Bob Levey: Back in the swing
CARBONDALE – Bob Levey sets high standards, for himself and the musicians he plays with. A few years ago the drummer, who lives in Missouri Heights, quit a blues band he was in because he knew that it wouldn’t take long before three-chord blues songs bored him. Levey admits he may have ticked off some bandmates because he is so demanding. He says he has a reputation for being especially tough on bassists, which makes sense: As a drummer, Levey needs to lock in with the bassist to lay down a rhythm. Levey would rather not play at all than play at a mediocre level; the 62-year-old went through virtually all of the ’80s and ’90s without touching his kit.Levey doesn’t let himself off the hook. When he decided to get back into playing, at the end of the ’90s, he carefully considered whether he really wanted to put in the time required to get his groove back fully. When he went into the studio a few months ago for a recording project, the engineer suggested he sit in the drummer’s booth, an easy way to control the volume of the drums. But for the sake of making music in the most intimate way possible, Levey insisted he sit in the same room with the other musicians, taking on the burden of adjusting his touch to the atmosphere and the other instruments.And now that he is playing again, with a desire to expand his presence on the local music scene, he is focused solely on bebop, which he considers the most technically challenging style. “I need hard things. I don’t like easy things,” Levey said. “I think I’d have gotten bored playing the blues all the time. I think I’ve ticked some people off because the music’s got to be played the way it needs to be played. And I needed that hard-edge thing. Bebop’s got to have that hard edge.”••••Levey doesn’t come off as a hard-edged person. He lavishes praise on musicians who do clear his bar, and talks about the strong bond built around fly-fishing he has with a young grandson. He is a man of faith, a Jew who believes in Jesus as the savior. But his beliefs, while a significant part of his life, are flexible and searching; he is uncomfortable with those who profess to know absolute truths.And those high musical standards come not from a demanding personality, but from a deep well of experience. In his younger years, Levey played with what he considers heavy talent. On the Los Angeles scene of the early ’70s, he backed r&b singer Big Mama Thornton, who had previously had hits with “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain”; he also played often with the rhythm section that backed another r&b great, Bobby “Blue” Bland. Before he was a professional musician, Levey’s best friend growing up was Paul Barrre, the guitarist from Little Feat, and he jammed with Little Feat founder Lowell George and with members of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.Back further still, Levey spent his childhood in the company of jazz giants: Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Nelson Riddle, Nancy Wilson among them. And his own father, the late Stan Levey, who as the drummer in Gillespie’s band going back to 1944, helped build the foundation for the lightning-quick, radical style that would become known as bebop. The younger Levey is happy to talk about his father’s prowess as a drummer: “People would ask, why do you have this white kid playing with you? And it was because he could play. He was the best of the best.” And while Bob clearly enjoys pulling out stories from his father’s heyday, he can also refer people to “Stan Levey – The Original Original,” a 2004 DVD that details his experiences with Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker and others.Accomplished as he was, Stan Levey was never sold on jazz music as a viable job, at least for the musicians. In his early 40s he traded in the drums for a camera; a specialty of his photography business was album covers. He advised his three sons to find lines of work other than music.”Dad taught us, Don’t go into the music business. Because there is no business,” recalled Levey, whose two brothers, both accomplished musicians, make their living as radiologists. “But he didn’t tell us, Don’t play.”Bob got a late start as a musician, not getting at all serious about drums until he was 16. But apparently he had some of his father’s gift; by 18, he was playing at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip, and recording for the TV dance show, “Boss City.” In 1969, in a session with the Outlaw Blues Band, Levey recorded the tune “Deep Gully,” which has been sampled by hip-hop groups De La Soul and Cypress Hill. As he played his way onto the L.A. scene, it looked like Levey was ignoring his father’s advice, but he approached his career with the nagging conviction that Stan was probably right. He played full-time when there was work, and took non-music jobs when there wasn’t. “The usual musician’s life,” Levey notes.••••Levey gave up any big musical ambitions while still in his 20s. He got married, had kids, and started a decorative wood-finishing business which he still runs. He eventually gave up music entirely. By the time he moved to the valley, in the late ’90s, he didn’t own a drum set. But when he met Lee Hollowell, guitarist from the local blues band Big Daddy Lee and the King Bees, he rediscovered the itch. And when he became acquainted with the local jazz talent, especially trumpeter Tim Fox, he started wondering if he wanted to get his chops into shape.”I knew it was going to take a lot of work to get to that level,” Levey said. “There was a lot of mental analysis: Did I want to put this kind of time in? It had to be worth it, because I’d played with some real monsters.”What made it worth his while was Fox, who has become Levey’s main musical partner. The highlight of their local performances was Cannonball Adderley’s jazz arrangements of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was presented by Jazz Aspen at Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre in late 2007.Looking to drum up more work, Levey assembled a group – pianist Justin Pfeifer, bassist Ashton Taufer, and Fox – in mid-’09 to record a demo. But over eight hours at Aspen’s Great Divide Studios, the demo project became a genuine album of 11 tracks. The recording, “Homey,” credited to the Intervention Band, is getting regional airplay and has worked its way into the regular rotation on New York’s Pure Jazz Radio.”I don’t know why this came about. But I have a belief in God, and everything happens for a reason,” Levey said of the album, the first under his name.In addition to God – the “Homey” of the title – two mortal beings hover over the recording. One is Fox: “I think the love Tim and I have between us was transmitted that night,” Levey said. “Tim was going through some personal shit and I was healing from my divorce. We could have come in there being critical, but we didn’t. It was all support, all spiritual. There was this love that flowed.”And among the spirits that night was Stan Levey. When the engineer guided Bob away from the other musicians and into the drummer’s booth, Levey took exception.”I said no, my old man, he and the drummers in those days were always in the same room,” Levey said. “You want that feeling of being together. I just didn’t want to be in another room.”And I knew I could do it. Even though I have a reputation for playing hard, I knew I could do it.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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