Levin Brothers Express Love for 'Cool' School

For 40-plus years, Pete and Tony Levin have performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz and rock, but Levin Brothers (Lazy Bones) is their first-ever co-led album.  They had one shared goal in mind for the recording; to recreate "cool jazz" in the mold of their heroes, Oscar Pettiford, Julius Watkins and Miles Davis.  In preparation for the release, the Levins contacted a prominent jazz manager to help them navigate today's market.
"When this manager saw the album cover, he said, 'This screams jazz!'" Tony recalls.  "We looked at each other and thought, 'Great!'  But the manager said, 'No, no. That's terrible! That's the worst thing you can do!  Nowadays you have to not look like a jazz group.'  We were shocked.  That's an unfortunate statement for the industry, but it's funny to us.  We're thinking, 'If it screams jazz - no problem!'  We're proud of that.  Oops!"
The 16 songs on Levin Brothers capture the graceful swing of such classic Pettiford-Watkins releases as The New  Oscar Pettiford Sextet (Debut, 1953) and Julius Watkins Sextet (Blue Note, 1955). Accompanied by Jeff Siegel and Steve Gadd (drums), David Spinozza (guitar) and Erik Lawrence (tenor saxophone), with Pete on grand piano and Tony on upright bass and cello, the sibling duo finds that brotherly love can run absolutely cool when necessary.

DownBeat: This album is your tribute to "cool jazz" in general and, specifically, the music of Oscar Pettiford and Julius Watkins, right?
Pete Levin: Yeah, I am unembarrassed to express my admiration for the writers of that period.  We tried to write in that style - but without copying their songs - by keeping the songs concise, very melodic and holding the solos down.  I never got fatigued by their solos.  Each guy played his best stuff, sometimes only half a verse, then he made way for the next soloist.

What makes "cool jazz"?
Tony Levin: A more compositional approach and maybe a more laid-back style as opposed to hard-grooving bop.
PL: And it's less intensely on top of the time than a more New York rhythm section kind of playing, which I have done plenty of.  This is a little more laid-back and simpler chord structure.


How did you write and record the material?
TL: We worked on the tunes together.  Pete changed the chords on a lot of my melodies, and I suggested form changes on some of his tunes.  Also, we wore suits and ties at the sessions.  That's the way they did it then, so that's how we went to the studio every day.  Look at those late-'50s albums - you see the guys huddled around a chart and they all have suits and ties on.  That's how you went to work in the '50s
PL: As we tried stuff and worked on arrangements, more often than not we cut them down to size.  We were thinking vinyl, 1950s, shorter songs, less than 3 minutes.  We were playing compositions rather than stretching out for long solos.

Did you play the songs at gigs before recording them?
PL: We did one live gig at Dave's Coffee House in Saugerties, New York.  The word got around and there was a huge line for the gig.  Damn!  We should have charged a cover!

Where can you go as sibling musicians that you can't with other musicians?
PL: Tony and I come from the same discipline of being trained in classical, and we've also been sidemen.  We're both used to adapting and finding a way to make the music as good as it can be.  With this situation, we know the music and we knew how to proceed individually and get together on it.  The experience of creating music and working together with other musicians is common to us.

Some contemporary jazz is complex; this record is the opposite of that.  How do you think it will fare?
PL: The music business changes every couple of months.  You make an album and wonder, "How are we going to sell it?"  But people are responding to what was one of our goals; to write songs and melodies that are retainable.  It's like you're composing a melody every time you solo.  Who wants to hear a three-part symphony in every solo?  Keep it short!

What do you hope listeners take away from Levin Brothers?
PL:  I've always felt that if you do something good, the industry will make a space for you.  But you have to feel really good about what you did, and we do.  It's not cutting-edge, but that's OK.  People are responding to it.  That makes us feel good.
TL: When I began practicing the older music on cello, I called Pete and realized that we both remember all those songs and all of the solos.  That is a testament to the music.  It's deep inside of me, as is Oscar Pettiford's playing and style.  I can't do it at that level, but we tried to write music that could make people feel that way.  Isn't that a worthwhile aim for a band and an album?

--- Ken Micallef


Updated 11/12/17  All content 2015, Levin Brothers