Tony Levin never sits still. The classically trained Chapman Stick innovator and noted progressive bassmaster has held down the low end for the high-profile likes of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, but he also relishes the challenges of working with many different collaborators. "I work hard on the music end of things, and record my bass parts as high quality as I can," Levin told me last year when we discussed his quite adventurous Levin Minnemann Rudess project, and his commitment to pushing boundaries shined through in every LMRgroove.
Recently, Levin, still quite spry at age 68, and I got together to discuss the impetus behind his latest envelope-push — Levin Brothers (Lazy Bones Recordings), the first album he's ever done with his older brother Pete, which springs from the bedrock of their classical and jazz training. Here, Levin and I discuss the machinations of the album's creation, how gear choices affect sound quality and the overall character of a recording, and what's in the cards for the future of King Crimson. He, of a perfect pair.
Mike Mettler: I feel like this album could have come out circa 1955 through1958 in terms of its "cool jazz" style, presentation, and overall production value. By all accounts, that appears to be your intention as well.
Tony Levin: Yes, it could musically have come out in the 1950s, but what's also interesting is that Pete and I could have made this album about, ahem, 50 years ago — after we were settled in as musicians, and having grown up being fans of the Oscar Pettiford / Julius Watkins jazz records we got as kids. So, categorizing this as a "bucket list recording" for me isn't too far off the mark. The difference is, we're going to keep making records and touring with each other in this style, so this isn't a one-off recording — it's a band that won't break up!
Mettler: That's good to hear. What were your overall sonic goals when you were recording Levin Brothers? How did you know a song felt "right" after you cut it?
Levin: First, being a bass player, not a cellist, I had to practice my tail off on the cello to be even somewhat capable of holding my own in the band. My idol, Oscar Pettiford, had done lots of cello lead and soloing on those 1950s records I grew up with. My goal wasn't to become as great as he was — that's not in the cards — but creating cool melodic leads for the songs, and melodic solos that aren't there for the technique but for the musical value; that's what I was attempting to do. And, as co-writers, Pete and I worked hard on revising our material to be as good as we could get it. With short pieces, running three minutes on average, there was room for lots of songs on the recording, and hence lots of writing to do.
Sonically, it was a no-brainer for us to go into the high-quality recording studio that's not far from where we live. Scott Petito, an excellent jazz bassist on his own, runs NRS Recording Studio in a way that's very comfortable for jazz projects. And he brought to the mix a lot of experience doing these kinds of albums.
The big sonic "treat" for me was releasing a vinyl version of the album. I always want to do that when the sound is a critical part of the project, but finances and timing can get in the way. This time, it was a must for me, and as a bonus, these short songs meant we could fit a lot more onto that limited space than you normally would. Of course, a digital download card accompanies the vinyl, so buyers don't miss out on any songs. [Levin Brothers is available as a limited-edition (1000) signed and numbered gold-vinyl LP at www.TheLevinBrothers.com.]
Mettler: Do you feel you and Pete have an inherent symbiosis when playing together nowadays, considering your "lifelong sibling friendship," as the liner notes aptly put it? Does it making working together easier in terms of having a certain musical shorthand?
Levin: I don't think about that while we're working, but yes, a lifetime of sharing music and playing jointly on projects of all kinds — that, plus being brothers who are close and have no issues between us — those all make it easy, and made the process of this recording nothing but fun.
Mettler: What did you absorb from Oscar Pettiford as both listener and performer when you were growing up? Do you feel his presence and/or influence shows up in any of your other current work outside of Levin Brothers?
Levin: I didn't actually give that any thought until a couple of years ago, midway into writing material for the Levin Brothers album. I just liked his playing. But now, having thought it over, I'd describe it this way: His bass playing in the rhythm section was always in a great pocket — it felt "cool" — and the notes chosen were always the right notes. That may sound like a minor thing, but to me, it's big.
Oscar's solos were the same — great melodies in their own right. The other thing about him was that he brought the cello into the jazz session, using it for lead lines and solos. An innovative idea, but within the framework that worked for his music.
So, looking at my style of playing rock and progressive rock, I'm not really objective about it, but I'd say that I've tried to play with a great feel, and to find the right notes and bring some innovation, especially in the sound of the bass notes, to the music. Sounds to me like I was more heavily influenced by Oscar Pettiford than I realized.
Mettler: It definitely sounds like it. Ok, same question re: influence, this time as it relates to Julius Watkins and Pete.
Levin: Pete was a French horn player when we were kids — well, he went through the Julliard School of Music on it too! — and that's why those records found their way to our house. Watkins was an extraordinary soloist on an instrument that doesn't come easily to jazz. I can't trace the influence, especially because Pete became a pianist along the way, but it's pretty special how hearing great music when you're young can have an influence through your life.
Mettler: I quite like how you blend both modern and retro styles in terms of your playing on Levin Brothers. Was there a particular compositional style you felt you two needed to follow on the album, or did it just flow?
Levin: We just kept coming up with songs. We rejected the ones that didn't work so well and even recorded a few more than we needed, so we could keep the best for the album.
Mettler: I also like how your "voice" is often front and center in the mix, taking the clear lead. You must have enjoyed taking on that role, yes? "I Got Your Bach" is especially tasty — to use a non-technical term!
Levin: Thanks! It's correct that I'm not used to being the melody guy, let alone the soloist — but it's not that big a jump from playing bass parts, and, as I mentioned before, I did practice for a few years before we actually started recording!
Mettler: The character of the drums, especially the brush work and stick work on tracks like "Bassics" — ahhh, Steve Gadd! — "Brothers," and "Not So Square Dance," is critical to the compositions and performances, wouldn't you agree?
Levin: We did indeed let the players know the style of playing we wanted — in the case of the drums, the fact that they would be fairly low in the mix compared to current jazz, but not as soft as they were back in the 1950s, when they were really under in the mix. Both Jeff Siegel and Steve Gadd jumped right on the style and instinctively did what was best for the songs.
Mettler: I'd have to say the same thing in terms of the sound of the saxophone as well — especially on "Gimme Some Scratch." Did you have any specific direction to the players in that regard, or did they just "know" the feel you wanted?
Levin: Erik Lawrence, on sax, understood that these weren't the tracks to stretch out a lot on harmonically, or with long-winded solos. Solos were often just the verse, and another player takes over on the chorus. You play your best ideas, then step aside for another guy, repeat the song, and it's done. Quite different than jazz styles that came before and after it, and I think it's a nice challenge to play that way, and quite listenable to folks who maybe aren't specifically jazz fans.
Mettler: Tell me about "Cello in the Night" — you're playing an NS cello there. How did you come to choosing that instrument, and how did it feel playing it?
Levin: It's unusual that an instrument has so much to do with the making of the album. The more I played the NS cello, which I only got a few years ago, the more I could envision it as one of the lead instruments in a jazz combo. It has two kinds of pickups — one, the piezo makes it sound like a real cello, not just when bowed, but plucked; it has those short, thunky notes you identify with a cello or violin being plucked. Two, there is also a magnetic pickup, which has much more sustained notes, like a fretless bass or an upright bass. That's the sound I chose for "Cello in the Night" because its sweet tone seemed right for that song.
Mettler: What other instruments did you play on the album? How did you arrive at the gear choices you made?
Levin: On this album, I only played the NS bass and cello. No effects — I like the sound of the instruments as they are. Quite the opposite from most of the progressive rock albums I do, where I'm dipping into many of my instruments and lots of effects for each of them.
Mettler: I like the way you tackled the essence of the melodic nature of "Matte Kudasai." How did you come to choose that particular King Crimson track? Have you worked up any other Crimson covers?
Levin: I thought we'd include something for Crimson fans, since most people who follow my music are that, and not necessarily jazz fans. "Matte Kudasai" was an easy choice — it's a beautiful song that holds up to a different approach from the Crimson one. It's the only song on the album we didn't write, and I felt more Crimson songs would have taken us away from the essence of the new music.
Mettler: When we spoke after one of the King Crimson shows in New York City last fall [September 18, 2014, at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square], you said you were very pleased with how that night turned out and how things were going with the group in general. With that block of shows now in the rearview mirror, can you assess how you felt the tour went overall, and how good you think it sounded to both performers and audience?
Levin: The tour was great — a real joy for us. You never know, and especially with Crimson, there is always an element that's very new and hard to predict what it'll turn into. So this time, the lineup — the choice of players, and the choice of material and how we handled it — those all worked out very well musically. All the band was very pleased, and it seemed like the audience was too.
Mettler: What's next for King Crimson? Live at the Orpheum, culled from the Orpheum show in L.A. last September 30, and has just been released on CD and DVD-Audio on Discipline Global Mobile. Will this incarnation of Crimson also be recording new music?
Levin: Hard to predict with certainty what's coming — but I think there'll be touring in fall 2015 with the same lineup. Not sure yet how much of that music will be different; we've scheduled a lot of rehearsal time before then.
I'm not really in the loop about releases of the live material from last tour — but I'd guess there will be more coming. As for recording a new music album — nothing is coming soon, and I know of no plans for that, but I hope we'll get to that in the coming year.
Mettler: Yes, let's hope. The Levin Brothers Band is going on tour. What can we expect from the show in terms of content, song selection, pacing, and length?
Levin: We're just putting together a set now. Pete and I played as a duo for the four days of the NAMM show in Anaheim in January [January 22 through 25, 2015], and had a lot of fun with the new music. We'll have sax and drums on the tour, and I expect to have even more fun. We'll do most of our new music, and some standards — and, as I said, we're discussing now what else we might have in the set.
Mettler: Finally — what's next for you specifically in terms of other projects?
Levin: I'm off to Berlin to do some extensive writing for Stick Men with Markus Reuter, the touch guitar player member of the band, who lives there. I'm going to devote much of my free time this year to trying to come up with a very special album for us to release next year, and thought the flavor of the Berlin cultural scene would have a good influence on it.
I'll tour this spring with Levin Brothers on the East Coast, and Stick Men in Japan and South America. Then, in the summer, rehearse with King Crimson, and in August, do my one-week music camp in the Catskills. It's with Adrian Belew and Pat Mastelotto, called "3 of a Perfect Pair Camp" — ThreeOfAPerfectPair.com for those who are interested.
September 'til mid-December, I will be touring with Crimson and Stick Men.
At least that's the plan! It's rock 'n' roll — things have a way of not always happening the way you plan them.