Ike Levin: Composing In the Moment
AAJ: Great. Tell me more about the trio, and the recent recording, Resolving Doors.
IL: Resolving Doors was a project Joel Futterman, Alvin Fielder and I did a little over a year ago. I just learned that Cadence Magazine named it as one of the top CDs for 2005. That is quite an honor given the number of recordings by great musicians out there. Anyway, we had some hits lined up out on the west coast of the US. We went into the studio between a two-night engagement we had at the Jazz House in Berkeley, CA. The Jazz House is a really hip venue. It's a place where people come specifically to dig creative music. It's a real nice performance space because people are there to listen to the music. So we were pretty in tune with each other when we went into the studio having played a couple of performances together. This session was similar to how we approach our music all the time. We never really talk about what or how we are going to play. In fact, our conversations right before getting to our instruments are rarely at all even about music.
In this particular session, Joel kicked off some phrases on the piano and in doing so set the tone and tempo, Al kicked in with the drums, I let things develop a little bit and then jumped into the pocket myself and we were off and running. We let each composition develop as we play it. We never really know where it's going. It's almost a mystical process that is fueled by our deep listening to what each other is doing. At times we complement what one of us is doing. I may hear Joel's phrases surround a tonal center for a moment or I might pick up on the rhythm or dynamics of his phrases.
Joel can really create and develop phrases at an unbelievably fast pace. At times the individual notes of his phrases are like blurs. But I listen intently to what he is laying down and try to react to it and build on it and maybe take it in a slightly different direction. I might hear Al make a certain accent or series of accents or pick up on the tonal sound of his drums. Al plays the drums so musically. He can really burn and lays down a great pulse, but his work goes far beyond keeping time. He swings more in creative ways than any drummer I have played with. At times, I may feel something and develop it in a direction that is a little differently from what we were doing and Joel and Al will respond almost instantaneously to support it and help me develop it further. It's really an amazing spiritual process. Then at some point it feels like we have said what needs to be saidhave expressed ourselves and we end it.
One of the pieces on the CD, I think it's the second track, "Opus de Impulse, actually began from a sound check. I was switching over to bass clarinet from the tenor and the studio engineer wanted to ensure he had the microphone levels at a hip place for it. So he asked me to start playing something. I was playing some long tones and phrases and suddenly I heard Joel come in with some responses to my phrases. So I kept going. Al sat down at the drums and that piece just unfolded.
You know the music we create has been referred to by a lot of names over the yearsfree jazz being one of them. But honestly this music is far from free. There is a compositional structure to all the pieces. It's just not a preconceived compositional structure, but rather one we create as a piece unfolds.
AAJ: How did the three of you hook up with each other? I mean how did you meet and decide to play together?
IL: Joel Futterman and I are cousins. We grew up together in Chicago. Joel used to have a place in Hyde Park on the Southside of Chicago during the early '70s and I used to go over there to practice together and work on some things. There would always be a variety of musicians coming by so we had sessions all the time. While we were still in touch we rarely had the opportunity to play together since he moved to the east coast and I went out to the west coast.. But in 2000 we committed to do a project together and he came out to SF and we recorded InterView with bassist Randall Hunt. From that point on we renewed our musical relationship and have recorded four CDs and performed together both out on the west coast and east coast. It was Joel who introduced me to Alvin Fielder. Joel and I have a new CD to be released probably in the spring called Enigma. It's a duo recording that we did last year.
Joel had been performing and recording with Alvin and the great New Orleans based saxophonist Edward 'Kidd' Jordan. I first met Alvin at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival I think it was back in 1996. Anyway, Joel brought Alvin out together with me to perform on the east coast in 2003. We really hit off both personally and musically. Al is just so knowledgeable about the music and he is just a wonderful cat. He is like a jazz historian. He knows so many stories about who played with who and when and all about the different relationships that developed among a whole variety of jazz musicians going back 50 or more years. That was the first time I played with Alvin. Since then the three of us have performed together several times and recorded the Resolving Doors CD.
I love playing with these two guys. Every time it's like going to school. I come away learning more and more about my instruments and about how to create compositions through our interaction. Joel can run a heavy bass line while he is throwing out really rich chords. It's really nice to blow over what he lays down. Sometimes he picks up his soprano saxophone and blows with me while still laying down an incredible bass line. Al is really bad. He is so well-versed in the drum masters who came before him and he is amazingly versatile in his playing. He can play real high energy, blend together polyrhythms and drive things at unbelievable tempos and then transition to doing colorings behind what others are doing, but he is always swinging. We have a gig coming up in April at a club in Portland called the Blue Monk. I think we may record that one so we can capture the experience