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FEATURE: Howard Levy Interview


Evanston’s Howard Levy and bandmates Bela Fleck & the Flecktones celebrate Grammy win with Chicago area shows

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

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, Rocket Science.

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.

Q - 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?

Rocket Science CD

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.

Q - 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.

Q - 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 fairly easy?

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.

Q - 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 varied. 

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 hard. 

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

Howard Levy

Q - 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 chat. 


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.

Q - 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 in N.Y.). 

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.

Q - 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 in movies?

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.

Q - 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. 

Q - 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).



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