Tony Levin: Brother to Brother

By Roy Rahl

Legendary bassist Tony Levin has to be one of the most traveled musicians in all of history. He may have enough frequent flyer miles to buy an airline outright! Fortunately, wherever he goes he leaves a path of incredible music behind him. The list of people he has worked with is staggering: King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Pink Floyd; and it only begins there!

Tony Levin and his brother Pete have put together an album called Levin Brothers. It’s an album of original compositions dedicated to the nightclub jazz music of the 1950’s. It is a very clean album free of grandiose solos or gratuitous overproductions. It’s just beautifully straightforward jazz that takes the listener back to a time many of us never experienced but sure wish we could have. In a modern era filled with easy music made to sound complex, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear brilliant musicians play complex music and make it sound easy.

Classic Rock Revisited was able to interview Tony Levin about the album and get his insights into how two brothers sit down and compose a solid jazz album. Most interestingly, Levin introduces us to a new secret weapon in his arsenal … an electric cello! He also gives us a little tidbit of what is in store with the upcoming King Crimson tour.

Roy: Thank you so much for the opportunity to ask you some questions about your recent album, Levin Brothers. This is a beautifully rich album that evokes images of the hippest jazz nightclubs of the 1950’s. I can almost hear the glasses clinking and smell the cigarette smoke. What was the impetus for writing an album in this genre?

Tony: First of all, thanks much for the compliment. Indeed, it's a jazz nightclub that we envisioned as we were playing, and we even wore black suits in the studio, to try to get into the vibe of that 50's jazz.

Roy: Both you and your brother Pete are extremely talented musicians. You must have had the coolest house in the neighborhood growing up. Why did it take so long to produce an album together and can we expect more projects like this one in the future?

Tony: We've both had pretty extensive careers, recording and touring. Really, the idea of making this album together came up just a few years ago when I got an electric cello and started bearing down on practicing it. Usually I just play bass. I started practicing the Oscar Pettiford  cello songs I remembered from when I was a kid, and soon thought about writing some new stuff in this genre - short melodic jazz pieces, with short solos - and with Pete's piano playing, making an album of it. There will surely be more recording and touring from us in the future.

Roy: There are a lot of diverse styles in this collection. It has everything from a Latin influence to a straight up northeastern nightclub approach to almost a big band style in places. Who were some of your major influences when writing the material?

Tony: As I mentioned, bassist/cellist Oscar Pettiford was more than an influence, his playing, and his combos with Julius Watkins were our model for the type of playing we aimed at with our songs. They even had a few Latin songs, as we do.

Roy: Who are some of the other musicians on the album? 

Tony: Well known drummer, Steve Gadd, joined us for a song. That piece, “Bassics”, reminded me of some of the playing Steve and I did together back in our college days, and it just seemed right to try to get him in on it. Jeff Siegel gigs with my brother Pete a lot, so he seemed the right choice for drumming on the rest of the tracks. Likewise, Erik Lawrence is a frequent saxophone guest on Pete's jazz gigs, and he's outstanding on the album. Guitarist David Spinozza has been in a band with me, called L'Image, ever since we can remember! And it was fun to have him in to be part of this recording.

Roy: I loved your rendition of the first movement of Bach’s “Cello Suites”. Needless to say, I’ve never heard it performed quite like that. How did you decide to work with this particular piece?

Tony: It was with a sense of humor that I put it into jazz-time feel, and had Pete play a melody on top. Also with a sense of ‘I hope no real classical cellists are going to hear this’, because my cello playing isn't near that level!

Roy: Even in 1950‘s jazz there’s not a lot of music featuring the upright bass as the primary melodic instrument. As a bassist, this album must have been somewhat liberating.

Tony: In fact, I have rarely played any kind of solos in my career; so the many solos, both on bass and cello, were a challenge, and a lot of fun. And a bass solo is a special thing to me, as is having the bass take the melody, as I had it do on “Bassics”. I like challenges, and I like having musical fun. This album had both.

Roy: The songs “Cello In The Night” and “When Sasha Gets The Blues” feature you playing cello and exchanging wonderful melodies with your brother. You don’t hear much “jazz cello”. How does a composer incorporate a cello into this format?

Tony: It's unusual for an instrument to inspire an album, but that's the case this time. The cello I got, the NS Electric Cello, sounded so good, and in a versatile way, that it got me thinking about doing these kinds of songs and recording it. It has two pickup modes - one where it sounds like an acoustic cello - which is what I used on most of the album - and another pickup that has it sound like a fretless bass. I used that sound for some of the ballad melodies like “Cello in the Night” and “Matte Kudasai”.  “When Sasha Gets the Blues” was regular bowing of the cello.

Roy: The cover of “Matte Kudasai”: When I listen to this tune I hear two brothers sitting around one night just jamming on this piece for fun and afterwards saying, “yeah, let’s put this one on the album”. It’s every musician's dream to be able to make a tune sound like it was created as naturally and organically as this piece sounds. Please tell me how this composition came about?

Tony: You're right about the vibe of how we made the record and did that song. Having written a lot of new material for the record, we felt it'd be nice to put on one song that people could recognize. Tried a few, including Paul Simon's “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” which Pete and I had played on tour with Paul. “Matte Kudasai” came out the best, and it was a reminder to me what a cool song Adrian Belew and King Crimson came up with back the 80's. I felt it really lends itself to an instrumental treatment as well as when it has the lyrics.

Roy: I know that you are currently rehearsing for an upcoming King Crimson tour. Will there be a tour to promote Levin Brothers? If so, where and when?

Tony: I'm looking forward to the upcoming King Crimson tour. We'll do a swing across the U.S, and I think fans of the band are really going to like the new lineup and the material. Then I have a few more tours right afterward - Stick Men in the East Coast and MidWest, then Peter Gabriel in Europe. Then -whew! - I'll finish those in December and Pete and I will start planning what shows we'll do next year. Too early to know exactly, but I think it's very likely we'll hit jazz clubs in the cities that have them.

Roy: Will Levin Brothers be available for download on iTunes? I’ve noticed that none of the Crimson albums are available on iTunes? Why is this?

Tony: Crimson's policies are made by Robert Fripp, our leader, so I don't really know why it's not on iTunes.  Levin Brothers will be there for sure - probably a month or so after the physical release, though, that's up to the label. I'm just the bass player!

By the way, this might be a good place to mention that I really love being able to release this music as a real record, in addition to the digital formats. I've wanted to have an LP release before on some of my band and solo recordings; but there are always reasons making it hard to do. This time we resolved from the beginning that, with the classic approach to the music, this would be the time it's just gotta be a record too. And the large format for the artwork was wonderful to work with. Of course, we've put in a digital download card, as is pretty standard with LP's now, and to complete the package we made the first 1,000 platters in gold, and hand numbered and autographed those LP covers.

Roy: And last, can you tell me anything about the upcoming Crimson tour?

Tony: The lineup is quite unusual - 7 of us, including 3 drummers!  The drummers, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin, have worked out great ways for multiple drummers to approach rock songs. I think audiences will really enjoy that. We're still revising what material we'll be doing - some classics for sure, and some new material. I'm about to head over to rehearsals, where we might, again, try different material. so I can't predict which pieces we'll be doing at the show.

Crimson is always a challenging and exciting musical situation for me, so I'm greatly looking forward to these shows. After that - next year - we don't know what the plans will be. I hope there'll be a lot more.

Roy: Thank you again for your time, Mr. Levin. This is a wonderful album. I hope to hear more in the future.

Tony: Appreciate that.  Thank you much, for giving me the chance to let people know about the record.