I gravitate towards music that welcomes me in. I approve of melodies. I even love them, and I love those that I remember. There! I’ve said it.
And the pianist Alex Levin has the same affectionate relations with song: he’s not a prisoner of the written notes, but he respects what the composer has created, and his own original compositions have the gamboling pleasure of the great songs that some of us still hum in the car or in the grocery-store line.
I first heard (and heard of) Alex almost a decade ago, when he released his first CD, which I liked a great deal: you can read my review here.
And I like Alex’s new CD even more.
Here’s what I wrote, offhandedly, after hearing only two or three tracks through my computer’s speakers.
Some ninety years ago, jazz began to position itself as the delinquent of music. In opposition to all those sweet bands with violins, playing the melody in harmony, tied to the notes in front of them, jazz took a puff on its Marlboro, abruptly stood up from its seat (frightening the kittens) and made unpredictable sounds. That was HOT, a spiritual barrage against the apparent dullness of SWEET. And jazz listeners followed the narrow often unmarked ideological path: think of all those 78s whose grooves remain black, shiny, unplayed except for the eight bars of Bix or Purvis or Jack. Sweet was for Aunt Martha; hot was for rebellious enlightened outsiders. It created a pervasive false dichotomy: if you could hear the melody, was it true improvisation?
And — to oversimplify (because Bird and Trane could play melodically with great art) jazz aimed at abstraction, sharp edges and magical paths into the labyrinth. Thus, so many listeners tell themselves and others that they don’t understand jazz, as if it became a subject one had to study for to pass the final.
But the great players and singers knew and still know that melody is at the heart of any musical expression, and that “sweetness” was, in itself, a goal rather than a trap. Think of Lester Young, “I don’t like a whole lot of noise — trumpets and trombones…I’m looking for something soft. It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig?”
It is in this spirit of an apparent conservatism that becomes radical that I commend to you Alex Levin’s new trio CD, A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE, where the trio does more than glue themselves to the written notes, but they treat melodies with love and respect . . . the result being quietly affecting swing playing of the highest order. Some might not be able to hear the lights and shadows, preferring instead the sounds of the piano dropped to the street below, but that would be their loss.
Because readers are sometimes hurried, you can hear samples, download the music, or purchase a CD here. And I caution the unwary listener to not jump to conclusions: “It sounds too easy,” for as that great master of contemporary jazz, Ovid, was fond of saying, ars est celare artem [he recorded it for Clef], which Monk transposed into “Simple ain’t easy.”
Now back to our regularly scheduled basket of prose.
I left off there, because Life (the hussy) interfered, with her racket of parking tickets, laundry, dinner, recycling, and more — make your own list. But I came back and listened to the CD in a sitting, my enthusiasm just as strong.
Some facts. Alex, who has a light touch on a well-recorded piano, is accompanied — in the truest sense of the word — by the fine string bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Ben Cliness. And they have the ease, intuitive comfort, and wit one would expect from a working band: they catch each other’s signals without having to be told to turn the page. incidentally, I’ve seen a review of this CD calling it “modern” and “clever.” I can’t argue with those terms, but to me it seems “heartfelt” and “playful,” which qualities are audible.
Alex has divided the repertoire on this disc between standards that, for the most part, got their greatest exposure in the Fifties: the title track (which, for those of us over fifty, has a yearning nostalgia — rather like THE THINGS WE DID LAST SUMMER — even though my adolescence came later), SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP, THE BEST THING FOR YOU (Would Be Me), WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? and I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR — which, for the purists in the audience, is a much older composition, but I would guess most memorably allied with jazz because of Sonny Rollins (although Annie Ross, Marian McPartland, and others returned to it).
And of course one could say, “There are a million piano trio recordings that draw on Rodgers, Berlin, Porter, and Kern,” but the other five tracks — all Levin originals — SWEETS, THE JETSETTERS, BLUES FOR WYNTON K., AT LEAST WE’RE TOGETHER, STROLLING THROUGH YONKERS — are strong jazz compositions on their own, with one foot delicately poised in the past, Alex not trying to hide that his heart belongs to 1956 Prestige, but moving around happily in this century. His songs ARE songs rather than lines over slightly modified chord progressions; they have the breath of life rather than the aroma of the Xerox machine.
Convinced? It’s music that befriends the listener, which is sometimes rare. Hear for yourself here, and then download or purchase, as the spirit moves you.
May your happiness increase!