Alex Levin Trio
New York-based pianist Alex Levin borrows standards from the jazz-rich era of the 1940s,' 50s and '60s, and includes a couple of originals for New York Portraits, his third album as leader. Along with bassist Michael Bates, (leader of the Outside Sources ensemble) and drummer Brian Floody, the trio lays down a relaxed shuffle of rhythm-based music, lending superb interpretations to some time-honored classics. Influenced by the music of Ahmad Jamal,, who the pianist met while pursuing studies at The New School's Jazz Program, Levin pays also homage to pianists Bill Evans and Red Garland, among others, on this session.
Enchanted by its rich musical history and vibrant jazz scene, the city of New York provides the primary inspiration for Levin's music, the pianist explaining, "New York Portraits is like a big painting of New York." Like an artist with a vision, Levin serves up a palette of beautiful music; brush strokes to the canvas of a musical masterpiece. A gifted pianist, with crisp right-hand lines during brisker solo moments, Levin is neither a showy or selfish player, but is firm and commanding instead.
Levin's portrait begins with a mid-tempo rendition of the Rogers and Hart standard "My Heart Stood Still," followed by the album's highlight : Anthony Newly's staple, "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)." One of the most identifiable standards from The Great American Songbook is Irving Berlin's "Cheek To Cheek"; here, Levin's trio delivers it with such authoritative romp and swing that it's difficult to imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers keeping up with the tempo. On the immortal "I Remember You," the trio settles into a tasteful groove, with Floody providing the steady drum beats with deliberate stick work, as the pianist paints the melody.
Bates introduces the melancholy "Last Train to Brooklyn," and provides the lead on this original soft ballad, while the other Levin chart, "Blues for Charley," reveals a touch of the Jamal influence. With the drummer on brushes and the pianist applying an equally light touch, the set closes with a warm and humbling version of that traditional jazz standard "Body and Soul," applying the final touches to a portrait of elegant light jazz.
- Edward Blanco, Published: October 14, 2010
Standards like George and Ira Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" and Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers' classic tune "My Heart Stood Still" are garnished with a modern flare in the hands of pianist Alex Levin. Levin's trio comprising of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Brain Floody grazes the stars of jazz music's yesteryear on the group's latest recording New York Portraits, which additionally features two original tracks written by Levin. Pensive and penetrative, New York Portraits is driven by the winds of showtunes style harmonies and swing-inspired melodies. The tracks elevate the spirit with each one displaying Levin's keen melodic sensibilities and the trio's ability to fuse their ideas into a striking mix.
The title of the album, New York Portraits, refers to the theme resonating through the recording as Levin puts together a collection of songs that are descriptive to him of New York City including his original contributions, the cushiony gospel tones of "Last Train To Brooklyn" and the jitter-fused swing palpitations of "Blues For Charley." Levin's strokes are elegantly hewn and the trio's interlocking verses exude a sophistication reminiscent of Nat King Cole. The group's renditions of the Gershwin's "Isn't It A Pity?" and Irving Berlin's "Cheek To Cheek" are checklist perfect, and the musicians own improvised add ons like Bates' whirling arcos in "My Heart Stood Still" and Levin's wiggling keys glittering along "Who Can I Turn To" produce a sleek ruffling. The somber coloring of "Body And Soul" closes out the album with a vision of the city winding down and its inhabitants having a last dance before turning down the lights.
In many ways, New York Portraits seems like Levin's dream of what the music played in the swing clubs around New York City during the '40s, '50s, and '60s must have sounded like. The melodies live in two worlds, the past and the present. The songs are steep in nostalgia in their phrasing but the tones and the improvised lines are purely contemporary. New York Portraits is a vital asset to jazz music's gallery. It bridges two worlds that are far apart and yet enjoy each other's company, at least the way Levin's trio presents it.
All Music Guide
New York pianist Alex Levin dreams of the 40's, 50's and 60's, those rich decades in jazz when musicians gigged across the city, uptown in Harlem, on 52nd Street, and down in the Village. For Alex, New York City remains aprimary inspiration for his music.
"Walking down Broadway or any big street in New York is like playing jazz, if you're doing it right," he explains. "It's fun; it's improvisational; it's diverse; it's musical."
The city came to life for Alex when he moved there in 1993 to study at The New School's Jazz Program. It was there that he met his teacher Arnie Lawrence who introduced Alex to Ahmad Jamal's music, and, while in New York, Alex studied piano and composition while meeting collaborators and friends.
Alex explains, "New York Portraits is like a big painting of New York City, and it incorporates the musical brushstrokes andtechniques I have learned while living in New York. So there's some of Arnie Lawrence's great romanticism to our rendition of "Body and Soul," and Herman Foster's piano is echoed a bit in the block chords of "Who Can I Turn To."
I hope that when you listen to the record you find yourself transported to New York, and that you can imagine the millions of lights in the buildings at night, and perhaps the quiet solitude one experiences while riding the subway home late at night. See, when I first came to New York, I felt really overwhelmed by the layers upon layers of beauty in the city. With this record I was trying to distill some of the feelings I have had as a New Yorker. Once you live here, you really start to understand how beautiful a big city can be."
"In my opinion, jazz is the soundtrack of New York City. All the horns honking and people speaking different languages, it's as though they're all improvising together. It's all one giant song. This record is my way of lending another voice to the party."
Alex chose a very specific rhythm section for this project. Bassist, Michael Bates is best known as the leader of his own ensemble, "Outside Sources." But on New York Portraits he shows his rich knowledge of the piano trio tradition. Having gigged with Alex on countless occasions, he knows how to both support and extend Alex's vision. "I told him to think about Kind of Blue and the great Ahmad Jamal recordings of the late fifties and early sixties. It's all very accessible, beautiful, relaxing music, and it swings pretty intensely, too." The drummer Brian Floody, never a show-off, swingslike crazy all over the record. "I met Brian on a gig about four years ago, and ever since I dreamed of recording with him. He knows exactly where I am going in my playing because he listens to all of the same records I do. I was very grateful to have him on the date," says Alex.
In order to give New York Portraits an extra-special vibe, Alex insisted on recording it between the hours of ten and two at night. If the trio sounds like it's playing late, it's because it's true. "Nobody's playing jazz in the daytime in New York! Nobody! They may be practicing, but they're not 'playing' together until way past nine o'clock. I'm a night-owl, and this record, like my first recording, Night and Distance, had to be made late at night to be right."
Check out New York Portraits in the cool of the evening, when the workday is done, and you're likely to start imagining yourself in New York City after dark, when folks are settling down to listen to jazz, and the musicians are just about to hit the bandstand.