Timesunion.com By Greg Haymes - Feature - A New Stage
Levin has crafted an elegant, eclectic album
A NEW STAGE
Pete Levin finds room to breathe with Capital Rep's latest show
By Greg Haymes Times Union, Albany, NY March 29, 2007
"I stopped playing in theatrical shows a while ago, because I'm just not comfortable playing the same thing the same way every night, night after night," says jazz keyboardist Pete Levin.
That's the kiss of death for most jazz musicians, who thrive on the thrill of free-spirited improvisation.
"For most stage shows, whether it's 'Oklahoma!' or 'Tommy,' there's a book that's been worked out, and you play your part exactly the way that it's written. I don't mean to make that sound artistically invalid, because it's not; but it's just not what I do.
"Fortunately, this is different," he says, explaining why you'll find him playing the piano in the on-stage band nightly for Capital Repertory Theatre's rousing production of "It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues."
"The music is sketched out, but it's not dictated very strictly, so there's plenty of room for individual performances from the musicians, as well as interpretive performance by the band."
After some coaxing, musical director and bandleader (and sometime Times Union critic) David Malachowski recruited Levin to play in the stage band. "David's a great guitar player, and all six of the actors are also very strong singers, which is a rare thing," Levin points out.
"In other words, this is a theatrical performance with all of the lights and the choreography and everything, but the music still breathes, so it's not going to be exactly the same every night."
In fact, Levin had to take time off during the run of the show to go to Mexico last week to play with the Tony Levin Band – yes, the bassist is his brother – at the Baja Prog Festival in Mexicali. Aaron Hurwitz (otherwise known as the titular bandleader of Professor Louie and the Crowmatix) filled in on piano at Cap Rep until Levin returned from the road on Tuesday.
"Aaron is really very knowledgeable about the blues, and he plays the stuff right," Levin says, "while I'm coming at it from more of a jazz perspective."
Indeed, Levin is an acclaimed jazz veteran who has performed and recorded with such world class pop stars as Annie Lennox, Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson, as well as with jazz greats miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius.
"For years, I was in Gil Evans' band, and I learned a lot from Gil," says the soft-spoken Levin, who lives just outside of Woodstock. "It was like going to school for 15 years. One of the many things that I learned was to let the music take you where it wanted to go.
"He was one of the greatest jazz arrangers and orchestrators of all time, and yet he wanted to allow his musicians the freedom to make the music their own. Sometimes it didn't work, but that didn't matter to him. It was about the feeling, the vibe and the effort of what we were trying to do."
While he's doing the Cap Rep production, Levin is also gearing up to promote his new disc "Deacon Blues" on the Motema Music label; it's his first CD as a bandleader in years. Backed by an ace band of musicians – including guitarists Joe Beck and Mike DeMicco, drummer Danny Gottlieb and his bassist brother Tony – Levin has crafted an elegant, eclectic album on the Hammond organ.
"I've been playing the organ since the '60s, and I've played in a lot of organ trios, but I had never recorded that way," Levin admits. "I just wanted to do it, and there was no more of a reason behind it than that. I really did it for myself, as a feel-good king of thing.
"My intention was just to press up a bunch of copies and sell them at gigs or just give them away to friends. I had no marketing plan at all."
He didn't have any particular plan, either, when he concocted the album's diverse repertoires, ranging from the Beach Boys' "Sail On, Sailor" to Ralph Towner's soaring "Icarus" to the classical Erik Satie gem "first Gymnopedie." Despite the wide range of song sources, the album positively hums along.
"If I'm making music, I want to try to add as much of my own personality as possible to the musical tapestry within the context of the performance – whether it's a blues band, a jam band, or a band sitting in the pit at a theater. When you put a song in front of me, I look at it and think, 'How can I contribute?'"
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