Bassist and cellist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Liquid Tension Experiment) and his brother, pianist and organist Pete Levin (Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius) make up The Levin Brothers. I was able to chat with both of them about their upcoming debut album, The Levin Brothers – featuring David Spinozza on guitar, Erik Lawrence on saxophone, and Steve Gadd and Jeff Siegel on drums.
Their self-titled debut album comes out September 9th. To pre-order the CD (first 1,000 copies signed) or coloured vinyl (Special Edition - first 1,000 signed & numbered), go to lazybones.com or thelevinbrothers.com
(((o))): The Levin Brothers sounds like something that has been brewing for a long time – when did the idea first come about to write some music together?
Pete Levin: It was really a natural progression rather than a plan. We're both immersed every day in making music one way or another. It started innocently with some casual playing. At some point there was the realization that ... hey, we could do this as a band ... or record it.
Tony Levin: Well, if 'brewing' is the right description, then it's certainly well cooked by now! It's occurred to me that we could conceivably have thought of making this album 50 years ago! Anyway, the idea came about 4 years ago - I'd started getting comfortable playing the electric cello (mainly I'm a bass player) and the thought came, gee, with Pete on organ and me on cello, we'd have two distinctive 'voices' to do some jazz songs, just like the music we listened to a lot when we were kids, which had Julius Watkins on French Horn (Pete's instrument at the time) and Oscar Pettiford on cello and bass.
So, in my spare time I kept practicing the cello, and started writing songs for us, specifically in that style (which features short, melodic songs, and short solos). Pete soon joined in writing songs and we got together a lot to run them down, find the right tempos, and refine the direction we were going to go on the album.
(((o))): How have you found the experience of composing with a sibling? Do you find it adds a different flavour to what you play?
Tony: Everything is easy between us - writing, playing, spending a lot of time together, and making musical decisions together. There's also musical respect, as you hope to have with all the guys you create music with, so we're both okay about the other making changes from what may have been our original chords or map of how the piece should go.
Pete: It's significant also that with our common background and musical training, when we focus on a musical idea, getting in sync with each other is almost automatic. And music aside, of course we know each other pretty well. So the experience of creating together is a smooth one. It just occurred to me: I've known Tony all his life. Who else can say that?
(((o))): How did you end up deciding on the stellar line up for the album?
Pete: Initially, it was a matter of convenience. We were considering doing some local live gigs just for fun, and there are many great players in our Woodstock community. Keeping it local and simple made jazz drummer Jeff Siegel a perfect choice to round out the trio. When it was clearly becoming a real project and we wanted to add players, we turned to old friends David Spinozza and Erik Lawrence, two fine musicians that we work with all the time and that we knew would understand what we were going for. Finally, having Steve Gadd as a guest had special meaning for Tony; they studied at the Eastman School together and have been close friends and musical collaborators ever since.
(((o))): With Tony’s ventures into improvisation with Stick Men, King Crimson and others, I was originally expecting an album of lengthy improvised pieces and solos. What is it about the cool jazz period specifically that speaks to both of you?
Tony: Well, how about that I still remember ALL the melodies and most of the solos from those records I heard some 54 years ago. That's because they're really good compositions and really special solos. It's certainly a valid thing to put out records that feature great playing, but to me, in the long run it's the songs - the compositions - that determines whether it'll remain there in my head. One way to describe this album is that we've tried to make music like that, that's 'classic' in the sense that it'll stay with you.
Pete: Yes; definitely, the melodies. Improvisation is at the heart of jazz expression, but making a recording was very different 60 years ago. So many albums get made now that we take it for granted, but it was a very special thing then - the medium, the process, the content, the marketing ... all different. Even the biggest format - the 12-inch LP - had limited space, so solos were kept short out of necessity. But that created an unexpected legacy for us; recordings with concise presentations of carefully crafted melodies and arrangements. That's Music Composition 101, fundamentals that modern musicians still need to study and master.
(((o))): Tony, do you have a favourite moment of Pete’s playing on the album? And Pete, do you have a favourite moment of Tony’s playing?
Tony: Yeah, I love all his solo-ing, but on Matte Kudasai (the one non-original on the album - it's a King Crimson song) - on that piece I felt he really caught the essence of the song and also took it somewhere else, in a fun way.
Pete: Oh, I have several! The arrangement concept for the Bach piece was Tony's - great idea. He takes very soulful solos on "Fishy Takes a Walk" and "I Remember." But if I had to pick one, it would definitely be his unison bass/vocal solo on "Havana." Very cool!
(((o))): People coming to The Levin Brothers from a traditionally rock background may be less aware of Pete’s incredibly storied career. Are there any albums you’d recommend to a newcomer of Pete’s music?
Pete: Since 2000, I've been recording solo albums mainly in organ trio format. The most recent, the self-released "Jump!", with Lenny White and Dave Stryker, is my favorite to date. But as a multi-keyboardist, I've made contributions to hundreds of albums over the years - sometimes prominently, sometimes not. I'm most proud of 3 albums I did with Jimmy Giuffre's quartet during the '80s, and the many live and studio albums I did with Gil Evans over a 15 year period - almost 30 that I know of. (We were bootlegged a lot!)
(((o))): Following that, what are some of your favourite jazz albums?
Tony: Since it's the inspiration for our album, I'll choose some of the cool jazz albums we grew up with:
(Some of the titles have changed since the original release - these are the current titles)
Oscar Pettiford: New Oscar Pettiford Sextet
Oscar Pettiford: Oscar Rides Again
Oscar Pettiford: Sextet
Julius Watkins: Sextet
Julius Watkins: The Jazz Modes
Pete: I'll second Tony's choices of course. Some classics that are still very influential:
Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue
Stan Getz/Eddie Sauter: Focus
Gil Evans/Miles Davis: Porgy & Bess
Bil Evans: Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Oscar Peterson/Lester Young: The President Plays
Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong: Ella & Louis
Dave Brubeck: Time Out
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um
(((o))): Are there any plans to play this music live, or do further albums down the track?
Pete: No plans yet, but definitely the desire to do both. It'll depend on how our schedules fit together.
Tony: Of course, we'll play gigs and do more records, this is not the kind of a band that could break up! Right now, our touring, gigging schedules are full for the coming seasons. Next year, we'll slot in some touring time, but will continue to play in our area (Woodstock and upstate New York) as we've been doing for years.
Next album… we're writing for that, and will see what's the best time to focus on it.