate with each other. They see each other play in the video exchanges on their profile pages. It’s not like you are taking a lesson from a teacher, and you practice and then the teacher comes over the next week and gives you another lesson. It’s really a virtual music school. I’m so happy that I did it. The people who started the company, David and Patricia Butler, are really visionaries. David is one of the main developers of AOL v1.0 and Instant Messenger. Those were his things. It was his desire to publicize the teachings of his guitar teacher that led him to first start this company. It has grown to having many teachers on a bunch of different instruments.

Can an ambitious student spend as much time as they like on the site?

Oh yes!  I’ve seen remarkable progress from beginners who couldn’t even bend a note to being able to play Bartók tunes. The thing is that there is contact with me. Anyone who wants to email me can. There is chat. Also students can send me a video. I watch the video and send them back one. It’s very personal, but at the same time everyone in the school gets to watch the exchange. I upload my response and the two appear together. People can comment on them. The learning expands geometrically.

It sounds like a Facebook for harmonica.

Yeah, in a certain way. The home page is kind of like that. We have a shout box. Anyone who wants to say anything can. Anyone who wants to send an email can. There are also discussion forums. Everyone gets their own profile page to put up their pictures and videos of themselves playing. I’ve got students from everywhere. There’re in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

It seems there’s quite a bit of synergy in which students can learn not only from the teacher but from other students who may have recently overcome an obstacle or situation.

Exactly. People will comment on that they really enjoyed a particular video exchange and will then try playing the tune. Then I’ll comment on their performance of it. Or people will just say, “Jason, that was great.” They’ll just send notes of encouragement to each other so that people don’t feel like they are laboring alone. When you asked me how I split up my day, sometimes I look at that and I say, “Oh man! I have to answer seven of these things.” Other times I say, “Oh this is great! Seven students sent me a video today. This is wonderful!” It depends on how it hits me. I have a really nice studio set up in my place. I accompany myself on keyboard while I’m playing. I can demonstrate the chordal structures with one hand and play the harmonica with the other. With all of my lessons where I play tunes, I have a backing track that I’ve recorded. That track is also available for the students if they want to play along with it. When I play harmonica I don’t do anything to my sound. I don’t EQ it, and don’t put any reverb on it. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m just trying to teach.

That’s an important point. With all the technology that is available and especially those of us with ProTools rigs, people seem obligated to use the stuff. At your school, you are demonstrating what the instrument naturally sounds like.

Right. I don’t want to intimidate students by recording with those effects. I’ll answer questions about recording and I’ll demonstrate that sometimes too. Actually that will be a good lesson to do: How I record. You just gave me a great idea.

Great!

I do quite a bit of recording myself. I have a home studio with ProTools. I recorded my solo CD in my house. I have a nice Steinway piano. I can get great sounding recordings here.

Howard Levy is the American harmonicist, pianist, composer, and producer who is best known as a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with whom he won a Grammy Award for their song, “The Sinister Minister.” He has recorded or toured with many artists including Kenny Loggins, Donald Fagen, and Dolly Parton. Howard, the founder of Balkan Samba Records, plays and records with several groups and teaches at the Howard Levy Harmonica School.
Howard, what projects can we look forward to hearing from you for this year?

The Flecktones CD just came out. I just put out my classical CD. There is another project I’m working on which I recorded eight tunes with a friend of mine named John Guth. He’s a singer-songwriter guitarist and composer. He’s in the cracks between folk and jazz and a few other places. He’s a great engineer. I’m planning on putting that out on my label some time towards the end of the year. I love his tunes. The other thing that I want to do is revisit my very first jazz harmonica album that I put out in 1986. It’s called Harmonica Jazz. It was originally out on cassette and I can’t find the masters. I’ve been trying to find them for a while. They were lost at the original studio where it was recorded and lost at the cassette duplicator. I may have to try to master them from cassettes. I know there is software to get rid of wow-and-flutter. This album had Paul Wertico on drums. It was my first jazz harmonica recording of some of my own compositions, some Coltrane tunes, a Monk tune - all sorts of stuff. I just found the cassette last week and hadn’t listened to it in more than 20 years. I put it on thinking that it was going to be cheesy, and it was really good. We were really a band. We played live a lot together and so there is this great chemistry on it. That was back when I was the only person doing anything at all like that on diatonic harmonica. That was the first recording that came to the attention of the harmonica world. So I’d like to maybe make it available for downloading.

Let me know when it is available. The last time I had a cassette player in the studio was about five years ago.

Yeah, I only have a portable Sony. My big cassette deck is broken – I hadn’t used it in so many years.

I thought it was wise to sell the Denon deck that I had. I wish I still had it.

Those were good! It’s weird when you find old stuff like that. I have hundreds and hundreds of cassettes of my own playing. It’s a daunting task to try to listen to them.

Howard, is there anything you would like to add as we close this discussion?

Well, we talked about a heck of a lot. I have all of these other projects but if anyone is really interested they could go to my website which is www.levyland.com. I’m real proud of a bunch of different groups that I’m in. There is a trio I’m in in Europe with the German bass clarinet player Michael Riessler and the French accordion player Jean-Louis Matinier. That’s just a fantastic group. We have a CD out called Silver and Black. You just don’t hear people play like that all too often. Europeans are much more adventurous in a certain way. There is a lot of free improvisation in it. All three of us compose. The other thing that I wanted to mention is something that I’m real proud of on the Trio Globo CD. It is the version of “Giant Steps” that we did. That’s a tune that I worked on for years. I finally figured out some things about the harmony above the chords in the tune that allowed me to really loosen up on it and rearrange it. Gene and Glen are so amazing rhythmically that we put it into several different time meters. It sounds extremely natural. I’m incredibly happy that it is on there. It was the first time the band ever recorded a cover.

You guys did a terrific job – it’s seamless from the beginning to the end on that one.

Of course the other cover we do on there is “This Land Is Your Land.” On that one, the guys didn’t know we were going to record that. I just sort of sprung it on them. I said I want to do this. I had my own idea of how I wanted to do it. We sort of rehearsed the way it went, but they didn’t know I was going to go into that gospel piano thing that I do. I just went into it. If you listen, Gene and I play the exact same bass line – he plays it on the cello and I play it on the piano. Neither of us realized that we did it until we went back into the booth to listen. That was one take.

And it’s precise.

Yeah, it’s amazing…. I really felt that there was a magical, spiritual vibe that occurred in the studio when we recorded that. It was very moving to everyone who was there at the time. Trio Globo hits a deep, spiritual vein in music. It’s a combination of the deepest way that the three of us feel about music. Chris Steinmetz did such a great job of engineering and producing. He was an absolute necessity to this album. And it’s on his label, Stonecutter Records.

You guys did a great job with “Steering by the Stars” and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for real music today.

Thank you very much.

Howard, it’s been a pleasure talking to you today.

Thank you, it’s a pleasure talking to you.




You can buy Howard Levy CDs at:
www.omradio.com/levylandstore2009.php

May 10, 2011

Howard Levy's website:
levyland.com

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Let’s begin by talking about your recently released Trio Globo CD, Steering by the Stars. For me it’s a big treat because it combines elements of jazz, classical, and world music. How do you go about marketing this type of record?

That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I think what you really have to do is get out there and play more and then people will be aware of who you are. If you send it to radio stations, you know, some people like yourself are really going to love it, and some people will be confused because there is such a variety of material on it. Most people are looking for a label to call something. So I think that the main thing is that we have to get out there and tour more. The live show is really great. Everything we do [on the record] we do live except one tune that has overdubs on it.

That’s one of the fascinating things about what you, Eugene Friesen, and Glen Velez did on this record. How did you get such a full production?

We realized early on when we did our first CD that the more aware of each other [we were] when we played, it made each instrument sound larger. We try not to duplicate anything that the other is doing. So there’s a real sense of ensemble. Glen, Gene, and I are all composers and we all play compositionally. That’s also why the free improvisational tunes on the CD work so well. We are always listening to each other at all times. Nobody is trying too hard. Also, there are certain tunes where I play piano and harmonica at the same time which is something that makes it sound like a quartet. Glen, even though he plays on small instruments, has a big sound. His playing is polyrhythmic. Sometimes it sounds like he’s playing a whole drum set even though he’s only playing one frame drum. Sometimes Gene sings with his cello playing, so that sounds like one-and-a-half people as well.
Howard, do you consider that you have perfect pitch?

You know, I have relative pitch. If you play me one note I’ll know what the other one is when I hear it. I can hear chord voicings pretty well. I know the difference between a 13th and a flat 13th. There are some days, if I’ve been playing particularly intensely, that I do have perfect pitch. I’m always surprised by those days.

When you play the harmonica, do you have a reference in your mind for each note as you play in between notes?

Yeah. I see the piano keyboard in my mind when I’m playing the harmonica. That’s why it’s easy for me to play the two instruments simultaneously as I do, especially on “In the Village.” You can actually go to www.trioglobo.com and watch the live filming of that recording in the studio. It was filmed with three cameras. I see it that way in my mind, so when I play them together it’s not really like I’m playing two different instrum
ents.
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Well, the fact that you’re able to make a living in music is an important milestone for any artist.

Yeah, I’ve done that for a long time. I never felt like I was struggling. When I first started out I lived cheaply and made enough money to live. And then it just gradually grew. I always did a lot of different things. Chicago is a very diverse scene, so I always played a lot of different styles here. For about ten years I played a lot of jingles and commercials. Chicago used to have a very big scene for that. I honed my skills in the studio by playing on 1000 or 1500 jingles. I was in demand on harmonica because there were very few harmonica players who can read and play with a feel at the same time. That got me very comfortable in the recording studios.

What advice can you give to someone looking to get into jingles?

There is no more jingles scene. That’s the advice! It is pretty much totally gone. There’s a small scene for it in New York. I guess there is still some of it in Nashville, and some in L.A., but it is absolutely gone in Chicago. Technology came and supplanted the need for human beings to actually play on it. The same thing happened in a lot of pop music with sequencers and loops. When people are listening to Britney Spears records they are really not hearing anybody playing. That’s what happened with jingles. The ad agencies decided it was much easier to buy a tune by a band rather than write something that sort of sounded like something and tried not to infringe on a copyright…. Plus, with the economy shrinking they said, “Where can we cut?” Musicians are always the first people cut…. It’s a tremendous irony that at the present time, there are so many people playing fantastically, who have amazing technique, and are going to music schools. They’re getting degrees in jazz. When I was a kid there were maybe three places that you could do that. Now there are probably 300. But there is really not the same amount of work that there used to be.
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What microphone technique do you use for recording your Steinway? What mics do you use?

I’ve used many different mics on it because it sounds different at different times. I’ve had the action and hammers replaced last year and that makes a change in the sound. I’ve had nice results with a VP88, the Shure stereo image mic. I had an engineer come in and work with it. Sometimes I use two Shure KSM 32s. Sometimes I use ribbon mics. I have two Cascades [Fatheads].

How do you work with the room ambiance?

I mix it in. It depends on what type of thing I’m recording. On the Trio Globo CD we had some ambient mics around the piano. Every piano is different. It [also] depends on what kind of music you’re recording. If you’re doing pop music where you want the piano to sound real tight you would put the mics near the hammers. A lot of studios used pianos that were real bright in order to cut through. They didn’t sound very musical. To find a studio that has a real piano in it used to be very difficult. A lot of times you wind up just bringing a piano in. You find a nice place and rent something. I’ve done that too.
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I asked that question for me and people like me who sometimes struggle to find the pitch center.

It’s piano vision. A lot of people when they are sitting around and figuring stuff out, you’ll see them sometimes playing air piano. The keyboard is just a great way to visualize pitches. Having played piano since I was eight it got burned in my brain that way. So I started seeing the harmonica as a piano in my head afterwards. That’s what allows me to play an invisible instrument with all these manipulations with the inside of my mouth and throat to get all the notes that aren’t there. What allows me to do it so precisely and quickly is that I’m seeing something else. The harmonica is totally invisible. It’s the only instrument that doesn’t use any eyes or any hands to play other than holding it. But it is kind of mystifying to some people because it really doesn’t look like I’m doing anything.

If it seems to someone like you’re not doing anything, then they should try it! Let me ask the same question in more detail. Do you actually know where, for example, A 440 is in your head, and do you know where the other intervals are?

Yes. If you play me one note and tell me what it is or sometimes I’ll know what it is, then I can hear everything else in relation to it. And then of course, over time you develop these skills by studying. I studied classical piano and music theory and had a lot of ear training when I was a kid. This really helped me. I learned enough terminology to understand what these things were that I was hearing. I started improvising when I was nine but didn’t really start playing jazz until I was about 16 or 17. Improvising was something natural to me. So I’m used to exploring music on the keyboard and writing compositions and little tunes. I’d come home from school and sit at the piano and play for a half hour just off the top of my head. My parents didn’t have a tape recorder so I really don’t know what it sounded like. I do have some things that I wrote out when I was nine or ten. I just found them last week. I do have one thing that I wrote when I was 10 or 11 that I actually put on a CD with my girlfriend, Fox Fehling. It’s a long story but I wrote the tune, "Spanish Serenade", and then when I met her it turned out that we had been next-door neighbors on the Upper West Side [of New York City]. I realized that somehow it took me back to this tune that I wrote when I was a kid. It was only the beginning of a longer song that involved her. And then I wrote the rest of it when I was 46. We recorded it on our CD Cappuccino. The part where her violin comes in is the rest of the song.

How do you balance your day between running the Howard Levy Harmonica School, Balkan Samba Records, various groups that you’re in, and everything else that you do?

That is a fantastic question because I was actually thinking about that, thinking maybe I ought to actually have a schedule. When I wake up in the morning, I should start dealing with issue A, or issue B….

That’s not fun Howard. You’re an improviser. You don’t need a schedule. (laughing)

(Laughing) That’s the problem. But sometimes you do need to get some sort of routine in your life. You’re right. It’s very tricky. At the present time I’m running the Howard Levy Harmonica School and I have over 200 students. Quite a few of them send me videos that I’m supposed to reply to. I have to get into that frame of mind. I sit down and film myself responding to them. Then I have to edit my response, compress the file and upload it. It takes time. I have to record new lessons periodically. I have to keep current and put things that I think will stimulate people at all the different levels of playing. And then there is composing a Latin jazz suite for the August 18th concert at Millennium Park. I’ll be playing with my Latin jazz band Chévere [de Chicago] with three additional horn players and Trio Globo and the great guitarist Chris Siebold. I’m trying to get that music done now before I go on a big Flecktones tour. So I’m working several days a week with the great arranger and trumpet player Victor Garcia. I have to keep my chops up on piano. Fox [a violinist in the Chicago Symphony] and I play a bunch of classical music together which I really love doing. We play the occasional concert. And then, I try to keep the record label moving ahead. I think about what the next project is going to be. I do interviews. I will be playing 65 concerts with the Flecktones this year. I’m trying to relearn all the material on that CD. I’ve put out eight CDs in the last three years. This is an astonishing time for me. I almost can’t believe how much stuff I put out there.

People know that you cofounded the Flecktones and won a Grammy Award for the song “The Sinister Minister.” Do you use that successful song as a gauge, standard, or milestone when you currently write music or do you start with a clean slate and new perspectives?

You’re asking really great questions because these all make a lot of sense. Now, my life doesn’t make a lot of sense (laughter). I’d say that I've managed to compartmentalize my musical endeavors. I enjoy each one of them tremendously but they are all different. I put as much love and energy in Chévere, let’s say, as I do with Trio Globo, or my duos with Chris Siebold. I just consider myself lucky to play with the people I play with in all these different settings because they are all really deep and expressive human beings. I like a great variety. Then there’s the classical side of me. I composed a harmonica concerto – the first real one ever written for the diatonic. I’ve performed it about 40 times. People like it. I finally put out the recording that I did in Prague with the Czech National Symphony which I did about six years ago. When you do love things so much you have to follow through on all of them. This creates a lack of forward momentum by the conventional standards. You’re absolutely right. I could have taken “The Sinister Minister” and run with it – but I didn’t. I went and did all of these things and collaborated with all these people during my career.
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