STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Back in the 1950s, when Pete Levin was growing up, he played French horn. Someone told him to check out French horn player Julius Watkins. And while Pete was listening to those records, his younger brother Tony was hanging around. Tony didn’t care about the French horn; he was drawn to Oscar Pettiford’s bass and cello playing, which inspired him to study bass.
Of course Tony went on to become the bassist and Chapman stick player for King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, among many others, as well as one of the most sought-after session bassists. But initially he did play jazz professionally; he was in Chuck Mangione’s original quartet and also played with Buddy Rich, among others.
Pete switched from French horn to piano and he has played professionally with numerous jazz artists including Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Dave Brubeck and David Sanborn.
Though the brothers have performed together in each other’s musical projects and also toured together with Paul Simon, Levin Brothers (Lazy Bones, 2014) is their first true collaboration.
Tony graciously took the time to answer some questions for me via e-mail; he had just returned to the U.S. for a brief stop home after working with his Stick Men bandmate Markus Reuter in Germany. He explained that the genesis of the Levin Brothers project was him starting to play cello.
“I’ve played the ‘NS [Ned Steinberger] Electric Upright” bass for some years, not just on jazz records, but with Peter Gabriel and sometimes with King Crimson. I had a matching cello, but didn’t give it much attention until a few years ago when I resolved to get better at (it). In practicing, I fell into remembering the songs I grew up loving — the Oscar Pettiford ‘cool jazz’ recordings of the 1950s. And (in) practicing those melodies and riffs, it struck me how special that music was.”
Tony suggested to Pete that he come over to jam and they played cello and piano, respectively.
In a phone interview from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Pete continued the story.
“We started coming up with song ideas, (which would) develop into better song ideas. And of course the logical thing that musicians always say is ‘let’s record this.’ And we did. We spent the first half of 2014 working on the project.”
Tony added: “I wish I could say that we moved right to recording the album, but in fact I needed a couple of years of practice to get up to speed on the cello, so the project was a few years in the making.”
The album, which was released in both CD and vinyl format, includes 15 original compositions plus an unusual version of the King Crimson classic “Matte Kudasai.”
Pete explained that the compositions are very different than those in contemporary jazz.
“It’s not a conventional album, I think, by current standards, which are very much oriented around soloing. Things were different in the ‘50s, partially for conception, as far as jazz performances are concerned, but also they were limited by the medium. The LP format was very limited time-wise. I think you could get maybe 15 minutes on a side… So typically jazz compositions and band performances from that era had short solos, which we held to on our project. In general everybody is just taking one chorus and then moves on. And the tracks typically are 3 minutes (to) 3 minutes and 15 seconds long. So we get a lot of music on the CD.”
Pete also explained that a goal of theirs was to focus on writing songs with memorable melodies.
“(When) Tony had told me that he had been listening to the Oscar Pettiford stuff again (he said he remembered that they wrote) really nice melodies, catchy melodies. And he started to sing one to me. I hadn’t heard that record in 50 years, and I started singing along with him immediately. We remembered 3 or 4 of those songs. That was meaningful to us. So as we approached the project, we tried to write songs that had melodies that people could latch on to, and hopefully remember.”
As for the tour that brings the Levin Brothers to Havana, it is a far cry from what the brothers are accustomed to, especially Tony. Yet they both are very excited about it.
“Tony plays, obviously, many more large venues than I do,” said Pete. “But I’ve had that experience of playing to several thousand people at a time. It’s really different when you play a small venue (for) maybe 100 (or) 150 people. The people are sitting right up close to you and there’s a connection there that you don’t get playing in an arena or even an auditorium. That kind of connection with an audience is very special.”
He added: “It’s a different type of touring. There are no roadies, no driver, no road manager. We’ll be taking turns driving the van and moving around equipment, but that’s okay.”
Despite scheduling issues, especially with Tony performing worldwide with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel as well as his own project Stick Men, the brothers plan to record another album.
“This isn’t a band that’s going to go away,” said Tony. “Pete and I are bringing our lifetimes’ musical experiences into the band, and whether we’re on tour or playing locally (we live in upstate New York) we love what we’re doing.”
IF YOU GO:
What: The Levin Brothers
When: Show is at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 29.
Where: Havana, 105 S. Main St., New Hope.
Info: Call (215) 862-5501 or check www.havananewhope.com
Artist’s website: www.thelevinbrothers.com