From the Synagogue to ‘Rocket Science,’ a Harmonica Hero’s Journey

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Click photo to download. Caption: Grammy-winning harmonica player Howard Levy. Credit: Bob Kessler.

Howard Levy, who won a Grammy with The Flecktones in 1997, returns to the band for a new album.

Now a Grammy Award-winning harmonica master, Howard Levy’s tunes were influenced by what he calls “Jewish soul music”—namely, the cantor at his childhood synagogue, Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor, NY.

“[His] voice and delivery made a big impression on me,” says Levy, who continues to play harmonica and piano during High Holy Days services each year at Aitz Hayim in Highland Park, Ill., outside Chicago.

Levy’s talent spans the spectrum from jazz to pop to world music. On his latest album with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Rocket Science (2011), Levy and his musical mates explore modes and melodies that they haven’t approached before.

While the project may sound ambitious, it’s actually a step back in a way for Levy, who was a founding Flecktone. In Levy’s life, music goes back as far as he can remember.

“My dad sang opera and Broadway tunes, my mom played cello in high school, and they loved classical music and show tunes,” Levy says. “They had music parties at the house where everyone would gather around the piano and sing. I didn’t know that this was unusual, and was drawn to music like a moth to a flame.”

As a youth, Levy studied piano and music theory at The Manhattan School of Music and played the pipe organ in high school. “My parents took me to many classical concerts in New York,” he recalls, rattling off names of famous orchestras, operas and ballets. “I was very lucky to get an exposure to such high-level music.”

In his early teens, Levy’s mind turned to the popular music of the day. “I started getting interested in pop and rock music,” he says, “and then later, blues and jazz. I was an improviser and composer from age eight, so all of this came naturally.”

Jewish liturgical performances inspired Levy to the point that he began playing at services, and performing in multi-cultural concerts at synagogues in the Chicago area.

“[We combined] Jewish liturgy with Afro- Cuban music, Persian music, Blues and Jazz,” Levy explains.

Click photo to download. Caption: Howard Levy’s harmonicas and musical notation. Credit: Bob Kessler.

Though he retains strong ties to his roots, Levy has long been a musical explorer. Banjoist Bela Fleck shares that desire.

“Bela and I first met at the Winnepeg Folk Festival in 1987,” Levy recalls. “At a party after the last night, [a] friend…literally dragged me down the hallway of the hotel where we were all staying, insisting that Bela and I play together….We ended up jamming together for hours, which was really the start of The Flecktones.”

Along with Fleck and the dynamic duo of brothers Victor Lamonte and Roy (a.k.a., “Futureman”) Wooten, Levy went on the road as the Flecktones and quickly caught fire as a live and recording act.

“We played from 1988 through Dec of 1992,” Levy explains. “I recorded the first 3 Flecktones CDs, as well as appearing on…some compilations.”?

Levy eventually took a break from the Flecktones—but hardly rested during that sabbatical. He started his own internationally minded record label (Balkan Samba Records), opened an online school for budding blues harp players (www.howardharmonica.com), composed a full concerto for harmonica and orchestra, and recorded hundreds of CDs with the legendary likes of Dolly Parton, Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, John Prine, Paquito D’Rivera and Styx. He also recorded and toured with his own popular bands like Acoustic Express and Trio Globo.

Despite his globetrotting ways and overwhelming schedule, Levy never lost touch with the Flecktones.

“I played several concerts with them over the years as a special guest,” he says. “One at The Montreal Jazz Fest was so successful, that they asked me to tour with them for three weeks.”

After being back with the band felt right for Levy and The Flecktones, they agreed to go back in the studio together. The result was the long-awaited “Rocket Science,” which is quickly moving to the top of many music charts around the world and making Levy glad he came back.

“My harmonica and piano playing was part of the original sound of the band,” Levy says, observing that his harmonica and Fleck’s banjo “go together in a very congruent way. They are both ‘roots’ instruments, but the way that Bela and I play them takes them to places they have not gone before, and somehow they still sound good going there. This was true in 1990 and is still true now.”

Though he is better known for harmonica playing, Levy thinks that his piano work also adds a dimension to his own performance and to the Flecktone sound as well. “[It] brings back an overt Jazz element to the sound that was there on the first few CDs,” he suggests. “It fleshes out the harmonies and adds some extra punch to the rhythm as well.”

As every member of the Flecktones is what Levy calls “an explorer,” their contributions make for an eclectic mix of sounds in every song. It also brings Levy to a greater mix of audiences.

“Touring with the Flecktones is bringing me to many more people than I would normally perform for,” say the club-friendly solo and ensemble artist. And though he sometimes misses the intimacy of smaller shows (not to mention his music students and his family), Levy is grateful to be playing with his talented old friends.

“It’s very rewarding,” he says, “and very challenging.”

Posted on November 20, 2011 and filed under Arts.