Progressive rock bassist talks to FBPO about long-awaited collaboration with his brother Pete on a straight-ahead “cool jazz” record.
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 8, 2014
Photos by Dion Ogust
Tony Levin is a virtuoso of both the electric bass and Chapman Stick. Born in Boston, MA, Levin studied upright bass and tuba while growing up and even formed his own barbershop quartet. After attending Eastman School of Music, Tony relocated to New York City, where he ultimately became an extremely prolific session bassist.
Well known for his longstanding tenures with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, as well as collaborations with Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and several others, Tony has also worked with an incredibly wide range of artists. Throughout the course of his brilliant career, Levin has recorded and/or toured with Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Etta James, Buddy Rich, James Taylor, Yes, Phoebe Snow, Warren Zevon, Pink Floyd, Mark Knopfler, John Lennon, Melissa Manchester, Liza Minnelli, Rick Springfield, Carly Simon, Kenny Loggins, Peter Frampton, Chuck Mangione, Todd Rundgren and countless others.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman caught up with Tony to talk about his brand new release, Levin Brothers, a collaboration between Tony and his brother Pete.
FBPO: Congratulations on the fantastic new record you just made with your brother Pete! What took you guys so long before finally deciding to do a project like this together?
TL: Yeah, I’d say that “took a long time” would be an understatement. We could have tried making this record fifty years ago! What got me on the hunt was really an instrument. I’ve been playing the NS Bass, an electric upright, for years and decided a few years ago to try the cello. Then, just for fun, I tried playing some jazz riffs, the ones I remembered from Oscar Pettiford’s records back when I was just starting bass. It’s a testament to how great those songs were. I still remembered the melodies and a lot of the cello solos too. Though I couldn’t play it easily, the idea came because Pete was really into those records too. We thought maybe we could write in that style, a particular kind of jazz writing, and do a duo album, or, as we ended up doing, augment the group with drums, sax and guitar.
FBPO: Levin Brothers is a pure, unadulterated, hard-core, swingin’ jazz record, pretty far removed from King Crimson, Stickmen and most of the other stuff you’ve done.
TL: Yes, it’s a world away from the progressive rock I’ve done a lot of, but there’s this in common: I love the music. The style, which involves memorable melodies and short solos, seems “classic” to me, in that it holds up through the years, as does, indeed, good progressive rock writing. So, if you love the music, you have to give it a try, even if it’s not what you’re known for.
FBPO: You and Pete wrote all of the tunes, except “Matte Kudasai,” which you co-wrote with your King Crimson bandmates. Were the pieces written specifically for this record, or were they taken from a collection you’d both been acquiring over the years?
TL: Oh yeah, written very much for this record. We were trying to stay within the “cool jazz” style. Most of Pete’s jazz writing – and he’s done a lot – is different than that, so it was a fun and challenging process. By the way, with no rush, I took about three years to write some of the songs!
FBPO: You’ve got a great lineup on the record: Jeff “Siege” Siegel, David Spinozza, Erik Lawrence and Steve Gadd. How did you go about assembling the group?
TL: Pete, who gigs with jazz players all the time, brought in Jeff and Erik. I’d done some jazz records lately with David – we’re in a group together called L’Image – and I just couldn’t resist asking Steve to play on a track. He and I went to school together and I consider him my teacher and mentor when it comes to jazz, so having him on a song called “Bassics” seemed… well, just right.
FBPO: I bet a lot of people don’t know you play the cello too. You mentioned Oscar Pettiford. He must have been a pretty big influence of yours.
TL: Yes, a big influence, in a musical way, not really in specific bass-playing way. As for the cello, I’m certainly not known as a cellist, since I have hardly played the cello before this.
FBPO: Did you use your NS Design upright for all the bass parts? It sounds great!
TL: Yes, I did use the NS upright. I love its sound. I use it a lot with Peter Gabriel and on recordings. Though electric, it has the warmth and big feel that I love in an acoustic bass. It’s way easier to tour with, too!
FBPO: Was the cello an NS Design model too?
TL: Yes, very similar instrument, but cello size.
FBPO: In addition to the “customary” media formats – CDs, downloads, etc. – what made you decide to release Levin Brothers on vinyl too? How strong do you think the current “vinyl trend” is?
TL: Couple of reasons. I have wanted for years to release a vinyl record, but budgets just couldn’t handle it, especially because you don’t know how many people will want it. Then, with this music being somewhat “retro” and with it being, for me, something of a bucket list milestone to collaborate with my brother Pete, it just seemed to be the right time. It was a lot of fun designing the sleeve too – all that space! We went for liner notes, as in old-time jazz albums, and even put some yellowing, coffee-like stains on the back cover.
I’m no expert on the vinyl trend and still don’t know whether folks will want this version of the album. We tried to make it extra special by having the first 1,000 a different color vinyl, all signed and hand numbered, with the mandatory download card for the fourteen tracks of the CD.
FBPO: Any plans for future collaborations with Pete?
TL: Well, this isn’t a band that’ll break up! We’ve been playing gigs all our lives, so we’ll keep doing that locally, in upstate New York. When the dust clears from the album release and my Crimson touring, we’ll book some jazz club appearances next year for sure.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
TL: Not much. Just finished touring all summer with The Crimson ProjeKCt, then went to our “Three of a Perfect Pair” music camp (with Adrian Belew and Pat Mastelotto). After that, I went out to L.A. to catch the end of the Chapman Stick seminar. I have a U.S. tour coming up with Crimson, then one with Stick Men, followed by a Peter Gabriel tour of Europe and the UK. That’s what I call a lucky season for this particular bass player.