In a jam session or reading an arrangement, the gifted reedman Dan Levinson summons up noble ghostsBenny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Frank Trumbauer and Rosy McHargue. But he is his own man with his own ideas. In spirit, he resembles Dick Hyman, creating historically accurate but radically lively music. Although Levinson is called "traditional" by those who revel in labels, his approach to the past is energetic, with a mission to rescue otherwise obscure American music, pop and jazz. His second CD with his own Canary Cottage Dance Orchestra, might seem a stylish museum piece but is anything but archaic.
Levinson offers once-familiar songs (with a few surprises) from the late 1800s to the 1920s in idiomatically authentic but flexible performances. There's no fake razz-ma-tazz and no stunts here, no playing King Oliver's book to a tango beat. The result is fervent, and when it's appropriate, swinging. This CD shows off what is now an unorthodox instrumentation of well-grounded New York jazz players, with lovely singing from Molly Ryan (clear-voiced, sensitive without being overly formal), David Sager (a vaudevillian born too late), John Gill (adding a down-home flavor), and the Victrolian Vaudeville Quartet, whose neat work will drive away any evil preconceptions about barbershop harmony.
They are joined by fine improvisersthe nimble pianist Conal Fowkes, Sager and Gilltrue melodists on trombone and banjothe precise but ineffably hot drummer Kevin Dorn and the sweet but never cloying violinist, Matt Azamela. Even recording engineer Peter Karl contributes a glockenspiel cameo.
Steppin' Around isn't the auditory equivalent of a mandatory visit to one's great-grandparents who won't stop singing. Rather, it presents one yearning or witty melody after another, evidence that American music once had a soulful heart it wasn't embarrassed to reveal. No postmodern irony herenone needed.
Levinson has selected memorable tunes, including "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time," "Jeanine," and "Darling Nelly Gray" (recorded by artists including Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Ruby Braff, and Eddie Lang, if listeners need proof of musical credibility). But the never-heard rarities by Scott Joplin and George M. Cohan may be even better. The result is far from the usual jazz CD, but it stays in the mind. And, as is always the case with Stomp Off Records, every detail is in place: fine recording, beautiful photographs, and detailed, often hilarious, liner notes by Levinson.
Personnel: Dan Levinson: C-Melody saxophone, clarinet; Matt Szamela: violin; David Sager: trombone and vocal; Conal Fowkes: piano; John Gill: banjo and vocal; Kevin Dorn: drums; Peter Karl: glockenspiel; Molly Ryan: vocal; Bob Kelly: vocal; Scott Brannon: vocal; Neal Siegal: vocal; Paul Santino: vocal.