The history of jazz is filled with the self-made intellectual, men and women with an innate drive to learn as much as they could about the world in which they lived. Because jazz has gutbucket marrow and has been created mostly by U.S. blacks, elitism and racism diminish the importance of brains in the creation of this art form. But just as a person's humor, intelligence, and courage comes out in conversation, personality traits become evident in the pieces a musician creates: the jazz musician intellectual can create an intellectual jazz piece.
The conceptual compositions of Duke Ellington pieces such as Black, Brown and Beige and Money Jungle are facts self-evident of the man's intellectual breadth. Baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan was another self-made intellectual. In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins described Mulligan as a man "who could become equally animated while enthusing over Gil Evans's arrangements for Claude Thornhill's singers or summarizing papal plots or recalling American trains, which he knew down to the whistles." Contemporary bari-sax man, Josh Levy, steps easily into that tradition.
Josh plies his bari-craft for Grammy nominated Grupo Fantasma and its greasy-funk cousin, Brownout. My two favorite bands right now, their music continues to excite me. Josh generously sat down with me to talk about recent re-mastered releases from Concord Music: Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and Joe Pass.
But before we got down to business, I had to ask: Why the bari?
"I'm realizing, he answered, that the schema, or maybe that the theme of my life is a happy accident. I'm not an accident. Let's get that out of the way. But moving to Texas was a happy accident. Rolling with this band, meeting the teachers and the friends along the way, happy accident. The stuff I've been able to do the past couple of years, an unbelievable happy accident. The bari falls right in line."
"I had just got a tenor sax, my very first instrument. My father bought it. It was my first horn. It was shiny, it was pretty, it was new, and I went to my first day of band camp my freshman year of high school and the director said, 'Josh, you're playing bari-sax,' and I almost cried. It was awful. I was not happy. Fast-forward about seven months and you couldn't pry it out my hands. I don't know how it worked out, I don?t know why. I always liked the lower instruments. I liked the power of it. And I also somewhere along the lines figured out that not very many people were good at it. That didn?t strike me in a business sense until much, much later. But it was fun to play something that people were used to hearing…sort of adequate performances out of. I was at least better than adequate and I strive to get better and better as I get older. We've got some guys with talent that are devastating bari-sax players and I want to sound like them…yeah, how it happened was a happy accident and then it turned out I didn't suck at it so they kept me on it."
"At the end of my senior year, I realized that I kind of did like doing it and I made a deal with my dad that if I made the California All-State Band as a Bari player that he would buy me a horn instead of quitting playing. I got lucky enough to make it. I got my horn. The one I play today. All a very happy accident."
In the re-mastered version of Live at Oberlin, a recording of the 1953 concert Dave Brubeck quarter, the ebb-and-flow conversation between the audience and the quartet flourishes. As Josh commented, "I've never heard Paul Desmond (Brubeck's alto-sax player) play like that. Never in my life. That was ridiculous. I wouldn't have believed it. He's always been very good. His swing was always a little bit different than Coltrane or Miles."
"I've always loved Dave Brubeck. He was so heavy-handed in that recording, in a very, very good way. I hear the crowd, a bunch of college kids, to hear them get excited when they're doing it. It wasn't like he stomping his feet. He was sitting there, and Desmond was famous for kind of resting. I've never heard him play that aggressively. There was something else there. Felt like he was feeling it."