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Yerba Buena: a creative musical ‘concoction’

Stewart Oksenhorn

Among the most significant trends in music over the last handful of years are these: the way styles are colliding, thanks to the accessibility of most every sound in the world; the Latinization of American music, thanks to the exploding influence of the Hispanic culture; and the advent of digital technology, which has opened up new horizons of sound.If there is a musician best pointing the way toward this coming future, it is Andres Levin.Levin, a singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, grew up in the ideal spot, under the perfect conditions, to lead this wave. Levin is a native of Caracas, Venezuela, where his father was not only a highly regarded electro-acoustic musician, but had a well-equipped studio in the house. “I had an exposure to a lot of music, a lot of electronics,” said the 33-year-old Levin.And Caracas was an entry point for North American culture into South America, “like the mouth for American music into South America,” said Levin, who studied jazz and composition in his home country.At 17, Levin moved to the States, first attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied with electronic music pioneer Charles Dodge for three semesters, then moving on to New York’s Juilliard School for a short stay. Embarking on his career, he wasn’t sure in which musical direction to head. Living in downtown New York, where jazz, hip-hop, hard rock and a multitude of foreign sounds swirled around him, the possibilities seemed infinite. Levin soon found himself a producer in the downtown Manhattan scene. At 19, he landed a job producing an album for English soul singer Misha Paris. Word of the young studio maestro spread quickly, and in short order, Levin was producing the likes of Chaka Khan, Tina Turner and Gladys Knight. More recently, Levin has become the knob-twister behind the progressive Latin music movement, producing music by such forward-thinking artists as Mexico’s Gran Silencio, Columbia’s Aterciopelados, Venezuela’s Amigos Invisibles, and Brazil’s Arto Lindsay and Caetano Veloso in his Fun Machine Studios. Levin’s career as a producer hit a peak with the 2002 album “Red Hot + Riot.” The tribute to late African music icon Fela Kuti featured an enormous array of musicians, from soul singers Macy Gray and D’Angelo to rappers the Dead Prez, jazz players Roy Hargrove and Archie Shepp to African musicians Baaba Maal and Manu Dibango. Instead of a chaotic mess, the album was a brilliant, contemporary meshing of styles, and earned best-of-the-year nods from The Aspen Times, The New York Times and Rolling Stone.”I wanted to give it a sense that it wasn’t scattered all over the place, with so many producers and mixers,” said Levin of the album. “I wanted it to be one sonic vision, one team of producers. It was a challenging project because I’m a huge Fela fan, but I didn’t want it to be an Afrobeat record. I took some licenses there and mixed things up.”Despite that success, around the time of making “Red Hot + Riot” Levin was looking to bust out of the studio. Apart from touring as a sideman with Arto Lindsay, and some hometown jamming, Levin hadn’t spent much time onstage. And he had never stepped into the role of leader of his own project.Two years ago, Levin recruited some associates from the New York music world – four Cuban-born singers, two horn players from the Virgin Islands, and an American bassist – and created Yerba Buena. The band – whose name is taken from the myth of an alchemist who took all the earth’s herbs and turned them into one super-herb – instantly earned a reputation for its avant-Latin approach. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times called an October 2003 concert “a joyful, ever-evolving, border-hopping groove.” Last year, Yerba Buena released its debut CD, “President Alien,” a blast of modern Latin energy.For Levin, the key to Yerba Buena’s sound is being anything but purist. The music encompasses American urban hip-hop and Cuban son, Nuyorican salsa and Colombian cumbia.”That’s the whole idea,” said Levin, who brings the seven-piece band to Jazz Aspen’s June Festival, with appearances at the Mill Street Club in the St. Regis (Saturday and Sunday, June 26-27) and on the Cooper Avenue Free Stage (Sunday, June 27, at 5:15 p.m.). “It’s a concoction, a collective. It extends from all the traveling I’ve done, all the producing, and my desire to blend all these roots in a different way.”Levin is quick to add that his adopted hometown is the necessary crucible to mix those elements. “It’s a product of the ethnicity of New York,” he said. “It’s a futuristic Creole. It’s all our backgrounds that have their own music.”The aspect of Yerba Buena that is most appealing to Levin is that it is a touring band. Yerba Buena will spend most of July touring Europe, then spends much of the fall touring the States. It is a different kind of life for Levin and, not that he needs another one, but it offers a new perspective on music.”There’s a lot of things about it that are unique, and that I love,” he said. “I love the contact with the audience – to try things and get a reaction of the spot. What happens onstage is the product of what happens between four singers and some unique and talented musicians. It’s almost like live theater onstage.”Levin says he didn’t construct Yerba Buena as a representation of the cutting edge of Latin music. It’s bigger than that.”There are no rules to what we can bring in,” he said. “I think that’s very significant for our generation and what’s going on in the world right now.”The fare on the Jazz Aspen June Festival main stage runs toward the mainstream: blues, traditional jazz, soul, country-rock and vocal pop. Away from the main stage – what Jazz Aspen executive producer Jim Horowitz calls “the outer festival” – there’s a world of music to be heard.Apart from Yerba Buena’s contemporary Latin, there is Brazilian singer Daude, part of the Brazilian pop-roots movement known as Musica Popular Brasileira, who has several dates during the June Festival and who also opens the Snowmass Free Summer of Music Series on Fanny Hill on Wednesday, June 23. DJ Harry, a turntablist known in the jam-band world for his “String Cheese Remix Project” CD, spins two nights at Matsuhisa. Rebirth Brass Band plays its modern take on New Orleans brass music at Club Chelsea.Also, the Soul Survivors – featuring soul-jazz men Les McCann, Cornell Dupree and Ernie Watts – play two nights at the Hotel Jerome; Austin’s theatrical swingers the Asylum Street Spankers play the Cooper Avenue stage and Club Chelsea; vocalist Jenna Memmina is at Syzygy and on the Cooper Avenue stage; the duo of Mike Melvoin and David Basse is at Syzygy; and groove group the Darren Kramer Organization plays the Blue Door in Snowmass Village. All of the above acts, apart from the Soul Survivors, also have sets scheduled on the Cooper Avenue Free Stage, next to Wagner Park.And speaking of worlds of music, the upper valley’s music season got off to a fine, early start with a set by the cultural-hopping string master David Lindley at last weekend’s Chili Pepper & Brew Fest. Playing instruments from the Middle Eastern oud to the Turkish saz to the Hawaiian Weissenborn, Lindley showed how the string music of different cultures can be distilled into one groove. With only the slightest rhythmic and melodic shifts, Lindley traveled from Jamaica to the Mississippi Delta to Arabia. More a technician than a showman, Lindley played with his head down, intent on his picking. But his off-kilter songs – “When a Guy Gets Boobs,” and a tune that pondered the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa’s body – brought the crowd in.Leftover Salmon followed with what might be their last appearance in the valley. Drew Emmitt, who co-founded the band nearly 15 years ago, said in an interview with The Aspen Times that the Colorado band is planning an extended break after 2004, but there are whispers that the break could be permanent. If so, they made their final area gig a great one, as they jammed from blues to bluegrass with energy and virtuosity.The only disappointment of the evening was that Lindley and Leftover, seemingly an obvious and enticing pairing, never joined together onstage.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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