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Howard Brings Back History

Howard Levy Brings Back History

The art of Howard Levy has many facets, and several will come into a richly deserved spotlight the weekend of January 18-19, 2019 at the Green Mill Jazz Club in The Windy City. Levy, a Chicago native, stands at the pinnacle of contemporary harmonica players, his virtuosity matched by his musicality. He also happens to be an uncommonly fluid pianist and a prolific composer and bandleader deepens his resume

All these strands, and others, converge in two distinct bands he led on separate nights at the Mill, each marking the release of a noteworthy recording.

The Levy-thon began on Friday, January 18th, with the musician playing piano (mostly) to celebrate “The NBV Quintet: From the Vaults, Vol. 2,” which documents the No Bad Vibes band Levy led from 1979 to ’85 (the album features music from 1980-’83).

The burning question on every Levy fan’s mind was, why did he dig so deep into the vaults for this one?

“What happened is when (trumpeter) Dave Urban passed away a few years ago, it made me go back and listen to the recording that we had done,” recalls Levy.

“And all the material sounded so fresh, and the way we were playing together was really exciting and interactive,” adds Levy, referring to an ensemble staffed by Urban, saxophonist Steve Eisen, bassists Kelly Sill and Jeff Czech and drummer Paul Wertico.

“At Dave Urban’s memorial service, a few winters ago, we all learned that he had been basically homeless for years. But he was such a positive neighborhood presence selling StreetWise on one corner in Roscoe Village that when he passed, the neighborhood collected money and put a brass plaque on the sidewalk commemorating him.”

That outpouring for Urban compelled Levy to unearth the old tapes, and he was quite right in considering them brimming with the spirit of youth. Yet, as the album shows, the music also was adventurous, the musicians playing Levy originals rather than well-worn jazz standards.

“I was writing things at the edge of what I could hear,” says Levy. “I was just trying to be creative and innovative. Some of the harmonies in some of those tunes are still challenging.”

As for Urban, Levy hears in his trumpet work “a very concentrated musical intelligence. He’s always searching for the right notes to play, and he has an ironic sense of humor and was inspired a lot by Woody Shaw, I would say. It was kind of an outward reaching playing.”

For that night’s Green Mill sets, Levy was joined by former NBV colleagues Eisen and Wertico, with the brilliant Chicago trumpeter Victor Garcia taking Urban’s spot.

The following night, Levy observed another landmark: the release of “Howard Levy: Harmonica Jazz: From the Vaults, Vol. 1,” a reissue of an album Levy originally put out on cassette in 1987.

Here Levy was making history, playing the full chromatic scale on the diatonic harmonica via techniques he invented. This enabled him to finesse intricate compositions by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Levy himself on an instrument hitherto far more limited.

“Coltrane is my musical hero, along with Bach,” says Levy. “I just always wanted to try to play some of those tunes on the harmonica.”

Levy aimed high, daring to recording his version of Coltrane’s “Resolution,” from the classic “A Love Supreme,” on an instrument with a fraction of the range, power and tone of Trane’s saxophone.

For Saturday night’s Green Mill sets, Levy was joined by two of the musicians on the original recording, bassist Eric Hochberg and drummer Wertico, plus one of Chicago’s most commanding pianists, Ron Perrillo. All of the festivities constituted a remarkable weekend for Levy and his audience.

“It’s kind of a summation of certain things, but also a revitalization from digging back into this material and remembering,” says Levy. “It brings back the feelings to me of how exciting it was to do all of this stuff at the time.

“When you’ve had a long career, like I’ve had, this was almost 40 years ago when I played this music, when I was not that well known.”

Considering Levy’s achievements in the decades since, it fascinating hear to how he addressed the music he created so long ago.




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