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

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Along with the depth of knowledge they demonstrate about saxophone players as diverse as Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley and Gigi Gryce, to name just a few, they understand Ellington and—they play ballads with an emotional sophistication that's way beyond their years—they know what to do with a Billy Strayhorn song. Have I mentioned that they also command their principle instruments, the clarinet and alto and tenor saxophones, with a stunning authority? I could go on and on about the Andersons. Right now the distinctions between them as musicians are as subtle as the differences in their appearances. It will be fascinating to see how they progress, how they diverge from one another and what they make of their prodigious talents, once they've become centered in their individual identities. But what they're presenting at this point in their development is already substantial and compelling enough to be worthy of preservation. I'm surprised that there's no big-label album yet. I should think that their marketing potential—the twin thing, their age—would be considerable.

EB: I've got to check them out.

RL: Yeah, you do.

EB: Who else?

RL: Actually, a lot of traditionalists. For the past year or so I've been hanging a lot with traditionalists.

EB: You've been hanging with Republicans?!

RL: I don't think they're all Republicans. Most of them give the appearance of being highly evolved and decent human beings. No, what happened was that my wife, Marianne Mangan, was into this music and she got me to pay attention to it.

EB: Marianne Mangan. I've read some of her stuff. She's good. I knew there was a relationship. I didn't realize you were married.

RL: Much to my irritation, Marianne declined to take my last name. I've been trying to persuade her to at least take my first name, which I think is a perfectly reasonable compromise.

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. 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 to Harry Edison to Art Farmer, 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 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, 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 on clarinet. Joe Licari. There are a lot of excellent clarinetists playing classic jazz—the brilliant Dan Block, of course, and Joe Muranyi and Dan Levinson—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, Steve Elmer, 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, Vincent Gardner, Dick Dreiwitz and Jim Fryer, and the guitarist/banjoist Howard Alden. 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 (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.

RL: As you get older a lot of the illusions you've lived with become transparent and they evaporate. You're left with reality. I believed, back in the '60s, in the possibility of a fundamental change in human consciousness and behavior. Hanging tight with like-minded musicians and others, I was convinced that the "new black music" was the embodiment of that possibility. I may have smiled at the hyperbole of a remark [the "free jazz" bassist and composer] Alan Silva made to me after coming off a high energy set—"Man, in another ten years we won't even need traffic lights we're gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another"—but I have to confess that I didn't think the remark was entirely off the wall. So I developed an agenda when I wrote about jazz that limited what I could appreciate and made me less than objective. I wanted to promote the revolution the "new black music" was leading. I didn't understood yet that the black musicians I revered weren't necessarily in possession of a special wisdom, or that the changes I envisioned were, for reasons I've tried to explain elsewhere, beyond the realm of the possible. [Ed. Note: See "Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s."]

EB: But what you said about being "left with reality." That does sound almost...grim.

RL: It's deflating, but it's hardly all that grim. Not when I can still be mesmerized by the interactions within a finely-tuned group, or thrilled by hearing a superior improviser challenge himself and then rise to the challenge. Not when what's left is the gift that, each in his way, George Sprung and Joe Goldberg gave me. The treasure that jazz is in all of its manifestations.

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