|FEATURE: Howard Levy Interview
Evanston’s Howard Levy and bandmates Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
celebrate Grammy win with Chicago area shows
By Eric Schelkopf
Evanston resident Howard Levy is already acknowledged as one of the
world's most innovative harmonica players.
He was honored by his peers again when he recently received his second
Grammy, this one for "Life in Eleven," a song he co-wrote with Bela
Fleck that is featured on the Flecktones 2011 release,
To say that Levy is in demand is an understatement. He has appeared on
hundreds of albums and has worked with the likes of Dolly Parton, Paul
Simon and Donald Fagen.
The original lineup of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones - Levy, Fleck,
Victor Wooten and Futureman - will perform at 8 p.m. March 2 at the
North Shore Center for
the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie. The band will also
perform at 8 p.m. March 3 at
North Central College's
Wentz Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville.
Tickets to the Skokie show range from $38 to $68. Tickets to the
Naperville show range from $70 to $80.
I had the chance to interview Levy about his Grammy win as well as a
number of other topics.
Congratulations on your recent Grammy win. Was this Grammy award more
satisfying than the first one, and the fact that "Rocket Science" was
the first release in 20 years with the original band lineup?
Thanks. Winning the first one was kind of a shock -- a great shock --
because it was totally unexpected. It was for a live performance of "The
Sinister Minister" that I played on four years after I quit the band.
It was a Grammy for Instrumental Performance that went to the whole
band. We were all there together in N.Y. at the Grammy ceremony and got
up on stage together.
This time, the nomination was for Bela and me for co-writing "Life in
Eleven". Neither of us went to the ceremony. So it was very different.
But it felt GREAT to win, especially for something that I co-composed.
This is a real honor and means more in that way. And we never could have
won it without Vic and Roy playing on it.
What should people expect from the tour? Will the band be giving
audiences a taste of what it has done over the years?
We played 90 shows last year and will continue to play a blend of some
of the older material from our first three albums and a lot of the music
from Rocket Science, along
with solo pieces by all four of us scattered through the show.
You toured with the band in 2010 for the first time in 18 years. Did it
take time to feel comfortable with the band again or was the process
Well, first I did a three week tour in late 2010. I agreed to do it
because it had a beginning and an end.
It felt great at the first rehearsal. A lot of the old excitement came
back. As a result of that, I agreed to record a CD and tour for a year.
Recording the CD was a lot of very hard work - co-writing, tossing ideas
back and forth online, traveling back and forth to Nashville, and
finally recording for more than three weeks.
When we started touring, we had to really learn or re-learn all this
music. It took a little while, but the band chemistry was there onstage
from the first show.
Of course, you co-founded the band. What goals did you have in helping
form the band and do you think the band has lived up to its goals?
We started it together at a TV show in Louisville, KY in 1988. The main
thing was that everyone was open to trying just about anything, centered
mostly around Bela's compositions, which were very adventurous and
And each of us had plenty of chances to play solos, and be featured
prominently. But it was extremely full- time and the traveling was
As time went on, I needed to go back to playing more of my own music and
having more musical variety in my life, two of the main reasons why I
left. But now that I've done that, coming back feels very good.
Everyone has matured a lot musically and personally. We play more of my
music and Vic's music, and we are still exploring the edges of what we
can play, pushing each other to reach new levels. And we all get along
with each other very well
What kind of satisfaction do you get through your music workshops and
your online harmonica classes? What's the number one quality you need in
learning how to play harmonica?
I am very proud of my online harmonica school, the Howard Levy Harmonica
School. I have recorded hundreds of lessons in just about every style
and level of playing.
Members can also send me videos of their playing. I send a video
response, and the two are paired together as a master class that
everyone can view and learn from.
This website is set up for maximum learning and enjoyment. I have
performances, tracks to play with, interviews with harmonica players and
other musicians (there is one with Bela), discussion forums, and a
I am really proud of it and give major kudos to Artist Works for
persuading me to do this.
I'd say the number one quality you need for playing harmonica is
perseverance. The instrument is invisible, and many of the standard
techniques that you need to play even simple blues licks can't be
learned the way you can learn on guitar, piano, saxophone.
Perseverance, concentration, faith, devotion, love for the instrument.
And if you have those, the harmonica will reward you richly.
- You've worked with so many
artists, including the likes of Dolly Parton and Paul Simon. Is it
always an honor when such an artist wants to work with you? Do you learn
from the artists you work with?
Oh yes. Each time I play as a sideman on a recording, with famous or
unknown artists, if they have good quality music that they ask me to
play on, I think I always learn something and feel good about being a
part of something artistic.
Of adding my voice or just even some simple parts to someone else's
music that make it sound better. And sometimes these collaborations pull
things out of me that would never happen otherwise, too.
Dolly was a total sweetheart. She cooked me lunch first, and after I
played she stood behind me with her hand on my shoulder as we listened
to playbacks in the booth, and was highly complimentary and insightful
in a sincere and heartfelt way about my playing.
I felt that she looked right into my soul and interacted with me on that
level. It was a beautiful experience and I felt like I was walking on a
little cloud for several hours afterwards.
Paul Simon -- he is very demanding and looking for that little
indefinable something that will influence the sound of a track and set
off a stream of consciousness in his mind. He is very complex, in the
moment, spontaneous yet calculating -- trying to find the alchemy in the
music that makes it feel like it's coming from inside him.
Donald Fagen was a total blast to play for. We had a great time hanging
out and talking about John Coltrane after I played. And it turned out
that both of us went a lot to The Village Vanguard as teenagers and
bought our jazz LPs at the same record store in The Village (I grew up
He also had me sit in with him three times when he came to Chicago with
his own band and with Steely Dan - these were true musical highlights.
Your harmonica playing has been featured in several movies. What do you
think it is about the way you play your harmonica that makes it fit well
I am proud of playing on some of those soundtracks, especially "A Family
Thing" with James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall. I love playing with
actors, dancers, any non- musical performers. I have done a lot of that,
so playing with movies is a very natural thing for me to do, to take a
basic melody and play it in a way that meshes with the action on the
screen or the dialog.
Playing for "A Family Thing", they gave us each monitor screens so we
could see and interact with the film. I love working like this. And the
composer knew my capabilities, wrote things specially for me and
encouraged me to be expressive.
I think of the harmonica as a voice, so sometimes it's like having a
conversation with the characters or commenting on the action. And
sometimes it's just playing the ink! But feel -- that's the thing -- I
always try to play with feel.
It seems as though you are always busy with one project or another. Has
your Balkan Samba Records label lived up to your expectations? Will you
be signing more artists to the label in the future?
Ah, Balkan Samba! That's my baby. It's mostly for my own projects, or
for friends of mine who I collaborate with. My solos CD
Alone and Together
made the Downbeat list of best
jazz CDs in 2010.
I am very proud of that. I have put out six CDs and a DVD so far. The
material ranges from jazz to blues to classical to Latin and more. In
the pipeline is a release of a collaboration with guitarist
singer/songwriter John Guth.
We played together in the early 1970s in Chicago, and reunited to record
a bunch of his music a few years ago. It's unique stuff.
Do you have any dream collaborations or projects?
I would love to record my Latin Jazz Suite "Recuerdos de Nueva Yorque".
We performed it with 12 musicians (Chevere and three additional horns)
last summer in Millennium Park and the crowd went crazy.
I also am composing more pieces for harmonica and orchestra to follow up
my concerto, and have started to write a suite for harmonica and jazz
orchestra. I'd also like to record a CD of jazz tunes I wrote when I was
19 and 20 (mostly piano) and another jazz CD collaborating with great
jazz musicians (mostly on harmonica).