Pianist Alex Levin, a Philadelphia native, has demonstrated a two-track mindset scholastically, geographically, professionally and artistically. After moving to New York City to study piano at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Levin transferred to Brown University, where he earned a degree in English literature. He then moved to Berlin, where his quartet The Living Room achieved popular and critical success, gaining notoriety for unique interpretations of pop songs by the likes of Björk and Tom Waits.
After returning to New York in 2001, Levin established himself as a working musician by night and a teacher by day. He's even double-barreled as an academic, teaching English and music in Brooklyn during the school year and working on his master's degree in Vermont during the summer.
A Reason For Being Alone is Levin's second release, featuring nine original compositions. His core trio of bassist Diallo House and drummer Taylor Davis is supplemented by four additional sidemen on several tracks, creating a nice sonic and stylistic variety.
One of these supplements, attractive and certainly unusual, is the work of William Martina on cello, an altogether underused instrument in jazz. A wonderfully mellow string voice offering a happy medium between bass and violin, Martina's bowed melody line gives a markedly Django Reinhardt-ish flavor to "Emma's Ennui," and the song itself evokes John Lewis' famous ode to the gypsy guitarist. This sense is further enhanced by Chad Coe, who contributes a nicely relaxed guitar solo. Martina also plays winningly on the lyrical "Your Call."
Like most jazz pianists, Levin mixes club dates with private parties, where it is incumbent to know (as the testimonial of one pleased client puts it) how to "contribute to and not dominate the festivities." In a compliment that might make some purists wince a bit, critic Beth Mann wrote that Levin's first release, Night and Distance (2005), is "a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at a dinner party." Levin himself admits it was designed as easy listening, something "people would... enjoy throughout the dayat dinner, while relaxing or reading, or when they were cooking."
Doubtless, it's tough these days to make a vocationor even an avocationas a jazz musician, especially in New York, which has no shortage of talented pianists. Levin is balancing commercial viability with artistic integrity, and he has thus far done an admirable job of walking what can be a tricky tightrope.
Here, unfettered by the need to remain politely unobtrusive and perhaps bolstered by the success of Night and Distance, Levin signals a willingness to strike a more assertive note with the opening track, "Blues on Thursday." A distinctly Horace Silver-tinged concoction, the dueling saxophones of Stacy Dillard and Max Hacker make for a pleasantly raucous atmosphere.
Levin's ensemble works it way comfortably through several genres, including the straight-ahead "For Pete's Sake" and the bebop "New Schooled." The Evans-esque "Blues through Stained Glass" shows Levin's ability to raise cocktail piano to an art form, and the balladic title track is sensitively rendered.
Blues on Thursday; A Reason for Being Alone; Emma's Ennui; For Pete's Sake; Her Solitary
Wish; Your Call; New Schooled; Polar Bear Waltz; Blues through Stained Glass.
Alex Levin: piano; Diallo House: bass; Taylor Davis: drums; Max Hacker: tenor sax (1,7); Chad
Coe: guitar (3); Stacy Dillard: tenor sax (1,5); William Martina: cello (3,6).