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Interviews

Robert Levin: The War is Over - A Conversation About Jazz

By Published: August 21, 2010
In any event, Marianne, who's frighteningly knowledgeable about this music, got me to listen to it. Yeah, like a lot of people I regarded modern manifestations of traditional and swing era jazz as reactionary and pretty much ignored them. But stripped of that extra-musical baggage there's some extraordinary music being played in these categories by a body of serious, dedicated and very good musicians, and I regret that long-held biases prevented me from finding that out sooner.

EB: Anybody in particular you want to mention?

RL: I've been especially impressed by the trumpeter, cornetist and flugelhornist Peter Ecklund
Peter Ecklund
Peter Ecklund
b.1945
trumpet
. As we used to put it, he's "saying something" when he plays. I've heard Ecklund now in a number of different contexts. He can remind you, at times, of a host of people from Armstrong to Beiderbecke to Harry James
Harry James
Harry James
b.1916
trumpet
to Harry Edison to Art Farmer
Art Farmer
Art Farmer
1928 - 1999
flugelhorn
, but his approach, including a sound that's multi-textured and rich with contrasts, is totally individuated. Just a few notes and you know that it's him. His solos, consistently crafted with wit and intelligence—unerringly musical- can be powerfully dynamic and emotive, and his presence in an ensemble always serves to extend the musicians he's working with. In his own group, Blue Suitcase, which has been playing occasionally at the Greenwich Village Bistro on Carmine Street, he draws not only on jazz but on a classical training, extensive experience with rock and pop bands, outstanding song writing and arranging skills, computer technology and a droll sense of humor, to produce music that's inventive, edgy and immediately seductive. He's a genuine artist. The real thing.

EB: OK! Go on.

RL: I haven't heard everyone, not nearly, but of the players and groups I've caught thus far I've been consistently dazzled by The Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, a group of shifting, but invariably first-rate personnel (the estimable trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso
Jon-Erik Kellso
Jon-Erik Kellso
b.1964
trumpet
is frequently featured), that David Ostwald, who plays tuba, leads at Birdland on Wednesday evenings. I heard Little Willie Anderson, on clarinet, get into an electrifying exchange with Ed Polcer
Ed Polcer
b.1937
, a magnificent Chicago-school cornetist, there. And the pianist Bill Dunham runs an always stirring group, the Grove Street Stompers, at Arthur's Tavern on Monday nights with Peter Balance on trombone, Skip Muller on bass, Giampaola Biagi on drums, revolving and stellar trumpet or cornet players like Ecklund, Polcer and John Bucher (a wonderfully subtle and lyrical musician), and Joe Licari
Joe Licari
Joe Licari
b.1934
clarinet
on clarinet. Joe Licari. There are a lot of excellent clarinetists playing classic jazz—the brilliant Dan Block, of course, and Joe Muranyi
Joe Muranyi
b.1928
and Dan Levinson
Dan Levinson
Dan Levinson

clarinet
—but, and I'm talking about his unfailing exuberance, his touch with a ballad and the marvelous symmetry of his solos, no one reaches me quite the way Licari does.

Someone else I've come to admire is Herb Gardner. He's an exceptional trombonist, accomplished pianist and terrific bandleader—he leads the Stan Rubin big band at Swing 46 on Wednesday nights in addition to small groups at venues like Charley O's—and I always get a major lift when I go to hear him.

And each of them owning his own particular strengths and virtues, there are others that I'm glad I've gotten to hear. I'm thinking of pianists like Peter Socolow, Terry Waldo, Ehud Asherie
Ehud Asherie
Ehud Asherie
b.1979
piano
, Steve Elmer
Steve Elmer
Steve Elmer
b.1941
piano
, Don Edmonds, Jesse Gelber} and Dick Voigt}; saxophonists like Jim Perry, Chuck Wilson and Bob Curtis; trumpeters like John Eckert and Barry Bryson; the trombonists Dan Barrett
Dan Barrett
Dan Barrett
b.1955
, Vincent Gardner
Vincent Gardner
Vincent Gardner
b.1972
trombone
, Dick Dreiwitz and Jim Fryer, and the guitarist/banjoist Howard Alden
Howard Alden
Howard Alden
b.1958
guitar
. I've also discovered that along with a lot of stand-out percussionists like Biagi, Jackie Williams, Fred Stoll, Arnie Kinsella, Steve Little, Ed Bonoffand Kevin Dorn
Kevin Dorn

drums
(who's an especially bright and gifted younger drummer), more than a few superb bassists—Brian Nalepka, Mike Weatherly, Murray Wall, Steve Alcott, Dave Winograd, Muller and Andrew Hall among them—are devoting themselves to this music.

EB: Your thinking about jazz has clearly undergone a significant transformation, Robert.

RL: Well, I do continue to play the hell out of my John Coltrane CDs.

EB: Still, what happened that enabled you to expand the range of what you listen to?

RL: You mean besides Marianne? I got older.

EB: You got older.


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