Bucking the notorious traffic on NYC’s George Washington Bridge, car troubles, and living through the disappearance of the Moog synthesizer, musician Pete Levin treks on. Organ, keys, piano and a great ear for composing fresh and engaging music keep things moving along; that, plus his new CD “Mobius” just released this past September.
With sparkling treble from the cymbals, funk on the saxes, insistently bent notes on guitar and a fat groove on synth, the title song sounds like it’s hurtling off into space. “There Comes a Time” is a journey that weaves small phrases on electric piano with a chattering conversation from percussion. When sax joins, it smooths out the melody, and the trumpet’s entrance develops the bright feel.
For something less demanding, “Fade to Blue” is a mellow trip on keys with fun occasionally popping up from the percussion, a gorgeous sax line unfurling like a satin ribbon, and the muted trumpet patiently waiting to have his say. The tracks are diverse and creative; each one gets into your head in a different way. It’s an ensemble sound that inhales ideas and breathes out soul.
How did you get your start in music as a kid?
My brother Tony and I had the good fortune to go through the public school system in Brookline, Mass., a suburb of Boston. The schools were fairly well-funded, and the administration supported the arts. The high school had a solid music program with supportive faculty members who were all active professional musicians. It was an atmosphere that both inspired and encouraged budding musicians to go into the arts. Sad to say, I doubt that exists anywhere in this country now. When the economy sags, the arts are the first to be eliminated. We were lucky.
Who are your idols on the Hammond organ, synth/Moog and keys?
There are many players I’m inspired by, spanning many genres. On organ – Jimmy Smith, of course, Larry Young, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Billy Preston. Contemporary players: My favorite is Lonnie Smith; he just grooves! I love Larry Golding’s approach to the instrument, as well as Mike Finnegan. And I’ve got to give a nod to Spooner Oldham – all those iconic sessions! With the Hammond, it’s like a big family with a long and rich history.
The same with piano. My inspiration comes, among others, from Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Glen Gould and Richard Tee. Contemporary players – Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner. With synthesizers, there’s history but not the longevity or much of a tradition. Years ago, I listened to recordings by Henk Badings, Edgard Varèse, John Cage, Stockhausen, etc. This was all years before digital.
Robert Moog wins the award for breaking the scene wide open. I learned analog synthesis on one of his first models, a big modular instrument. Around that time, Wendy Carlos (nee Walter) recorded “Switched On Bach” on a modular Moog. It was a hugely successful recording that inspired a generation of musicians and composers to explore electronic orchestration. In the early ’70s Moog released the “Minimoog” which made analog synthesis accessible and affordable to everyone. The Minimoog is on a short list of keyboard instruments that changed the music industry. I have no idea if he actually played the piano, but Bob Moog is definitely one of my idols.
What were the highlights of your music education and what would you say was the single most useful lesson?
The Brookline High School music department head was also the music director at M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass. He used me as a ringer in their concert band, putting me in with musicians far more advanced than I was. I had to get my shit together or be labeled a teenage jerk. I moved to New York City in 1965 to do a masters degree at the Julliard School. Again, surrounded by incredibly talented and skilled performers, I had to work and improve, or quit. After graduating, I slid into the New York City recording scene, which was thriving during the ’70s. (It isn’t now.)
In 1972, I got a call to sub at the Village Vanguard with the iconic composer/arranger Gil Evans. Gil hired me on full-time. I was in the band for over 15 years until Gil passed. It was like going to school all over again. Gil is with me to this day in everything that I play or write.
The single useful lesson … beats me! The longer I’m involved with the music industry, the less I know about it. But here’s one concept that I’ve found valuable: Make music that you feel good about. You may not be successful doing it, but you’ll feel good about yourself. If you’re making music that you don’t like and it isn’t successful, then you’ll be unsuccessful and miserable.
How has Möbius been received since its September release?
It’s been received very well, with many complimentary reviews. My own private smile – the guys in the band like it. That means a lot! Financially…don’t ask! Initial sales are slow, but that was expected. The band won’t be touring until next spring and summer, the spring gigs to coincide with a write-up in the February issue of Downbeat Magazine. These days, the most effective way of selling physical CDs is at live gigs. With the upcoming tour, I might break even. It could happen!
What was the release show like in NYC?
It was great! A two-hour set of complex music with only one rehearsal, and it was the first time the band had played together since the December 2016 recording sessions. So it was a leap of faith. But I had a group of skilled, experienced and creative players to do it. Musically it was great, a preview of what it will be like performing with the band in 2018. We’re working on a U.S. tour in June. I’m already thinking to record the last two shows, when the band really knows the music.
What was it like coordinating the schedules of all the musicians and guest musicians you had?
How ’bout those Patriots, eh?
Some highlights of composing for this CD?
Composing and being satisfied with what I write is a tedious process for me. It went on for months. The highlight was putting an unrehearsed band in the studio, talking through charts, roll tape and see what happens. That’s a two-day highlight that can’t be topped! (Digital, not tape. It’s an old-school expression.)
Production and recording highlights?
The highlight for me was hearing the music for the first time. Any composer or arranger will tell you the same thing; creating something and hearing it performed is a total high. Another nice highlight was some of the guys in the band knew each other by reputation only. I introduced them in the studio. An hour later, we were all making music. My brother Tony and drummer Lenny White had never met. An hour later, they were a killin’ rhythm section!
What is your favorite track(s) and why?
My favorite, “Möbius,” was an experiment. The least “radio-friendly” in the set, it is a rough sketch over a pre-recorded looping bass line. It was designed to be of indeterminate length. The only guideline was whatever happens, happens. The recorded version is around 10 minutes long. We did it live at our NYC gig, the piece’s second performance ever. It worked!
What was your original vision for this album and did it come to fruition?
We were only in the studio for two days, so it took weeks of planning. The framework of my plan allowed for the music to go places we weren’t expecting. Jazz should be like that. A lesson I learned years ago as a producer and arranger: if you envision the music and plan the recording process meticulously, you’ll probably get what you want. I did.
One not-so-nice surprise. On the second morning, Lenny White’s car wouldn’t start. We were recording in a country studio outside of Woodstock, NY, so a Mercedes dealer had to come a long way to unlock the car’s computer. We lost five hours recording time and two other pieces I wanted to try. We did them live in NYC.
How would you describe your evolution as a musician from the first album “Party in the Basement” to the new one?
Even with nearly 20 years in recording studios before “Party” I’ve learned so much from countless experiences since that recording. I’m still learning. One aspect about going from “Party” in 1989 to “Möbius” in 2016 I jokingly described as “what goes around comes around, like a Möbius loop!” The eight solo albums I did in between the two were all studio projects, done in layers over time. Musicians performing together were rarely in the same room together, and sometimes in studios thousands of miles apart. “Party” had varying ensembles, with as many as nine players performing together. Until the “Möbius” sessions, I hadn’t recorded like that, with a complete live band, in over 25 years of making solo albums. Not to disparage multi-track production, but when musicians play and create together, that’s when the magic happens.
What “sound” do you feel you want to achieve?
Ensemble-wise, “Möbius” is modeled after Miles Davis’s later groups – two horns and an electric rhythm section. With me personally, it’s a dynamic thing. For many years, I was one of the “go-to” synth players and programmers in NYC. When I moved upstate to the Woodstock area, I decided to push the electronic stuff aside and just play piano and organ, and Fender Rhodes electric piano occasionally. That’s what I did on the “Möbius” album…although I did kick in a Ring Modulator for a minute. I couldn’t resist.
What do audiences ask you the most?
Where’s your brother Tony?
Will the band be playing in Sheboygan? (or Paducah, or Orlando, Buffalo, Toronto, etc.)
What’s Paul Simon really like?
Can you put me on the guest list?
Answer to all: “Beats me!”
What are your thoughts on the early electronic Moog music and the music being written today for synth and keyboard?
‘Real’ electronic music these days – electronic, not sample playing – is pretty much limited to film scoring and classical recordings. For example, the recent sequel to “Blade Runner” has a fantastic electronic score. For jazz and pop music, with digital technology dominating by the mid-’80s, the instrument market was flooded with keyboards and modules that were basically sample-players. Keyboards came bundled with hundreds of very good factory sounds. Most players either didn’t know how to change them, or didn’t need to bother. You’d push a button and you had your sound – maybe a synth bass sound to use with the band on a track, or a “horn” pad for a pop song. Some pioneering pop bands like Kraftwerk and later Aphex Twin used electronic textures extensively. That’s very rare these days. The Moog era is long gone.
How does this differ from your collaboration with your brother Tony?
The “Möbius” project was about putting a contemporary jazz band in the studio and seeing what would happen. The Levin Brothers album had a very different objective. As kids in the ’50s, we listened to recordings by jazz bassist Oscar Pettiford. Many years later (2014) we were talking about it and realized that, 50 years later, we could still scat-sing the some of the melodies on those recordings. Seeing that as artistic validity, we decided to do a recording in that retro style, tracks not much longer than three minutes, retainable melodies, short solos, in the “cool jazz” style between bebop and modern.
We didn’t know how it would be received, but that wasn’t an issue. We were doing it for ourselves. Ultimately it was very well-received, which was greatly satisfying for Tony and me. The band has been touring on and off since 2015. There’s another, more practical difference: Much easier to get bookings for a quartet than for my seven-piece Möbius band.
What inspires you when you compose?
Many things. A visual image. A melody or a groove goes through my head.
I’m not one of those people who can finish breakfast, sit down and say, “I’m going to compose now.” Wish I was. Something has to motivate me. My favorite motivation – a film scoring job. Seeing the images on-screen, I get ideas faster than I can write them down.
Most memorable small club performance?
I’ve done literally thousands since the ’70s … and so many of them, the music was great. So I can’t single one out on that basis.
Here’s a memory: March 2015, in Rochester, NY with the Levin Brothers quartet. We were halfway through the set when the fire alarm went off. Everybody had to leave the building immediately. We were wearing lightweight suits and ties, and the Upstate New York winter hadn’t given up yet. Our van was locked and the keys were backstage with our winter coats. We froze our asses off out there for an hour before the fire department let us back in. It was a false alarm. Remembering that night, Tony wrote a new piece for the band called “Fire Drill.” It’s on our new live recording.
Most memorable large concert or festival?
Tokyo, 1976 with the Gil Evans Orchestra, in a large concert hall packed with enthusiastic jazz fans, standing room only. After we’d played for maybe two hours to multiple standing ovations, the stage crew, thinking that we were finished, lowered the motor-driven curtain. Gil didn’t see the curtain come down and started playing another piece. Apparently, a fuse had blown, because they were unable to raise the curtain. We played jazz to 2700 square yards of cloth for 15 minutes before they got it fixed. The curtain went up in the middle of somebody’s solo to a thunderous ovation. The sound system had been on all along, and nobody had left the hall. The Japanese are terrific jazz fans. Love them!
Several years later, an obscure label in Italy released a bootlegged recording of the concert. Of course, we didn’t get paid, but we got a great story!
Place you’ve always wanted to play and why?
China. I think it will be like landing on another planet. And The Great Wall is on my bucket list. I’m going there the last week in January, touring China with a singer whose album I played on.
Brazil. Never been. I’ve been told that the music and the people are amazing.
Africa. I’d like to jam with local musicians. The grooves they do are amazing.
India. Same thing.
Hawaii. It’s warm all the time!
There’s a long list of places I’ve played, but would like to go to again as a band leader with the Möbius band.
Talk about the strengths of your current ensemble and what was the biggest challenge when you first came together?
The most obvious strength is that the players are skilled, experienced, creative musicians. Any one of them can take the spotlight and blow an audience away; but they all understand the concept of contributing to the whole, making a piece of music as good as it can be. My arrangements are designed to leave creative space for everyone, and to effectively use their unique skills and style; so I’d like to think that, as the organizer, I’m one of strengths. Musical challenges are what musicians are trained for and disciplined to handle. In practice, there’s great satisfaction in doing that. The challenges that we remember are the nuts and bolts stuff that make you crazy – like driving into NYC and parking, the George Washington Bridge down to one lane when we need to get home after the gig, etc.
Why do you include humorous notes on your website? Does that reflect in your musical sensibility?
Reflecting in my music … sometimes. Sometimes I’m going for humor. But generally I’m pretty intense about stuff, taking care of business, and dead serious about making music. I’ve got to let off steam somewhere. And especially these days, sometimes you’ve just got to laugh.
My favorite line I lay on a nightclub audience: “Here’s our new CD. We have a limited supply here, and when they’re gone …. we have another limited supply out in the van.”
Did you hear the one about the jazz musician who won $500,000 in the lottery? When asked what his plans were, he said that he’d just keep gigging until the money was gone.
Are audiences for jazz growing in general, staying flat, or shrinking?
Jazz was the dominant musical force in the big band era. The audience has been steadily shrinking since then, becoming more elite, but certainly not growing.
The visible trends are discouraging. Physical CD sales are being wiped out by streaming media and will likely disappear completely in a couple of years. Digital downloads pay composers and musicians so little, if you can collect for the sales at all, that it’s becoming near impossible for the average jazz artist to recoup recording expenses. In the shaky economy of the last 10 years or so, jazz festivals have resorted to booking rock and pop headliners to get people to come out; so many of them are hardly recognizable as jazz festivals anymore. The trickle-down is that they’re spending so much money on the headliners, they can’t pay established players and bands properly, so they book younger artists who are getting good exposure but aren’t in the higher price brackets yet.
Makes it tough to find work for a large band like mine, with its reputable veteran players.
Biggest challenge as a jazz artist today?
Being creative while surviving in the current music scene. In other words, finding work and getting paid for what you create. It didn’t seem as important 30 years ago when everybody was working a lot; but now, you’ve really got to study and learn the music business and work hard to survive in it.
Hopes and dreams for 2018?
To keep creating and maybe make a couple of bucks. Many irons in the fire. First priority is to get the Möbius band out there playing. It’s really a killin’ band!
Touring and performances in 2018?
Waiting on word from several summer festivals. Meanwhile we’re building a U.S. tour in June, likely in the Northeast and Canada. In the meantime, we’ll do some hits around the Metro New York area. For starters, we’re playing at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, NY on March 30th and 31st. There’ll be more.
Best thing about your band?
Bottom line, the guys are all my friends. A good thing, ’cause in June I’m gonna make ’em take turns driving the van!
For more information, visit www.petelevin.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Pete Levin.
© Debbie Burke 2017