Josh Levinson feature

From the jump, “Morning Joy” swings hard and bright, the title track of a new CD from the Josh Levinson Septet.

No crowded studio or stage here; seven instrumentalists but they blend like a summer drink, with lots of space and air for everybody. The ensemble is led by trumpet player Josh Levinson, a guy who proves he can write a titanium hook.

The big-band sound swells and pulls back on “Potential,” a track that’s hip, bouncy and has a stirring piano solo. “Celebration” feels like one; lots of instrumental unity and echoism, with drums that keep it swift and light and a welcome sprinkling of vocalese for emphasis. They enter into bebop territory with “C Sharpe Was Here,” and get down deep and somber in the stunning “Prayer for Orlando.”

Josh Levinson’s latest CD is full of feel-great, memorable melodies, providing a joy that’s good for any time of the day or night or any season of life.

When did you start with trumpet and why?

When I was 14.  I saw Elliot Goldenthal (now a well-known composer of soundtracks for films and theater music) perform at John Dewey High School’s orientation for ninth graders. He played “Oh When the Saints” and I was blown away.  I got a trumpet after being given a violin and failing miserably at that.  

Why do you feel it allows you to express yourself better than other instruments?

I love the brassiness of the trumpet; it allows me to be something I’m not so inclined to be in my life, which is bold and articulate.

It’s also the lead voice in a lot of music.

How has your sound evolved through the years?

I’ve gotten more compositional in my improvisations.  I used to play licks.  Now I try to think like a composer when I solo. I also enjoy playing flugelhorn much more.  

Talk about the differences in playing in a small ensemble vs. an orchestra.

In a small ensemble you are much freer, liberated from the constraints of just playing parts.  

What are the challenges to a septet in keeping organized; rehearsals; trading solos?

Because of the larger group, there is much more writing involved, many more parts to be taped, and it is very difficult to get a regular band and keep it going. 

Solo-wise I used to pick soloists on the spot but now write it all down, exactly who is soloing on which tune and for how many choruses.

How did you meet the personnel?

I usually get people’s numbers from other musicians. 

If it feels right, as it did with all of them, I of course ask them to play as often as they are available. 

What does each band member bring?

Jeb Patton, the pianist, is very easy-going and can adapt to any style of music or personnel. He is a teacher and tours with the Jimmy Heath Band and others. His approach is both modern and grounded in older, more traditional styles.

Alon Benjamini, the drummer, is extremely young.  He is from Tel Aviv. He’s fiery and always thinking how to accompany the soloist and be a part of the rhythm section. 

Our bassist, Dustin Kiselbach, is solid and musical, and swings and reads everything I put in front of him. 

Erena Terakubo on alto sax is an incredible talent, able to read and interpret the music adding her unique sound and energy to the music.

Sam Dillon (tenor sax) is a voracious learner and can play any style, anytime, anywhere.

On trombone, we have Matt McDonald, who’s just so solid. He is a great reader has an amazing sound and is a wonderful improviser.

How is composing for trumpet different than flugelhorn?

Flugelhorn has become my voice more and more. I write first; I try both instruments. Whichever sounds and feels better is what I play on.

What inspired the CD “Morning Joy”?

The title song of the CD, “Morning Joy,” was inspired by my mother.  She was a pianist and a teacher, and although she had a difficult life she tried to always see the beauty in the world, and that beauty presented itself best to her in the morning when she would sing and whistle and be happy. I try to emulate her in this way.

How is it different from your previous albums?

We feel like a real band.  We have been working more, not always with the same personnel, but many of the same people; and I think we’ve developed a sound and a purpose together that comes across on the CD.

What is the overall flavor, or were you going for a diversity of sound?

For the most part my music is filled with positivity and happiness. 

“Prayer for Orlando” is a departure from that.  It is an attempt to speak to what has become unspeakable; the continued tragedy of mass killings in the US. This track is an emotional response to a tragedy, and with it I attempt to inspire people to think about what happened and hopefully motivate us all to do something about it.

Musically, I used a lot of techniques, like pyramid entrances with the horns, and call-and-response, and different voices taking turns playing the melody. There is no improvisation. It is superfluous.

What is planned on the date of release?

We are having a CD release party May 29th at Rockwood Music Hall.

Is it difficult to generate buzz?

Yes, it is a challenge.  I really just want to write and play.  I would love to build an audience. 

Josh Levinson CD cover

What do you look for with a label and why did you go with Wise Cat Records?

In the past I have released my music on my own.  I was happy when Kenny Shanker came forward and offered me this honor of being one of the first people on his new record label.

What is your favorite small club ever?

The Village Vanguard, of course.  So much history, so much music vibrating in that magical room.

Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?

I would love to play at the Vanguard and Smalls.  

Will you tour the CD?

I have two upcoming gigs.  I would love to tour. The logistics of taking a septet on the road are very difficult.

What do you want people to really know about your band?

The music is original and swinging and well thought-out. We have great players and more importantly a lot of diversity, stylistically and musically.

The greatest compliment I received at a gig recently was that this person never knew she liked jazz until she heard us play. The music is very accessible and can be sophisticated and appeal to intellectuals as well as make your body move.  

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/Josh-Levinson-Sextet-118272289879/app/2405167945/ and https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/joshlevinson.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Josh Levinson.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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