Howard Levy Talks Chevere de Chicago and Music
Multiple Grammy- Award Winner Howard Levy is an acknowledged master of the diatonic harmonica, a superb pianist, innovative composer, recording artist, bandleader, teacher, producer, and Chicago area resident. His musical travels have taken him all over the geographical world and the musical map. Equally at home in Jazz, Classical music, Rock, Folk, Latin, and World Music, he brings a fresh lyrical approach to whatever he plays. This has made him a favorite with audiences worldwide, and a recording artist sought after by the likes of Kenny Loggins, Dolly Parton, Paquito D’Rivera, Styx, Donald Fagen, and Paul Simon. As a sideman, Howard has appeared on hundreds of CDs and played on many movie soundtracks. This Saturday night he will be performing with Chevere de Chicago at the Governors State University Center for the Performing Arts, a group he has been a member of for over 30 years. Click Here for Tickets We thought we would talk with Howard about being a member of Chevere de Chicago and what it takes to consistently push his musical boundaries. 1. Part of your bio on the Chevere de Chicago website say’s you have been in the group since 1979. What is the story of how you first started playing with the group? Levy: I have always loved Latin Jazz. Being from NY, I missed it in Chicago. So I was excited to find out about Chévere, and I used to go hear the band when they played in clubs around Chicago. I knew Steve Eisen, Alejo, and Thomas Kini, the original bass player, so they let me sit in a few times on harmonica. That’s how I started playing with the band, eventually replacing keyboard player Tim Tobias. 2. As the world’s master of the diatonic harmonica, as well as being an incredible pianist you play both as a member of Chevere de Chicago. However harmonica is not normally utilized in Afro Cuban music was this something you had to conceptualize or was it just a natural fit within the context of your talent? Levy: That’s a good question. I play mostly piano in the band, but since we have Chris Cameron and Ernie Denov playing chordal instruments, there is plenty of chordal support when I play harmonica. I wrote a few bossa novas as harmonica features, and figured out which other tunes would be good ones to play harmonica on. On those I mostly play piano, but I take solos on harmonica. I feel relaxed playing the harmonica in just about any style, so Brazilian and Afro- Cuban music feel really natural on it. 3. With all of the other opportunities you have to perform and travel the world what is it about playing in Chevere de Chicago that has kept you as a member of the group for over 30 years? Levy: This is more than a band- it’s a brotherhood, a family, and by now, a tradition. There is so much collective soul and talent. There is nothing else like it in my life and I treasure every opportunity to play together. Surprising and wonderful things always happen and we all keep growing and exploring. 4. Chevere de Chicago melds many different musical styles together into one cohesive sound that is unlike any other group in the country. The core has been together for over 30 years, is that one of the keys to playing intricate music but still allowing it to feel and look effortless to the audience? Levy: Yes- exactly. We have a lot of communication between us, are aware of what each other is doing, and enjoy spontaneous interactions within the forms of the music. 5. Just a quick look over your schedule and one will see that you are constantly traveling throughout the world. In addition to the travel you are also performing with many different ensembles and in many different musical styles on both harmonica and piano. What is the process you go through in order to prepare your mind and your playing for each performance even after a long day of travel? Levy: That’s a great question. I try to focus on the important things that I need to do. For example, last week I played 2 solo concerts in Europe and a third one of all Bach on harmonica with a classical pipe organist. I started practicing that music about a month before, getting it into my mind and my chops a little at a time. To get to this concert I had to take a 10 hour train trip from Budapest to Dresden that started at 5:30am. I had a whole little cabin to myself, so in between sleeping and eating in the dining car, I practiced Bach in my cabin, looking at the Danube and the cities going by. When I’m home, it’s a lot easier! I like to memorize as much as possible, so I will go over tunes, transpose them to different keys, etc. Sometimes I have to make presentations at musical conferences, so for that I must figure out how much talking I’ll do, how much playing, how much I’ll show things from my laptop - and also stay in the moment and change the sequence depending on what the people before me do. I just gave a lecture/performance at the Cymatics Conference in Atlanta last week where all this came into play. People talked a lot, so I started by playing a spontaneous improvisation and used that as a springboard for my presentation. This weekend I am playing with a quintet featuring Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa at The Green Mill. This involved intense rehearsals, writing out some long and complex charts, etc. So I do what I have to to make each performance as successful as possible. I want to give the audience something special- this is a big motivation. So if I am really prepared, I can relax and give them something meaningful. After all, they are paying money to hear me and I want them to go away happy! 6. On November 21st Chevere de Chicago will be performing at the Center of Performing Arts at Governors State University. The group has such a large amount of music to draw from how do you come up with a repertoire list for this type of performance and what can the audience expect to hear? Levy: We will play all our best material :) You’re right- we have a lot of music. The new thing this time is a dance group led by Laura Riebock. This is the first time that we’ve done a live performance with dancers. They have choreographed dances to some of our best- known Latin Jazz tunes- Pucho’s Pretzels, Guajira en Las Pampas, etc. We will rehearse with them tomorrow- this is very exciting. We always mix it up. We will showcase the vocals of Eric Hochberg on at least one tune- Telegram of Love, and maybe another. There will also be some Afro- Cuban chants and drumming from the Santeria tradition, performed by Ruben, Joe, and Alejo. We mix the sacred, the secular, Blues, humor, etc. Every performance is different, but we always try to present a rich cross- section of all the styles of music that make up the total picture of Chévere. 7. Does Chevere de Chicago or yourself have any new releases or performances that our readers should be aware of in 2016? Levy: We are talking about putting out a DVD/CD next year of music not on our CD. Our next performance will be Mar. 12 at the Evanston SPACE, hopefully the first of several more in 2016.