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Ike Levin: Composing In the Moment


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...this music is far from free. There is a compositional structure...it
Multi-reed player Ike Levin is an active contributor to the vibrant San Francisco Bay Area creative music scene and performs around North America with a variety of different improvisational music ensembles. Levin is also one of the founders of the independent music label Charles Lester Music which is dedicated to documenting spontaneous in-the-moment music. All About Jazz's Taran Singh caught up with Levin to talk about his music, the Bay Area scene and what's on the horizon.

Chapter Index

Resolving Doors
Joel Futterman & Alvin Filder
Musical Conceptions
Charles Lester Music
Leaving Chicago
Bay Area Creative Music Scene
Parting Shot
Selected Discography


All About Jazz: Hi Ike, all I know of your music is from the albums on your own label, Charles Lester Music. Give me some background on yourself. How you grew up and how you came to music?

Ike Levin: I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. My father had been a professional musician. He had an 18-piece dance band during the '30s in Chicago. He told me that during the economic depression of the early to mid-'30s, musicians were some of the only people working regularly. We always had music playing around the house—some swing stuff and some jazz, but also a lot of classical and chamber orchestral music. After WWII he never went back to playing professional on regular basis. He was a Conservatory trained violinist who could play any type or style of music. When I was around seven years old he took me to a music store and told me I could take lessons on any instrument I wanted. I selected the clarinet. I liked the way it felt in my hands at the time. I studied and played for around five or six years, but then became more interested in sports and put music aside.

When I was around 19 years old I got turned on to John Coltrane's music and immediately was motivated to get back into music. I thought I could learn the saxophone due to its similarity with the clarinet. I was attracted to the tenor because to me it was closest to the human voice. I was just amazed at Trane's concept and the flow of ideas as well as his piercing tone. I actually started listening to his later stuff first just by accident. I went into a record shop and looked for one of his LPs and the only one they had was his Transitions recording. From there I went to A Love Supreme and Interstellar Space before I started working back to his work with Miles and Monk.

I was self-taught for a while and then picked up with the legendary Chicago jazz saxophonist and teacher Joe Daley in Chicago. He had one recording under his name—Joe Daley Trio Live at Newport 63. The drummer was Hal Russell. That Trio got into some really heavy free stuff back then. Joe never received widespread notoriety, I think in part because he chose to stay in Chicago rather than head off to NYC. But jazz musicians around the country knew and respected his playing. He was a real musicians' musician. Joe was a teacher of a great many professional jazz players of all instruments. I remember the student who had his lesson before me was the first chair bassist for the Chicago symphony orchestra who wanted to learn how to improvise. From Joe I learned a lot of the fundamentals of the instrument and how to approach improvisation from a harmonic framework. He had me work on my ability to read music but also a lot on my ear. One of my first lessons with him was to sing through the blues changes in different keys and then replicate what I sang to my tenor.

I also took some music theory classes at the local universities and Chicago Conservatory of Music. But my greatest learning was going out and listening to all the great jazz players who came through Chicago back in the late '60s and '70s like Charles Mingus, Art Blakey's groups, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie and the great tenor players like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and of course Chicago players like Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, and Sonny Stitt. There were a lot of open jam sessions in those days and I would go out to listen and after a while got up the courage to try and sit in and play a couple of choruses. The older cats were very welcoming of young players. I found a mentor in drummer Wilbur Campbell who was one of the all time great bebop drummers, as well as multi-horn player Ira Sullivan. I also used to go out and listen to some of the contemporary composers like Pierre Boulez who were applying atonality and a lot of space to their compositions.

After a number of years working on more straight-ahead type playing, I heard Cecil Taylor's group with Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons, and Andrew Cyrille and I was blown away by their intensity and interaction, the abstractness of their music. And how it really and deeply swung. From that experience, I started checking out some of the AACM players who would do hits around Chicago. That is where I first met Fred Anderson and hooked up with him as a teacher for a while. Fred had a small performance space on the Northside of Chicago called Birdland and I used to go down there and listen to him blow as well as other AACM players. I remember my first lesson with Fred. I had anticipated we were going to break loose and blow free, but he put up some Charlie Parker charts on a music stand, took out his tenor and we played the heads together over and over again. He wanted to me to get into and feel the beautiful phrasing that Bird expressed. It was Fred who really turned me onto the whole concept of phrasing of musical ideas—even if it is simply a couple of notes. I used to work on just taking three or four notes and playing them all kinds of different ways and with different rhythmic feels to try and develop my concept of phrasing. I still work on this today when I get down to business with my horn.

Another major influence on my playing has been pianist Joel Futterman. He has inspired me to move away from pre-written or composed music and to create compositions in the moment through deep listening. Listening to what each other is doing and to what you are hearing in yourself. Because he lives off on the east coast and I live on the west coast near San Francisco we don't see each other that often, but we stay connected nevertheless and each time we get together to perform and record it's always a new experience. I have learned from Joel not to look back at what I have played before but to always look forward to what I have not played yet. We have a performance coming up with drummer Alvin Fielder in Portland in April. Al Fielder is another major influence on my playing. I just love playing with him. He has such a strong notion of swing. It's really been an honor for me to play with Joel and Al. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Resolving Doors

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 said—have 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 years—free 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. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Joel Futterman & Alvin Filder

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 class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Musical Conceptions

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 so—it's also important to stay in good physical, emotional, and spiritual health. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Charles Lester Music

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 '30s—the 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 finish—just 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. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Leaving Chicago

AAJ: Why did you decide to leave Chicago and settle in the San Francisco Bay area?

IL: I left Chicago to settle in the San Francisco area around 1990. Chicago is a great city, but my wife and I wanted to experience living somewhere else. We just fell in love with the San Francisco area. It is one of the most beautiful urban areas in the US and perhaps the world. It is a very Mediterranean type climate and topography. The city of San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides'"it's just an amazing place. When I have traveled through Europe I am reminded of the Bay Area by parts of southern Spain and France as well as Greece. The San Francisco Bay area also has a thriving arts community comprising all art forms from visual arts, to theater, to dance, to all genres of music. It is also a very multi-cultural area with people living here who come from all over the world so there is a beautiful blending of artistic expressions and energies that emerge from these different cultures. San Francisco is a spiritual city. You know it's compared to Pompeii because it's built on seven hills. Oakland is a real soulful city too. There are a lot of creative musicians living in and around Oakland too. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Bay Area Creative Music Scene

AAJ: Would you please shed some light on the Bay Area creative music scene?

IL: The creative music scene here has gone through some cycles like other places. That's the way it seems to go. It was pretty strong and thriving when I first arrived here in the early '90s with cats like Glenn Spearman, Sonny Simmons, Eddie Gayle and Oluyemi Thomas and others doing things. Then there was a decline or a quieter period for a while where there was not much happening nor were there many places to perform. It has picked up in recent years.

There are a variety of small venues in San Francisco itself like the Luggage Store Gallery where there is creative and experimental music on Thursday evenings. There are a couple of venues in the Oakland-Berkeley area too like 21 Grand that is also an art gallery and they feature different forms of creative music a few nights a week. There is also the 8th St Performance Space in Oakland and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in SF. Sometimes cats just organize things and use a community center or church as the venue. Mills College does some concerts periodically of improvisational music. Cecil Taylor did a residency program up there a few years back. He did some performances with a big band using a lot of local musicians to perform his compositions.

The Jazz House in Berkeley was a great music listening space that lost its lease after a couple years of operation. It featured both local cats and some international talent. I performed there with Joel Futterman and Alvin Fielder a year or so ago and the next night Sam Rivers performed. Rob Woodworth who is the proprietor of the Jazz House is trying to organize some funding to get it up and operating again. Right now he is doing a monthly music series. I am performing there in early February with Olueymi Thomas and Positive Knowledge. The Jazz House does not have a permanent space yet but have agreements with some local theater spaces and churches. We will be performing at a theater space called the Ashby Stage that holds close to 100 people or so. In the past couple of years some east coast and European cats have come through including Peter Kowald, William Parker, Sonny Simmons and Frank Gratkowski.

There are a few radio stations here that feature more creative type music and freer blowing jazz, but there is also a whole lot of world music of all sorts happening here too. Check out the Bay Area Improvisers Network website. It has listings of performances and information about events and musicians living and working in the area.

Oluyemi Thomas and I are talking with some people about trying to organize an annual creative music festival here in the Bay Area. . Maybe something like the Vision Festival that takes place in New York City. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Parting Shot

AAJ: That'll be a great thing to happen. By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed your album with Positive Knowledge. Would you like to say something to the readers as a parting shot?

IL: Well not much more to add. Just that talking about the music is only one representation of it because it describes it at one moment in time—sort of a snapshot—while the music itself is in the midst of a process—always moving, always evolving, and always changing. I think of the art of the improviser as making that connection and commentary on the process in a specific instant. It's all about communicating and interacting with your instrument, with yourself, with the other musicians and with those who are listening and engaging in it with you. When you are playing improvisational music you are immersed in a atmosphere of swirling sounds, vibrations, rhythms that are dancing around you and the other players—I try to find the center of it at a given moment and delve into it and try to make some sense of what it is and at the same time contribute to what it is and could be. It is difficult to use words to describe that experience because it's not happening in the head but in the heart and through the intuition. It's just something that I see being my ongoing work and something I am trying to evolve to higher and higher elements.

I also would like to pray for peace in the lives of all who inhabit our planet and pray that the voices and energies of unity and renewal prevail.

Thanks Taran for the chance to dialogue with you. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Selected Discography

Positive Knowledge, First Ones (CLM, 2005)
Joel Futterman/Ike Levin/Alvin Fielder, Resolving Doors (CLM, 2004)
Joel Futterman/Ike Levin Trio, LifeLine (IML, 2004)
Joel Futterman/Ike Levin Duo, The Present Gift (IML, 2003)
Joel Futterman/Ike Levin Trio, Live at the Noe Valley Ministry (IML, 2003)
Ike Levin, Spherical Dance (IML, 2002 )
Joel Futterman/Ike Levin Trio, InterView (IML, 2001)

Photo Credits:
Courtesy of Ike Levin

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