Which of the Bela Fleck and The Elecktones musicians do you think I am going to talk about after such a preface?
I bet most readers would prefer to heard the name of legendary Victor Wooten, who has been awarded with Bass Player of the Year title numerous times, according to the survey among readers of the Bass Player magazine. Of course, he is an extremely impressive (especially appearance-wise) and strong bass player; the king of slap, as he is often referred to by the press. But as soon as you dig deeper, your analytical shovel rests against the concrete of professionalism and entertainment, and nothing more. But we, the sophisticated jazz enthusiasts, are not looking for a show in jazz. We do not contemplate the music, we listen to it, do we not?
The second largest group of those surveyed will probably name the band leader, the great banjo virtuoso Mr. Bela Fleck; the musician who made a triumph by bringing about an instrument previously considered completely ‘provincial’ to the jazz orbit. Whether you like it or not, the sound of banjo, a middle-ground of the sounds of tar and balalaika, is a matter of taste. I personally cannot bear it in excess. Though Bela Fleck must be given a credit for it simply because this great innovator and fabulous musician is a champion for the number of Grammy awards he has taken home, given to him in completely different categories, such as Best Composition of the Year, Best Modern Jazz Project, Best Blue Grass Project, etc. This says a lot and makes me take off my hat to him.
However today's discussion is going to concern a man who for some unknown reason ended up in the category of the underrated alongside other big names of the same level, i.e. in the group of people with undeservedly low ratings. Howard Levy was born on 31 July 1951 in Brooklyn. He was familiarised with music at an earaly age. He studied theory of music and took piano lessons at a music school in New York. For two years he mastered playing the concert organ in the class of music teacher Carl Lambert. He later studied at Northwest University in Evanson, Illinois where he was also a member of the university jazz band. However harmonica was his main passion which he kept on improving himself on. Because I mentioned improvement on the harmonica, I mist divert a bit and this is why.
When asking who the king of the harmonica is in jazz, we will probably get Toots Tilleman as the answer. There are no objections; he is truly a great master. But let us consider the difference between Toots' and Howard's harmonicas. Toots, as Stevie Wander, plays the three-octave chromatic harmonica which has the entire set of notes present in the three octaves of the grand piano, for example. One has only to press their right thumb on the lever and they will get access to the sharps and flats. Howard plays the diatonic three-octave harmonica. What does this mean? Imagine a piano keyboard without the black keys, and you will understand the nerve shown by young Howard to the 'community' of jazz harmonica players. Back in the early 1970s diatonic harmonica was used mostly in country and blues music. However the extraordinary abilities of the super-musician changed the seemingly doomed fate of the diatonic harmonica, as if in the story of the Ugly Duckling, turning it into a full-fledged musical instrument. How did Howard manage to compensate the lack of 'black keys' in the harmonica? It was in the mid 1970s when he invented the technique of over-blowing / over-drawing, where by air dragging and air blow the performer retrieves the missing sharps and flats. It is quite neat, but not easy. Why is this not that simple? Well, because if a phraseologically complicated composition is performed at high speeds and Howard is stunningly masterly, there is almost no time for deep thought. And when it comes to improvisation, the shifts between the perception of chord change, the choice of phrases and accurate hits in the aforementioned virtual sharps and flats, one can lose their mind listening to such a solo, not to mention the performance. However, the above innovation does not complete the list of achievements of the super-musician Howard Levy. Having visited the Montreal Festival in early July this year and knowing that, Howard returned to Bela Fleck and The Flecktones after a 17-year absence I was pleased to attend the band's concert.
Being familiar with the work of Bela Fleck and Howard Levy in particular, I knew roughly what I was about to hear in terms of compositions. As usual, only the improvisational aspect remained a mystery, because this part of the jazz works is always unpredictably spontaneous and unique, because we get to witness its birth. This is what distinguishes jazz from other musical genres. This is why we prefer 'live' concert performance to those licked to perfection in studios. What I heard this time surpassed my expectations. The shock occurred during the solo block, where each of the musicians improvising alone without any intervention from the others. When it was Howard's turn, he began the development in the largo tempo with a charming melody which gave me goose bumps. This was probably because the vibrating sounds of the accordion, especially in the low register resembled the cello and sometimes even the chest mezzo-soprano. Having closed my eyes and dove into a magical realm of music, which was single-handedly ruled by the great magician Howard Levy, I did not notice how he switched to allegro, which defined the central culminating part of the solo. It was at this pace that Howard demonstrated absolutely brilliant virtuosity both with the instrument and in musical thought. Chromatic passages alternated with pentatonic and melodic phrases with atonal devilry. And when I thought I could bear no more of this storm of super-musical information, all of a sudden there was standstill and then silence. Some audience members took it for the finale and began to applaud timidly. But I realized that musicians of such a caliber do not act so recklessly as to leaving the listener elated to the point of a nervous breakdown. I was expecting the long-awaited ‘unfolding’ any minute. And so it came unexpectedly in the form of a fugue. Once again, with my eyes closed, I began to enjoy the genius of Howard, and suddenly caught myself thinking that I was hearing two simultaneous voice shifts. Everything seemed to be in line with the law of counterpoint, except for one thing. What I heard was contrary to the laws of physics. How was it possible to have two distinct voices (one downstream and one upstream) using only one pair of lips on a diatonic harmonica? It was unthinkable. Opening my eyes in disbelief, I peered at the other musicians. However, similarly to me, they were silently enjoying the fugue, which concluded the master's brilliant solo.
I would have lost sleep for many nights, if after the concert while introducing myself to Howard I had not asked how he managed to master the counterpoint which seemed impossible for the harmonica. The conversation was something like this:
Me. (after countless compliments and thanks) Howard, when you demonstrated your 'Show case' of air blow and air dragging in the climax, I felt like I was losing my mind. However, when you played the fugue, I was completely blown away. Tell me please, how did you do it?
Howard. (smiling) I block the center of my mouth and with my tongue and provide an independent stream of air in each of the corners of my mouth.
Me. Well, I guess this can be learned somehow, but how do you get the right notes?
Howard. (beaming) Add 45 years of experience to that as well.
Thus was my unforgettable meeting with the great Howard Levy.
There are some good musicians out there, of whom there are many. There are also outstanding musicians, of whom they are much fewer. Finally, there are super-musicians who are gifted by God more members of the above categories and who use quality as a tool to invent new musical concepts previously unknown to mankind.
EMIL HASSANOV. Jazz Dunyasi