Howard Levy returns to the road with the Flecktones, brings home a Grammy

I’ve been watching the Flecktones since their debut many moons ago. As a regular viewer of Lonesome Pine Special on PBS, I’m still a big fan of that KET broadcast in particular. All these years later who would have imagined the Flecktones could sustain beyond the implied gimmickry one might have trapped them in from the beginning; a jazz banjo, harmonica, back-flipping bassist, and a walking drum machine guitar contraption with a man from another time? WHA?

There is no doubt they hit the right mix when you see the return to the original line up on the road today. The fire in their belly is as authentic as it was 20 years ago. The latest shows have fresh material from Rocket Science, the newest Flecktones CD on  eOne Records. Howard and Bela won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for the piece, “Life in Eleven” from the CD.

If there is anything I enjoy with live music, it is a fresh set without the cliche obligatory pieces and gimmicks. If I can predict it, they lost me before they started. It wouldn’t be a problem on this night, this set was fresh and alive. Though there were a few call backs to the older catalog, as there should be, the crew pulled off two solid sets of new material. Many of the older pieces had a new fresh spin much like a good standard. Standards shouldn’t die in the cassette case. A good standard lives and breathes with each performance and should take form on the spot.

I was especially pleased to have Howard come to Houston to perform in our House of Blues. It had been almost 20 years since the last time he had been here with the Flecktones.

David Wilcox first told me he left the Flecktones, I’d next hear it days later from a dear teacher and that he was working with many different artists including Glen Velez. I remember the first time the Trio arrived to play Rockefeller’s West. Previously, the hippest joint for touring jazz in town was Rockefeller’s; a converted bank that was once robbed by Bonnie and Clyde.

The first return for Bela and the Wootens without the harp master led me to ask, “Where’s Howard? How can you survive without a horn player?” Not long after, Jeff Coffin joined the band and I have nothing but compliments for Jeff’s contribution. The ensemble often featured outside players like Paul McCandless and a wide variety of string wizards. There have been Tuvan throat singers, North and South Indian drummers, and a wide range of musicians along the side. But it was as if this ensemble’s gravity had to draw back its original elements.

From those first days till the recent tour, I experienced the Flecktones as if part of a divorced family. One one side, a tall nice fella who plays real good harmonica (check it out). Then on the other side 3 guys I think highly of in their own right, whether it be the Roy’el or Tabula Rasa with Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, I kept up with them no different. Part of divorce involves getting used to it. Yet, this ensemble has gravity and a future.

Along the way, I asked the very vital question, “where is howard?”
(here’s the tee I wore to one of their shows, looks silly to me now, but hey, it was fun!)
He had gone on musical sojourn that has resulted in a very dense garland of melodies and rhythm like a Howardmala if you will.

Over the past 20 years, Howard has been as busy a bee as can be. Buzz.
Starting his own label, connecting with his voice and audience in more direct ways every year. He has released several titles on Balkan Samba including work with Chevere, Fox Fehling, Norman Savitt and solo works. But to size him up by the titles on Balkan Samba alone wouldn’t show the session work, concerts, workshops, and touring that seems to never stop. Check out his levylogs for some great stories on the road.

Additionally, we worked to put out a DVD, Out of the Box,  on some of his insight to modal playing with the C harp and how to conceptualize the instrument beyond its inherent bounds. This is the core of his technique but only the beginning. I’ve been stunned to see the very deep understanding he has for harmony and rhythm. His exposure to Indian music, Arabic Music, Balkan music, and a return to roots exploration of the Jewish traditional and religious music has taken this master’s voice to a level that I think few will achieve. In my estimation, he is peerless.

And yet there is a blend with the Flecktones that can’t be beat and now we can see that ensemble again. There are few who can play these compositions, much less compose them. It is one thing to hear it on a recording, another to catch them live in the act. Don’t miss a chance to see these guys in their unique camaraderie.

2012 Grammy-Best Instrumental Composition!


Life In Eleven
Béla Fleck & Howard Levy, composers (Béla Fleck & The Flecktones)
Track from: Rocket Science
[eOne Music]

Howard with The Flecktones

Perhaps the highlight of the concert came from harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy, whose furious playing on the harmonica pushed an instrument just about everybody has stowed away in their homes to limits most people are unaware that the harmonica can reach.

Smithtown Patch, Stony Brook, NY

Nov. 2011.

Howard Levy with The Flecktones

Levy is almost certainly the most talented person on Earth who can play piano and harmonica, even playing both simultaneously at some points in the show. While his intense mouth harp skills floated a unique timbre over many songs, his abilities at the piano were truly amazing – between cascading arpeggios and quicksilver trills, he evoked a musical character halfway between Jerry Lee Lewis and Franz Liszt.

The Daily Collegian, Northampton, MA

Nov. 2011

Howard plays Albany, NY with The Flecktones

Sunday marked the Albany return of prodigal harmonica master-pianist Howard Levy, a founding member of the band who left the fold in 1992 and returned only recently. His haunting spotlight number toward the end of the first set was magnificent, slowly morphing into a mournful variation on Woody Guthrie’s anthemic “This Land Is Your Land.” During his solo in “Blu-Bop,” he slid into a variety of musical quotations stretching from the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” to “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story.”

Abany Times Union, Albany,NY Nov, 2011

Octagonal Madness prompts cultural activism with music

Volume 68, Issue 28, Thursday, October 3, 2002
Arts & Entertainment

Octagonal Madness prompts cultural activism with music

By Chris Goodier
The Daily Cougar

Houston musicians have enough to complain about. Whether a lack of zoning, an apathetic listening public or the District Attorney shutting clubs down, support for any type of music scene weighs on the loyalty of a handful.

Getting genre-specific thins local devotees further. Familiar sounds draw more sympathetic ears, abandoning a filtered and unquenched lot of musical refugees.

Chris Sampson, who is working to nurture this malignancy into a self-reliant body, said, “I’ve seen things come and go. Great world music events and speakers of universal significance have been missed right near me that I never heard about in time. So in 1997, I called up Glen Velez to play a concert in my living room. All the culture is here, there just needs to be more communication.”

Recognition of this need spawned Octagonal Madness. Sampson’s brainchild invites names like bassist Michael Manring and percussionist Glen Velez abreast the political sentiments of Noam Chomsky and Robert Bly with the pull of an electromagnetic radio tower.

Sampson said he strives to do justice by sharing it with as many people as possible.

“(I want) to put a little history and context to the music. Pacifica is an educational group; it must edify people and not just entertain them. This is echoed by Octagonal Madness,” Sampson said.

OM’s fusion of enthusiasm with resourcefulness has provided Houston with a number of world-class events. Take the recent Glen Velez (frame drum), Howard Levy (harmonica, piano), Steve Gorn (clarinet, bansuri) show at the First Unity Unitarian Church for example. Last weekend’s concert corralled three consummate virtuosos in an improvisational trio for an hour and 45 minutes.

After nestling in their pews, world music pilgrims received the humble beginnings of an epic sermon. Gorn’s clarinet runs traded with those of Levy’s harmonica, painting a vaporous dawn that encouraged the uncoiling of serpents from their wicker trappings. Lurking in the nearby grass lay the patient aggressor; seemingly cool until a calculated “sizzle” rasped from Velez’s shoe laced maraca.

The blazoned attack became more furious with the torrent of activity Velez’s frame drum let loose. Here the pulpit spoke an embedded language of the last three thousand years, of the frame-drummed “tof” Miriam played after the Red Sea was vanquished.

Listeners in the sanctuary participated in a great exodus by the fourth piece. With Gorn’s mastery of the Bansuri’s weeping Hindustani scales amid an ethereal drone, patrons were taken by an East Indian raga to a state of cyclic repetition. The audible drone rose and fell with the gentle utterance of breath, while Velez effortlessly created a pattern from the seamless palpitations with his Irish Bodhran.

All this in time for Levy’s dual harmonica/piano work to plague the likes of Stevie Wonder with fits of inadequacy. Rounding out the set with Velez’s solo, “Tecolote” off his Rhythm Color Exotica album, polyrhythms stacked perpendicularly across the single membrane, fooling the congregation with a many-voiced bustle. Syllabic phrases chanting “Tee-Tee-Tah” devolved into audible hand drum feedback.

The message was clear following the musical communion; the existence of Octagonal Madness is committed to drawing quality global music to Houston. But the blessed had but to look around at their modest numbers and realize the mission work had only begun. Regardless of radio spots, flyers, word of mouth and noncompliant university drum instructors, only a privileged throng witnessed the message of revival.

“Supporting social and cultural invention, thatis OM’s motto,” Sampson said.

And the notion is wholly philanthropic, with the organizer footing the bill for venue rental and musician accommodations.

Pondering the idea of being called a “producer/director,” Sampson scoffs modestly.

“We’re non-profit and not for sale. I’m just trying to bring the music together.” Sampson said.

OM’s next promoted event will be a live Web cast of political dissident Noam Chomsky from UH, Oct. 18.