Ike Levin: Composing In the Moment
AAJ: Give me some insight into your musical conceptions.
IL: My musical conceptions are fairly simple. Each time I perform or record I seek to play things and create compositions that are fresh and new. I try not to rely on musical ideas I have played before or musical patterns that I 'shed on to keep my technique up. It's also not about technique for me. You need to have a physical facility on your instrument and know your instrument, but for me the instrument is only the means of expression. For me it's not improvising if I pull from a past repository of musical ideas or vocabulary. For me if you play an idea over too many times it becomes monotonous and becomes a cliché. I try to avoid that.
But of course it is easier said than done on a consistent basis. But that challenge is what I find personally gratifying. On my horns it's all about finding my voice at the particular moment. This may mean exploring new interval relationships among notes or new connections among phrases and different intonations or tonalities...Each note is comprised of waves of sound and by manipulating your embouchure you can find different harmonics and combinations of such harmonics on a wind instrument.
But I am always trying to find something I have not played before. Then of course there is the interaction with those other musicians I am creating music with. I strive to listen to what ideas and emotions they are expressing and I may react to them, build on or expand them, or try to take them in a little different direction. This requires enormous concentration so that I am fully immersed in the moment and my senses are attuned to the sounds and emotions occurring.
The improvisational music is also quite physical. Not many listeners appreciate the enormous physical expenditure of energy and emotion that occurs in playing this music and the concentration required to listen so deeply. After a performance or recording I am often simply exhausted both physically and emotionally. Spiritually, I am revived. I've learned that playing this music requires enormous strength and stamina soit's also important to stay in good physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
AAJ: How did Charles Lester Music (CLM) happen?
IL: When Joel and I started recording together we did not want to bother with the hassle of getting existing labels to put out our work. We wanted to maintain full creative control over all aspects of it. Most labels pay you for the session and perhaps provide some small percentage of sales above a certain level, but they own the music. They paid for it. I did not want sell my music and have someone else own it. In addition, Joel had told me some stories about how with past recordings he did with different labels where after the sessions he was given a handful of CDs and then had trouble getting more when he ran out. So I decided to put together the Charles Lester Music label. The name Charles Lester is in honor of my father. That was the name of his band back in the '30sthe Charles Lester Orchestra.
At first it was primarily a means for putting out our music and while it still serves that purpose, Charles Lester did put out the recording Joel and Al did with Kidd Jordan at a festival in Finland. The CD is Live at Tampere Jazz Happening 2000. The label that was originally going to put it out ran into some financial problems and the tapes were just sitting there. I listened to the recording and was blown away by it and decided I wanted to help get this great music out there. So Charles Lester Music bought the rights to the recording and put it out. As an independent label that is dedicated to high quality improvisational music we may do more with putting out the works of other musicians in the future. I recently did a project with multi-instrumentalist Oluyemi Thomas and his group Positive Knowledge that includes his wife Ijeoma, who does incredible vocal improvisations and speaks her original poetry, and multi-percussionist Spirit. That CD, First Ones, is also out on the Charles Lester Music label.
Charles Lester Music is still growing and developing as a label. We have some good working relationships with some distributors around the world like North Country and Verge, and Jazz Today out of Italy and are continuing to seek out partners to help us get our music out there. The internet has proven to be a great means for distribution too. Sites like CDBaby and JazzLoft sell our CDs and a few of our other distributors have electronic distribution deals so the CDs get out to Amazon and other internet retail sites. You can also download tracks from our CDs at iTunes, although they have a time limit for the tracks they make available for MP3-type downloads. Some of our tracks go over ten minutes and so to get to those you have to buy the CD. We chose not to sell our CDs at our website www.charleslestermusic.com, but you can listen to samples of tracks from all the CDs and there are links to the sites where the CDs can be purchased.
AAJ: The CLM CDs bear a note saying "the music on the CD was spontaneously created by the musicians". Could you elaborate on that?
IL: This refers to that all of the music on the CDs is created in the moment. We don't write any music down before, nor do we plan or discuss what we want to create in terms of compositional structure, motif, mood etc. One of us just begins playing some musical phrases and expressing some ideas and the others join in. As a result, all of the recordings are first takes from start to finishjust like a live performance recording. One composition just flows into the next and so on. We never go back and redo anything unless there was some technical problem with the recording equipment. This requires a very astute and talented engineer who can capture everything and who is quasi-mixing along the way. The old recording adage"it will be fixed in the mix"does not apply to our music. Yet, when I worked with Positive Knowledge it was a little different since Ijeoma's poetry was of course written out and the story it tells already constructed. But the music was pretty much composed in the moment. I think it went in some directions even she did not expect.