Lazy Bones Records, 2014
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/07/2014
Studies have shown that twins who spend a lot of time alone with each other can develop a unique language of their own to communicate with one another. Pete and Tony Levin may not be twins, but it doesn’t take long listening to this album to understand that, when it comes to music, the two share a bond that’s nearly telepathic.
Pete Levin is a jazz keyboardist whose work has been heard on albums by Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Dave Brubeck, Wayne Shorter and many more. Brother Tony is best known for his work on bass and Chapman stick with prog-rock lions King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, though he has also played hundreds of sessions and tours with the likes of Sting, Pink Floyd and Paul Simon, not to mention the several all-star prog-fusion trios and quartets he’s populated over the past 20 years. After many years of talking about it, the brothers Levin recently found the time at last to make an album of the style of music they listened to growing up together in Brookline, Massachusetts: classic 1950s jazz.
The resulting album is traditionalist in many respects. The feel is often pure smoky nightclub jazz, with uncluttered arrangements focused on Pete’s piano and organ and Tony’s bass and cello, augmented by Jeff Siegel’s drums, Erik Lawrence’s sax and David Spinozza’s guitar, with Tony’s schoolmate Steve Gadd subbing in on drums for two tracks. Once you look under the hood, though, things get more complex; the brothers’ playing is frequently quite intricate and carries just a hint of an avant-garde edge, never breaking character, but pushing the envelope all the same. More than anything, the choices made about things like arrangements and song titles demonstrate a confident playfulness, and the music itself conveys a kind of irrepressible joy with every note.
Opening pair “Bassics” and “Brothers” exemplify this; both feature nimble, energetic arrangements delivered with an effortless precision. These tracks are concise by jazz standards—averaging three and a half minutes, with only a clever, transformational cover of King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai” extended past the four and a half minute mark—but each is exactly as long as it needs to be. Pete switches off between piano and organ throughout, demonstrating tremendous feel and dexterity on both (see “Not So Square Dance” for a great example of his facility on the former). Tony trades off between the bass and the cello, plucking either and bowing the latter on a couple of the more exotic tunes here.
For those mostly familiar with Tony’s prog work, it’s great fun to hear him and Pete swing and jive like a couple of swell cats on numbers like “Jumpin’ Jammies” (featuring Lawrence), “Gimme Some Scratch” and “Brookline Boyz.” The arrangements not surprisingly often set the brothers in counterpoint, giving each the opportunity to play and solo off the other, as on the sweetly melodic “Ostropolya.”
The middle of the album is where the pair get a bit more experimental. “Cello In The Night” finds Tony plucking the cello strings over a piano melody that reminds of “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It’s just the brothers and Siegel playing the brushes here; the arrangement is elegant and old-school, nightclub jazz at its finest. Tony scats playfully on the Latin-tinged “Havana” as Pete and Spinozza mambo away underneath. Pete’s organ playing on “Special Delivery” has a bit of a Jimmy Smith feel to it, rich and warm as he trades solos with Tony. And “I Got Your Bach” borrows from the master’s “Cello Suite No. 1” in the repeating progressions Tony plays while Pete alternately murmurs and solos on the organ.
A couple of quieter numbers spotlight the expressiveness of the brothers’ playing, with “Matte Kudasai,” the sole cover on the album, arranged as a spare, contemplative piano and bass duet, with light brushes in the background. “When Sasha Gets The Blues” strips the band all the way down to just Pete and Tony on piano and cello, an evocative interlude before “Brookline Boyz” gets the fingers snapping once again. The album closes with “Fishy Takes A Walk,” a moody, intricate dance between the brothers, with Gadd providing the foundation.
I didn’t expect to say this about an album by a pair of sixtysomething musical veterans, but there is a remarkable purity and innocence to this music. The spirit of the two little boys pictured on the back cover shines through on this album. The Levins could be forgiven if a project like this slipped into self-indulgence at times, but it never does; The Levin Brothers manages to be both serious and playful without ever losing the passion and edge that comes from pairing two masters of their instruments playing a style of music they both love. A terrific album not just for fans of classic jazz, but for fans of music, period.