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14 octobre 2005

Funky fingers

By Sergey Chernov for St. Petersburg Times

Legendary bassist Tony Levin (second from the right) with the Tony Levin Band which makes its first trip to the land of his forebears this month.

Tony Levin, the long-time bassist with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, has also worked on many seminal rock albums by such artists as Lou Reed, Paul Simon and John Lennon. Now he steps into the spotlight with his own combo, the Tony Levin Band, with concerts in St. Petersburg and Moscow this month.

“First of all, I want to say how excited we are to be coming, finally, to Russia. I have wanted to play there, with Peter Gabriel, or King Crimson, for many years,” wrote Levin in an email interview with The St. Petersburg Times last week. “
That it is finally happening, and with my own band, is a very special thing for me.”

There is another reason why Levin is excited about the tour because his mother came from Berdichev, a once-predominantly Jewish town in Ukraine. In an online diary Levin mentions that he and his brother, Peter, who is on tour with him as a keyboard player/programmer, have sought a way to travel to Ukraine and Belarus to visit the hometown of their mother and grandparents.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in June 1946, Levin began playing double bass at age 10. Five years later he played at the White House with a youth orchestra for John and Jackie Kennedy. Later, he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and played in the Rochester Philharmonic. Introduced to jazz and rock by now-renowned drummer Steve Gadd, who was also at the school, Levin moved to New York in 1970 where after a brief stint with a rock band he began working as a session musician playing bass with such diverse artists as Carly Simon, Don McLean, Alice Cooper, and Ringo Starr. He also performed at John Lennon ’s final studio sessions which yielded “Double Fantasy” in 1980 and the posthumous album “Milk and Honey” in 1984.

According to Levin, his way of playing with any artist largely depends on what he hears in studio.
“What I listen to is the music itself — I do not have a bass ‘agenda’ that I need to bring with me. If the lyrics are the focus (as with Paul Simon’s great songs), it feels to me the bass should pretty much stay out of the way. But maybe there’s a little need somewhere to do something a bit special. John Lennon’s songs have a rock feel, so a catchy bassline will always fit in. In some music, like Peter Gabriel's, there is often room for some new technique or sound on the bass... I greatly admire players, on all instruments, who consistently find just the right notes to play — what a special thing that is.”

Apart from the Levin brothers, the Tony Levin Band, now on its first European tour, features Jerry Marotta on drums, vocals and guitars, Larry Fast on synthesizers and electronic effects and Jesse Gress on guitars. “What we will perform is a product of the musicians in the band,” wrote Levin.
“I have a history with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, of progressive music. We will do some of the material from the 4 or 5 albums I have put out. But there is much more to the band than just me. Three of us (Larry Fast, Jerry Marotta and I) played together for many years in Peter’s band — so there is a tightness, and friendliness among us, that the audience can see. And we do a little of the old Peter Gabriel material that we know so well, each night. “Then, I can’t resist doing a little King Crimson material, just for fun. We also like to jam a bit, and maybe will do a song or two everyone knows — lately [Led Zeppelin’s] Black Dog’ has been our favorite — that we can open up on.”

An innovative musician, Levin helped to popularize the Chapman Stick, the instrument that combines bass and guitar strings. He wrote that he will use it in his Russian concerts alongside the five-string electric bass and a fretless bass guitar.
“I play [the Chapman Stick] mostly as a bass and I like the tonal change it gives me — more percussive than a bass, and with it’s unusual tuning (fifth, and strung low to high) it helps me break away from the same old bass lines. I’ve especially used it a lot with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. (We’ll probably play Elephant Talk,’ which has, I guess, the most famous Stick line.)”

To broaden the possibilities of bass Levin developed Funk Fingers, a technique of playing the instrument with a pair of chopped-off drum sticks, first used on the track “Big Time” on Gabriel’s 1986 album
Performing with Gabriel and King Crimson poses different challenges for a bass player, according to Levin. “Those two situations are very different,” he wrote. “Peter’s vision is exceptional, and he expresses it through his songs — then lets his band join in and add the eclectic feel that it wants. His shows are theatrical, big productions, and a lot of fun. “[King Crimson leader] Robert Fripp’s vision is also an exceptional musical one, and I have a lot of faith in what he deems right for the band. But it is not an easy process, and he must review all ideas, let different mixtures of radical ideas go through their necessary days, and then see if it’s appropriate for the band. The result, in simple language, is that we try out a lot of wild ideas that are awful sounding, but we don’t give up on them quickly. It makes for quite tortured work sessions. Add to this that Robert does not love touring, and that we are always pushing ourselves to play, individually, different than we have before, and you have... not an easy process. It’s worth the work, of course, and if there’s suffering... well... it’s King Crimson.”

Prog rock,” the term used to describe what such musicians as Levin do, is accepted for the lack of a better term for music innovation in rock, he wrote.
“I often run into different understandings of what prog rock is. We in King Crimson keep trying to break the boundaries, and do things we (and others) haven’t done before. That is a giant challenge — more so after you have succeeded on an album (I think we did, with the Discipline album) because there is a temptation to keep doing that style. “So, bands that play in the style of progressive groups from the ‘70s are called Prog. But then there is no new term for those who try to do things nobody ever heard. “Now, I think great things are being done, all over the planet, by many musicians and bands. It’s a great time for music, and so much is being shared, even though it’s becoming a very hard time to make a living from your music, and get attention for it, with so much out there from so many places.”

Having started out as a classical musician who then switched to jazz, Levin wrote that rock music gave him more opportunities for free expression.

“Classical music has always been my love, and probably will be my favorite for life. But I didn’t enjoy playing in an orchestra, and I also love challenges, and life in an orchestra was too stagnant for me,” he wrote.
“Jazz is great music, but I found myself out of sync, always wanting to try new ideas and sounds, in a genre which, at least at that time, was supposed to sound a classic way. “So rock provided me with the best outlet — especially progressive rock.”

However, Levin’s classical background still echoes in his music.
“I laugh to think that at the end of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘On the Air,’ I played a strong bass line, borrowed from a Shostakovich symphony. I don’t think many people in live audiences through the years noticed that, but probably the listeners in Russia would be aware of it. Hey, maybe we will do that song!”

Tony Levin Band performs at the Center for Contemporary Art (formerly Priboi film theater) on Oct. 21.

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