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Ike Levin: Composing In the Moment


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...this music is far from free. There is a compositional
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...


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