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Howard Levy talks with ArtistWorks

Inside Conversations with Howard Levy.

Howard tells ArtistWorks about his recent travels and tour with the Original Flecktones.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, we talked with Howard Levy about his current projects and his very intense, highly anticipated one-month reunion tour with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones—an exciting, very innovative jazz progressive group he was an original founder of in the early 90’s.

“This has probably been the most intense three months of my life,” Howard started out—a remarkable statement in that he is almost always intensely busy, yet at the same time is a very relaxed person to be around. “Alongside all the creative effort going into the launching of the new site—which has been fun, cool and exhilarating—I’ve been doing a dizzying round of concerts and recordings.”

The last month of this big bang of harmonica playing started off with Howard doing a concert in Germany with the Hohner Accordion Orchestra at the Hohner (fabled and largest harmonica makers) home city of Trossingen, Germany. If you’re using a Hohner for your harmonica playing it was “handmade in Trossingen” as they say, and Howard was there playing his Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra with The Hohner Accordion Orchestra (!)- a historic first. “Every four years Hohner sponsors The World Harmonica Festival in Trossingen. I was the featured artist on Saturday night, completely sold out, and it was a real treat to play classical music with all these pumping accordions behind me. Although I've performed the concerto at least 20 times before, this was totally different and wonderful.”

He then played a sizzling one hour concert set with Chris Siebold, Howard’s longtime guitarist sideman (and member of Howard’s group, Howard Levy Acoustic Express) and with whom he recorded a live CD in Richmond VA in September. “This was right before the Flecktones tour which started in early November. I flew out from Zurich to Dublin, Ireland, to meet up with Béla Fleck, Roy Wooten and Victor Wooten (drummer and bassist extraordinaires—brothers out of an incredibly talented family) who were flying in from Nashville for our rehearsals."

The group rehearsed that day in the city of Limerick, three hours from Dublin. They had met for 3 days of rehearsals in Nashville in September reconstituting the best tunes from the original Béla Fleck and the Flecktones days in the early 90’s, but all of them had done a lot of other things in between. "We worked really hard that day to remember everything for the first show". Howard plays both harmonica and piano with the Flecktones—as he is a master of both instruments—and often plays both at the same time, a feat that brings people to their feet in live concerts. “There were a lot of odd time meters and unusual phrases that needed to be worked out, as we were pretty much reprising the pieces from our first 3 albums.”

“I love playing harmonica and I love playing piano, and our material for the Flecktones had an about equal amount for each so that was a very positive plus to this reunion. The public often doesn’t know I play both, and they come expecting to see me always on harmonica and there I am sitting behind the piano. But then they recognize the sound and say, “Wow, that’s how they did it.”

When asked on the reason for the reunion, Howard offered, “A lot of people were asking for a reunion of the original Flecktones. It was a very groundbreaking sound both in the instruments put together, but also in the way we were composing and improvising. For years people had been asking, ‘Where’s Howard?’ We’d played together a couple of times over the past fifteen years—the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007 for instance. We’d kept in touch. The reunion was a natural outcome of all this.”

“It was great to reprise those Flecktone pieces, and the harmonica parts are sublime and powerful. Everything stood up well to the test of time,” Howard says. “We all sounded better, and I insisted that we had real acoustic pianos at every performance, rather than keyboards.”

The tour kicked off in Limerick on November 3rd and cruised to speed throughout Europe with multiple city stops, including a couple of double - billing shows with Chick Corea and his trio of Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. "Chick and Bela had recorded and toured together, so Chick sat in on "Sunset Road" in the Flecktones' set, and then we all joined together on Chick's great tune "Spain" for the grand finale. Chick arranged it when the two bands ended up doing a sound check together." Howard jammed on harmonica alongside saxophonist Tim Godwin, who was sitting in with Chick.

“The audiences really loved it. A lot of people were old fans and really eager to see the original band and there were, of course, a lot of new fans who were treated to some fantastic Flecktones playing and improv.”

On his harmonica playing, Howard related the story of his coffee cup that he carried around with him on the tour to use as a plunger/Harmon mute for his harmonica. “I rarely use electronic gear for my effects, except for playing hand-held mic through an amp for distortion. So I had this coffee cup I was carrying around to each gig to use as a mute and the stagehands running the sound check were always taking that cup away as part of their neatness thing. But it was mine and I really liked this cup. I got it back, put a Flecktones decal on it, and they left it alone. I like to do my own effects because when I do really sophisticated tongue blocks and dual octave playing, I want people to know it isn’t electronically produced—its really me doing the playing live and acoustically.”

Howard now presides as teacher at the newly opened


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