Q&A with multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy, acknowledged master of the diatonic harmonica, superb pianist, innovative composer, teacher, and producer

"I think the spirit of freedom that Jazz has is exciting to people listening, especially when you hear it live in smaller clubs. And even in traditional styles, people keep coming up with new things to say and play. The music is always changing, evolving, moving forward."

Howard Levy: Time (Music) Traveler

Howard Levy is an acknowledged master of the diatonic harmonica, a superb pianist, innovative composer, recording artist, bandleader, teacher, and producer. In 1970 at the age of 19, he discovered how to play the diatonic harmonica as a fully chromatic instrument by developing techniques on it that had never existed before. This enabled Howard to take the harmonica out of its usual role as a Folk and Blues instrument, and into the worlds of Jazz, Classical, Middle Eastern music, and more. At home in many musical styles, the two- time Grammy Award Winner (Pop Music Performance and Instrumental Composition with Bela Fleck and The Flecktones) is a favorite with audiences worldwide and a recording artist sought after by Kenny Loggins, Dolly Parton, Paquito D’Rivera, Styx, Donald Fagen, Paul Simon, and many others. Howard has appeared on hundreds of CD’s and several movie soundtracks, most prominently on A Family Thing with Robert Duval and James Earl Jones.                    (Photo: Howard Levy)

His solo CD Alone and Together (Balkan Samba Records) and his trio CD Tonight and Tomorrow (Chicago Sessions) both received 4-star reviews in DownBeat. Howard also put out a classical CD featuring his Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra- the first true concerto composed for diatonic harmonica. Howard tours as a solo artist, with Chris Siebold, Trio Globo, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and with his new band, The Howard Levy 4. His new album “Time Traveler - To The Renaissance And Back” will drop on Dec 21, an album of music in the spirit and style of The Renaissance. Multiple Grammy Award-winning harmonica player and teacher new book "Rhythms of the Breath, Vol.1: A Revolutionary Way to Transform Your Harmonica Playing" has compiled a treasure trove of transformative new exercises that will give harmonica players a totally new and fresh perspective on their instrument, whether they are beginners or pros, Blues, Rock, or Jazz stylists.  

Interview by Michael Limnios                  Howard Levy, 2019 interview @ blues.gr

Special Thanks: Howard Levy & Sarah Yu Pei (manager / Levyland)

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I started piano lessons when I was 8, and I started improvising after the 3rd lesson. It was something that felt natural, that expressing myself while exploring music by improvising was something I loved to do. I still love to do that. Of course, I have learned a lot since then, and I have worked very hard on learning all sorts of things about harmony, composition, many styles of music, how to play many different instruments, and how to be a professional musician in many different settings. I remember reaching a point when I started to truly love practicing when I was 19. That was a special moment, when I became more deeply committed to music.

I still love improvising, whether it is over jazz standards, Blues, all sorts of world music styles, and things that seem to come out of nowhere. Sometimes these things become the basis of compositions, both on harmonica and piano.

What characterize new album "Time Traveler" music philosophy? Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album?

“Time Traveler” is an album of music in the spirit and style of The Renaissance. I have a deep love and affinity for Renaissance music. There is something primal about its modal harmonies, and many of the tunes spring from dance rhythms of the times. And- there is a lot of improvisation, which, as a jazz musician, greatly appeals to me. In my early 20’s I discovered “The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book”, which contains hundreds of pieces of keyboard music from Elizabethan England, many of which are “theme and variations”, in essence written-out Renaissance Jazz. This was a revelation, and I felt a real kinship to to the musicians who wrote down “their solos”. This feeling eventually lead me to to make “Time Traveler”.

I recorded a Telemann Canonic Sonata on harmonica, as well as 2 famous tunes from the Renaissance period, but I also I improvised 6 compositions on piano (the last one on keyboard), in the spirit of Renaissance music of England, Italy, France, and Germany, putting myself into a kind of trance, not thinking about what I was playing technically. The music flowed as I imagined scenes from The Renaissance and from Nature. Later, I added harmonica to two tunes and percussion to one.

"Always challenge yourself, and try to play with people who bring out the best in you. If a situation doesn’t feel right, no matter how much money you are making, you probably shouldn’t keep doing it for too long. Those decisions are hard! And for me, it’s also important to find the balance between performing, teaching, and writing/composing. Of course this changed during Covid, but I am performing more again now." (Photo: Howard Levy's Time Traveler album, an unique approach to Renaissance music)

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

Recordings- it depends on whether I am a leader, a sideman, or if I am recording by myself in my home studio. Sometimes I need to practice a lot if a piece has technical challenges. But if I get in the right spirit and mood, often my first take is the best one. Stamina…I have done some recordings with bands where we have had to do MANY takes of a tune, like 15 or 20. This is HARD! Hard to keep focused on the things that are important. I do not like recording this way, and when I am leader or co- leader, I always try to keep things fresh and not do too many takes.

Performances- you have to practice JUST ENOUGH for each gig, figure out what you need to work on the most. I play such a wide variety of music that this process can be really different for different gigs. It is also great and challenging to be on tour playing the same music each night, because you build momentum, discover new things, but it can also be a challenge to find fresh inspiration each night. Sometimes I like to play different key harmonicas on a tune on different nights, so I have a fresh approach.

Why do you think that the Jazz music continues to generate such a devoted following? 

I think the spirit of freedom that Jazz has is exciting to people listening, especially when you hear it live in smaller clubs. And even in traditional styles, people keep coming up with new things to say and play. The music is always changing, evolving, moving forward. And new styles are evolving all the time, with people from many different countries and cultures becoming part of the Jazz mainstream, and redirecting that mainstream into even more channels. And most importantly, I think that the best Jazz has a strong element of The Blues in it, which everybody can feel in their gut.

"I have studied many of his compositions, recorded some of them on piano and harmonica, and I consider his life on Earth a blessing for mankind. I think that each of us, musicians or whatever profession we are, should follow our passion in whatever way we can, and hope that we can make contributions to our chosen field that will advance it and help lift up the human race. If we can do that even a little, and bring some beauty and meaning into people’s lives, then we will have done some good." (Photo: Bela Fleck & The Flecktones - Victor Wooten, Howard Levy, Roy Futureman Wooten, and Bela Fleck)

Are there any memories from The Flecktones, Paquito D'Rivera, and Giovanni Hidalgo which you’d like to share with us?

Oh my goodness- lots! This could be a short book! I had so many great times touring with The Flecktones and Paquito. I suppose the first meeting with Bela was pretty special. We were both playing The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1987 with different bands- he with New Grass Revival and me with Trapezoid. Lorraine Duisit of Trapezoid, a great musician- an inspired genius- kept telling each of us (separately) that we had to play together. She kept bugging us, because she knew that something special would happen.

Finally, on the last night at a big party/jam session, she walked up to me, interrupted a conversation, took me by the hand, and dragged me down a hallway to where Bela was sitting quietly with his banjo, looked at us both and said, “Bela, Howard- PLAY!”

Well, we couldn’t very well say no to her, so he took out his banjo and we started playing some Jazz standards. We were both surprised at the instant rapport, and a small crowd began to gather.

I didn’t want this to turn into a performance, but I did want to keep playing, so the 3 of us and the bassist from Lorraine’s band Trapezoid went up to my room. Bela and I played banjo and harmonica for about 5 hours, all sorts of stuff. I thought he was improvising most of it, but later I found out that much of what he played were tunes he was working on, some of which ended up on our first album. I played along on harmonica, digging the music and feeling incredibly comfortable. We finally got too tired to continue, and as everyone was leaving, I told Bela how special it felt to play with him, and that I’d sure love to do it again.

We stayed in touch a little, and the following year, Bela got offered a TV special in Louisville, Kentucky. The producer asked him to put together an “unusual” band. By that time he had met Victor Wooten and his brother Roy (Futureman) in Nashville, and Bela called me to do the show. I flew down there, met the Wootens, and we drove to Louisville, and played the show with barely a rehearsal. The audience flipped out, we looked at each other and realized that we were “a band”. And that’s how it all started.

(Photo: The Paquito D'Rivera Quintet at San Francisco’s legendary Keystone Korner jazz club with Howard Levy on piano, Paquito D'Rivera, Robbbie Ameen, Claudio Roditi & Sergio Brandao, 1985)

Paquito (D'Rivera) is one of the most joyful, irrepressible, technically accomplished and fearless musicians on planet Earth. I am incredibly happy to have played with him as much as I have. Our connection happened by accident, too. I subbed on piano for 2 nights with Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz All Stars around 1983 in Chicago, which is how we met. It was a dream for me to play with all of those guys, and especially to play with Paquito. I jumped up and played harmonica at the end of the night on “Oye Como Va”, which was a big surprise to everyone; Paquito loved it, and talked with me about it afterwards in the dressing room, asking me lots of questions about how I did what I do on diatonic harmonica.

The next time he came to town, about 6 months later, I stopped by the club he was playing after I played a corporate gig, still wearing my tuxedo, and wondered if he would remember me. His incredible band was in the middle of a tune. I stood at the back door carrying my harmonicas, about to pay and find a seat. Someone else was soloing, and Paquito looked up, saw me, and shouted “LEVY! Come up and take a solo!”. Shocked, I came up onstage, took out a harmonica, and played. The audience loved it. Then Paquito said “Take a cadenza!” And I did, to the general delight of the audience (and the band). I was in shock, and so grateful for Paquito’s warmth, spontaneity, and trust in my ability.

After the set ended, we all hung out for hours, and a few months later, he started hiring me to play piano and harmonica with him on midwest and west coast tours. Then we did a tour of Europe in 1986, and he had me record 2 tunes on harmonica on his great album “Explosion” in NY.

I only played once with Giovanni- with Paquito in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I admire him immensely, think that he is one of the world’s greatest percussive geniuses. Playing with him felt fantastic. And the way he tuned his 5 congas made everything he played go perfectly with the chord changes of every tune. I have never experienced this with any other percussionist. It was like magic, an unforgettable experience.

"I think that each of us, musicians or whatever profession we are, should follow our passion in whatever way we can, and hope that we can make contributions to our chosen field that will advance it and help lift up the human race. If we can do that even a little, and bring some beauty and meaning into people’s lives, then we will have done some good." (Photo: Howard Levy)

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

Great question! I’d say that you know it’s right when you hear it. The challenge is to play complex music in a way that doesn’t sound too technical, but also to not get overly emotional or careless, and play wrong notes. It’s tricky, and when you are in a band, everyone has to be on the same page to make things feel just right.

The second question- always challenge yourself, and try to play with people who bring out the best in you. If a situation doesn’t feel right, no matter how much money you are making, you probably shouldn’t keep doing it for too long. Those decisions are hard! And for me, it’s also important to find the balance between performing, teaching, and writing/composing. Of course this changed during Covid, but I am performing more again now.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

An easy question- hah! My goodness….well, John Coltrane is my musical hero. Listening to his album “Crescent” when I was 17 was a life- changing experience for me, and made me want to be a jazz musician. Coltrane was “a force for good”, an incredibly spiritual man who poured his genius, passion, and love of God into his music, revolutionizing Jazz and setting new standards for playing and composition. I would call him a musical saint, in the same category as Bach.

I have studied many of his compositions, recorded some of them on piano and harmonica, and I consider his life on Earth a blessing for mankind.

I think that each of us, musicians or whatever profession we are, should follow our passion in whatever way we can, and hope that we can make contributions to our chosen field that will advance it and help lift up the human race. If we can do that even a little, and bring some beauty and meaning into people’s lives, then we will have done some good.

Howard Levy - Home

(Photo: Howard Levy)

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