Monday, July 11, 2016

In Praise of Tony Levin

My "In Praise of..." series is intended to shine the spotlight on artists who, in my opinion, continue to be under appreciated. While not necessarily in any particular order, I feel compelled to write about the artists that I feel A) the most personally geeked about and B) are most deserving of the added attention and appreciation. In this edition I shine the spotlight on one of music's hardest working men, bassist Tony Levin.
     Perhaps Tony has never met a project that didn't intrigue, perhaps the man never learned to say, "no,"  but somehow Tony has been a contributor to over 500 albums. In ten years that's about an average of an album per week. Over forty years, an album per month. Wow! Plus, touring--did I mention touring! Tony has toured with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Paul Simon, Gary Burton, Herbie Mann, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Peter Frampton, Tim Finn, Richie Sambora, Yes, Genesis, David Torn, L'Image, Claudio Baglioni, HoBoLeMa, not to mention his own bands (listed below) and other guest or imoromptu appearnaces. He has performed as a studio musician for the likes of Andy Pratt, Cher, Alice Cooper, John Lennon, Robert Fripp, Paul Simon, Sarah McLachlan, Stevie Nicks, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Buddy Rich, The Roches, Todd Rundgren, Seal, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Warren Zevon, Kevin Parent, Laurie Anderson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jean-Pierre Ferland, and David Bowie. Tony has been a leader and/or contributor/collaborator for Stick Men, Levin Torn White, Bruford-Levin Upper Extremities, Gorn Levin Marotta, Liquid Tension Experiment, Bozzio Levin Stevens, California Guitar Trio, ProjeKct One and ProjeKct Four, King Crimson, L'Image, and Peter Gabriel as well as his own solo albums.
     Work ethic (and demand from others) aside, the real reason I've chosen to spotlight Tony Levin so high up on my list is because of his skills, his adventurous spirit, his flexibility, his stylistic adaptability and malleability, his technological prowess and creativity, and, most of all, for his lack of ego. Essentially quite an easy-going, happy-go-lucky guy, Tony has been known to personally corresponded directly to his fans since the beginning and has kept what some call the longest running Internet journal/diary--in photos and words--in history! (Tony Levin's Road Diary dates back to 1996--before the terms "weblog" and "blog" even existed--with over 400 archived tour pages and over 6,800 photos.)
    Then there is Tony Levin the bass player, the rhythmist, the innovator, the master. Double bass, electric bass, finger extensions ("funk fingers"), background vocals, and stage choreography are just part of Tony's shtick. His real prowess is in the commitment to and experimentation with, exploration and mastery of the uses of the 10-stringed Chapman Stick Touchboard®. This instrument allows the fingers of both hands to be simultaneously creating melodies. And, since the treble and lower end sides of the fretboard are channeled separately into your soundboard, you can treat each side with different effects. (I know:  Inspired by Tony and my own experience playing a friend's original model ironwood Chapman Stick, I purchased and worked with a version II, injection-molded polycarbonate model Chapman Stick in the late 80s and early 90s.) What amazed me when watching Tony while attending my first King Crimson concert in 1984 was how busy both of Tony's hands were. On several songs that the band performed, Tony was doing the work of two instruments--often polyrhythmically--which means one hand's fingers were working melodic patterns in a different time signature from the other hand's fingers! I had the sudden realization of just how much of the King Crimson sound was due to Tony. I was astounded, to say the least. One of the most talented and innovative musical band collectives on the planet was held together by the virtuosic talents of their bass player--one Tony Levin!
     Anyway, the Tony Levin career has been one of extreme interest and enjoyment for me to follow. Starting with my seeing him live in concert with Peter Gabriel's band in 1978 to the present, Tony is always wowing me, always pushing the boundaries of sound and bass roles. He's been rock, he's been jazz. He's been prog, he's been pop. He's been metal, he's been acoustic. He's actually all of these at one and the same time. He is always the consummate professional, the light-hearted, fun-loving, easy-going presence in the room (or on the stage) and yet you can tell: He LOVES music!
     I will end this exposé by sharing a story that I read in Bill Bruford's autobiography that I think is quite worthwhile for everyone to hear.
     Bill and Tony had been hired by hotshot guitarist Al DiMeola to fly into Aspen, Colorado to record the bass and drum tracks for a song for his upcoming album (which was to be titled, Scenario.) They flew in together, arrived at the appointed studio at the appointed time and proceeded to wait. Apparently, their wait turned into hours. When M. DiMeola did finally deign to show up, Tony and Bill--nonplussed as the professionals that they were--listened to the verbal directions from Al with regards to what he wanted from this particular song--a complicated and intricately constructed song (that became titled "Calliope" on the album). Al asked if they needed to practice--to go through it with him--but Tony said no, that he thought he had it. And so, they pushed "record" and went through the song, start to finish, in one take(!!)--nailed it--after which he and Bill proceeded to pack up and, rather unceremoniously, leave.
     Bill recalls this event not only to illustrate Tony's professional ethic, but also to plug the amazing ability Tony had on his instrument--even when dealing with new and complex music from one of the virtuosos of our time!   

Here's a playlist from an Episode of Prog Is Alive! that I did for WDRT-Viroqua a few weeks ago in honor of Tony's career:

Prog is Alive (Music) with Drew 06/26/2016 10:00PM to 12:00AM
10:00PM-10:03PM (3:16Andy Pratt “resolution” composed by Andy Pratt fromResolution (Rock, 1976) on Classic Music Vault (USA) — final 9
10:03PM-10:07PM (4:20Peter Gabriel “Moribund the Burgermeister” composed by Peter Gabriel from car (LP, 1977) on Atco Records (usa)
10:07PM-10:10PM (3:56John Lennon “(Just Like) Starting Over” composed by John Lennon from Double Fantasy (1980) on CAPITOL (USA)
10:11PM-10:14PM (3:55Paul Simon “One Trick Pony” from One Trick Pony(1980)
10:15PM Set break — Introduce tonight's theme: A Retrospective of Bassist Extraordinaire Tony Levin
10:17PM-10:22PM (5:03King Crimson “Discipline” from Discipline (LP, Album, Private, 1981) on E.G. Records (UK)
10:22PM-10:26PM (4:20The Roches “I Fell in Love” from Keep On Doing (LP, Album, Rock, 1982) on Warner Bros / Wea
10:26PM-10:32PM (6:30Peter Gabriel “San Jacinto” composed by Peter Gabriel from Security (LP, Single, Rock, 1982) on Geffen Records (USA)
10:33PM-10:40PM (7:29King Crimson “Sleepless (Tony Levin Mix) (Bonus Track)” composed by King Crimson from Three of a Perfect Pair (Expanded Edition) (1984) on Discipline Global Mobile (UK)
10:40PM-10:45PM (5:39Rosie Vela “Tonto” from Zazu (Rock, 1986) on A & M Records (USA)
10:46PM-10:50PM (4:57Robbie Robertson “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” composed by Robbie Robertson from Robbie Robertson (CD, Album, Rock, 1987) on Geffen Records (USA)
10:51PM-10:57PM (6:36David Torn “The Mercury Grid” composed by David Torn from Cloud About Mercury (1987) on Ecm Records (Germany)
10:57PM Station ID — Songs recap
10:58PM-11:04PM (6:15Pink Floyd “terminal frost” composed by David Gilmour from A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Rock, 1987) on Columbia Records (USA)
11:05PM-11:08PM (3:30Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe “Fist of Fire” from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989) on Arista Records (USA)
11:08PM Set break — Songs of the 80s recap
11:09PM-11:12PM (3:59King Crimson “Thrak” from Thrak (Single, 1995)
11:13PM-11:18PM (5:07Paula Cole “mississippi” composed by Paula Cole from This Fire (CD, Album, Rock, 1996) on Rhino/Warner Bros. (UK)
11:18PM-11:22PM (4:32Bill Bruford “Cobalt Canyons” from Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (1998) on Discipline Global Mobile (UK)
11:22PM-11:26PM (4:01Liquid Tension Experiment “914” from Liquid Tension Experiment 2 (1999) on Magna Carta Records (USA)
11:26PM Set break — Songs of the 90s recap
11:27PM-11:31PM (4:06David Bowie “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” from Heathen (2002) on ISO Records
11:31PM-11:35PM (4:45Shankar & Gingger “out of My Mind” from One in a Million (World, 2004) on Ganesh Music
11:35PM-11:43PM (8:37Steven Wilson “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun” composed by Steven Wilson from Insurgentes (Rock, 2008) on Kscope(UK)
11:43PM Set break — Recap songs from the Naughties
11:44PM-11:48PM (4:49Levin Torn White “Cheese It, the Corps” from Levin Torn White (2011) on Papa Bear Records (UK) 
11:49PM-11:54PM (5:20Stick Men “Scarlet Wheel” from soup (Rock, 2010) onStick Men Records (USA)11:54PM-11:58PM (4:53) Tony Levin Pete Levin “Matte Kudasai (excerpt)” from Levin Brothers (2014) on Lazy Bones Recordings (USA).

If you could create your own "fantasy league" all-star prog band--from all of prog's 56 years of history--who would be your onekey foundational member who would make the cornerstone of your band--the "franchise" player--the one to make it all work?

After you name yours, I'd love to see your reasoning for such a choice.

My cornerstone player would be Tony Levin because: 
 - he can get along with anybody
 - he can play any kind of music (included among his over 500 albums, are diverse artists such as Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Cher, Alice Cooper, Buddy Rich, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, Seal, Gary Burton, James Taylor, Herbie mann, Sarah MacLachlan, Peter Frampton, Timm Finn, Richie Sambora, Dominique Vantomme, Peter Kater, Chuck Mangione, Larry Fast, California Guitar Trio, Al DiMeola, Phil Keaggy, Don MacLean, Lou Christie, Deodato, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Phobe Snow, Mike Manieri, Melissa Manchester, Burt Bacharach, Ben Sidran, Laura Nyro, Art Garfunkle, Jun Fukamachi, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, The Roches, Bill Chinnock, Roy Harper, Kazumi Watanabe, Warren Bernhardt, Joan Armitrading, Johnny Warman, Jules Shear, Mark Knopfler (Local Hero), Gowan, Frida, Catherine Lara, Tom Waits, Marshall Crenshaw, Brian Ferry, Andy Pratt, Rosie Vela, Warren Zevon, David Torn, Jill Jones, T Bone Burnett, Robbie Robertson, Julia Fordham, Richard Thompson, Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Steps Ahead, Laurie Anderson, Jeanne Mas, Claudio Baglioni, Phil Manzanera, Paula Cole, Chris Botti, Andy Summers, Eros Ramozzotti, Kevin Maxx, Magellan, Gov't Mule, Steve Hackett (Genesis Revisited), David Bowie, Willie Oteri, Michael Whalen, Eddie Jobson, Jakko Jakszyk, Nad Sylvan, Marco Minneman, Alec Sebastien, Phil Collins, Katherine Kaye, Jerry Goodman, Brandon Flowers, Steve Thorne, Sarah Brightman, Days Between Stations, William Ackerman, Slow Electric, The Weepies, Ólafur Arnalds, Steven Wilson, Goatika Creative Lab, Randy Vanwarmer, Lara Fabian, Steve Howe, Mike Portnoy, Gigi D'Alessio, Gibonni, Jordan Rudess, Niyaz, David Sancious, Ivan Lins, )        
 - he works well in the studio or live on stage (and has been touring almost continuously with an amazing variety of bands for the past 50 years including many of those listed above), 
 - he has a great, fun-loving, personality, that does not get caught up in interpersonal squabbles,
 - he is a virtuoso musician (not just bass player) 
 - he is all business yet very adaptable to any recording, creative, touring conditions,
 - he is an incredibly adept and fast learner (has sat in on tours with Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Sarah Brightman, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Richie Sambora, Ivanno Fossati, Carly Simon, Herbie Mann, Peter Frampton, Judy Collins, and many more)  
 - yet he is also very creative (is collaborative member of several outstanding bands, including Stick Men, King Crimson, Bruford-Levin Upper Extremities, Levin Brothers, Levin Torn White, Levin Minneman Rudess, Perfect Trio, and Liquid Tension Experiment as well as his own solo releases)
 - he has several very distinctive sounds (yet does not necessarily dominate the music, rather, blends in or helps create a very unique yet-always-interesting sound landscape)
 - is tireless, has boundless energy
 - LOVES music! (all kinds; is unafraid to try anything)