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Saxophonist Josh Levy on Original Jazz Classics Remastered

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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."

Moving on to the next album, Sonny Rollins's, Way Out West, Josh laughed, "The cover is the greatest. He's so damn playful on this. It's kind of out-to-lunch, the performance of this. Real stream-of-consciousness… they start off with the horse-clomping sound, real playful, almost stupid, in a cute way, not unintelligent. Who else can do that? And with his calypso background… a major key that's really dry with just the drums and bass and can still make it that interesting."

"There's a lot of playful stuff, a lot of rhythmic stuff, you can hear him working through things. That's one thing I've always liked about him, he'll play through a bad stretch. It may not go where he wants it but to me that's the nature of the utmost true improvisation."

"Sometimes when you're in the middle of a conversation you stumble over words…'What was I talking about?' — to me that's that through the horn. He never really gives it up. Then he'll throw in something real playful and percussive then he'll throw in an unbelievable frenzy of notes, for a lack of a better term, 'Badass classical technique,' and he'll let you know, and he'll get back to, 'Okay, what I was talking about was…'"

"And he didn't play with a piano… that's where the whole concept came from, his first trip to L.A…He's real authoritative and he'll go anywhere…so if he and the piano player aren't getting a certain vibe going…certain drummers can't play with certain bass players. They can both be the best players in the world on their instrument but if the groove isn't quite right between them, they can't work together, they can't play together. It's a strange phenomenon but totally true."

"Connected with piano players, in terms of a vocalist with a piano player who doesn't lead them the way they like to be led or follow them the way the like to be followed, it will drive them crazy. So, if you're playing something as a horn player and the piano player goes off and takes you somewhere else and you don't necessarily want to go there, but you're the one whose album it is, you're the band leader…I'm not saying it's all piano players. I'm saying he got a job to go out to California and he said, 'I've got Ray Browne and Shelly Manne, I don't need a piano.' Except he sounds like Kermit the Frog so it probably sounded funny when he said it."

"It's like Paul Desmond is writing an incredible composition and you're having an incredible conversation. You know what I mean? You have that contrapuntal thing and then you have that pure improvisational thing."

"The thing I learned from Sonny? No fear. Just absolutely no fear. Stream of consciousness, virtuosic challenge, which I think is necessary for any jazz musician but it means something different to everybody. Being able to execute the way you have a conversation through your horn, to be that eloquent with the vocabulary of the music through the horn in order to communicate things with people which he does phenomenally. If he's being real playful you can tell. If he's being silly, not playful, but making fun of something, you can tell. If he's … not really made, but feeling aggressive or if he wants to show you this is the way he wants to play, he'll let you know, or 'This is one style. I want to show you this style,' he gives you all of that, shows you where it is."

"The thing is, it's a stream of consciousness, 'I don't know where this going. So, let's find out. We'll all find out.'"

"I used to say it sounds to me like he and Coltrane would climb up the inside of the chords, rip them apart and restructure them and they were doing it in such different ways, it was much less of a machine and more approachable for me. It makes it that much harder to pin-point how he did it. But there was a really interesting mix of styles at the time."

"Like if you look at some of these kids now and their influences, they're never going to sound like he did even if they come from where he came from. What you have on the radio, what you can get from a computer, what you have on the Internet, what's popular at the time. You're not learning music from the one record you have in your house or that's being played on the radio."

"The Bridge, that album, reshaping the harmonic structure, part of the reshaping of the harmonic structure. So, for him, he got to rewrite all these things. Think about who you're talking about. You're talking about the guy who hung out with Bird and Miles and Coltrane."

"I think it's fair to say that nobody plays the way he does either, you know what I mean? When he puts that stamp on it, it makes it his version of that standard which to me makes it a valid reason to do it. You're not regurgitating it, you're putting your stamp on it. Imagine being given a topic to write about and everybody's written about it, it's been humped to death, but here's what I have to say about it. I've been researching the hell out of it and I have a different take. Add something to the lexicon."

"What haven't we hit on? Monk and Coltrane. Have you heard the Carnegie Hall one? I like the live one better, because I think, and I may be wrong about this, I could hear Coltrane getting frustrated. There?s a maniac next to him: grunting, hairy maniac, playing piano, probably dosed on something…or not…genius either way…I'm a big fan of Monk with people, especially the Monk and Mulligan, one of my favorite albums of all time because those two were built for each other. Gerry's so in-the-box, Monk is so out-of-the-box, put them together but they're both very gentle. Gerry played really, really intelligently with reasonably advanced chord changes in weird keys. And all of Monk's stuff was really advanced and weird keys."

"Is that kind of jazz a dead art? I'm not a paid jazz musician, I hesitate to say. In my opinion, there are a whole lot of factors that go into it, the main one is that there's a total dirth of players and the ones that want to play, that are hungry to play, will just keep doing it for the love of the game. I mean, there are a lot of guys who are much, much better than I am, but, without a decent Fine Arts program at your school you're never going to have good players coming out of the school except those with rich parents, that's assuming the rich parents want their kids to learn something like jazz. You know, certain people can't afford a saxophone, they can't afford a piano, they can't afford piano lessons, or art lessons for that matter, or a hitting coach for baseball, so as a fine art you can't expect that it's going to keep itself going. It's not the nature of things, and we as musicians die out young and without someone to pass the language on to it doesn't serve any purpose. On top of that with the Internet now you can get all the material that you used to never be able to get instantly and for free but I think that while you're learning the song you're not really learning the language, you know what I mean? You learn a lot about how to play, the mechanics, but you don't learn the language. There's a lot to be said for standing on stage in a jam session and getting your ass handed to you. You don't want to feel like that again so you go home and you bust your ass and you come back so it doesn't happen again."

"That's one side of it. The other side of it is that's it not popular anymore. I was lucky enough in what, mid to late high school in the mid-nineties, the Ska swing-thing kind of popped up again so there was this other generation, well, it was a dumb thing but for a crummy high school horn player, even a good one, you could get into a Ska band or some little punk band and play a little you could get some experience, maybe you weren't going to be a jazz player and maybe you liked to play and maybe that kept you interested for a few more years but what that bred was a whole other generation of players. Whether they were any good or not is irrelevant. There was a whole other generation. Since then, it hasn't happened again. At all. Nothing. We have our Kenny Garretts, or Joshua Redmans, all the sax players, you'll have to forgive me, I lean towards the sax players. A lot of the names we're talking about, Joe Lovano, Sonny Rollins, you know, these are the guys who have been around the whole time. Now, having said that there's a lot of devastating stuff happening, we just don't hear about it. There's Wynton Marsalis making stuff happen on the East coast, building programs to support people all over the place. There are programs in New Orleans, making sure that their music stays alive. There's hope. But in the scheme of things if you can get a guitar for fifty bucks, you're going to get a guitar because you see everyone playing guitar."

The story behind Art Pepper meets The Rhythm Section, is almost as compelling as the music itself. One of the innovators of the Cool Jazz, Pepper strove to create a new language, an alternative to the be-bop of his predecessors. In his autobiography, Straight Life, Pepper talks about the session. He'd been MIA for months, laying low and out of sight in the destructive void of his addiction.

Diane woke me one morning and said, "You have a record date today." I hadn't been playing. I hadn't been doing anything. I said, "Are you kidding? Who with? And where? And what?" She told me that she and Les Koenig from Contemporary Records had got together. The only way they could do it, they figured, was to set it up and not tell me about it so I'd be forced into it. They knew no mater how strung out I was I would take care of business if people were depending on me.

"He was such a little man," Josh said, "and with such a big sound. It's like the West Coast guys said, 'You know what, I really don't see anything wrong with relaxing, smoking a joint and playing one note as beautifully as I can.'"

I asked him what he thought about the Joe Pass album, Virtuoso. "This is the album that broke him. He became a star. The name of the album. Really? What do you think of yourself? He deserves it. Don't get me wrong. Night and Day. Stella, How High the Moon. He's perfect. The name fits. He's perfect. He doesn't miss anything. There's not a missed fret, there's not a substitution or a harmonic he doesn't hit, the finger picking is extraordinary."

"In terms of what we're doing, with Grupo and Ocote, there's a connection in the cross-pollenization that began with these guys. You can hear it with the Brubeck, the crowd reaction, and that definitely has an effect on you when you're playing. In terms of the Sonny Rollins, it's experimenting with new stuff and being totally unafraid, and the virtuoso, you can't execute without that kind of practice and talent. That's Joe Pass. There's the raw power of Monk doing whatever he damn well felt like at any given time and only he really knew where he was going, with another genius who could do what he damn well felt like."

Original Jazz Classics Remasters were released March 30, 2010.

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About Earl G. Lundquist