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.

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