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Harmonica great Howard Levy speaks softly in Acoustic Express

Howard Reich

10:42 AM CDT, August 2, 2013

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Chicago harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy tours the world with so many bands – among them Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and his own jazz, classical and world-music ventures – that he says he couldn't possibly pick a favorite.

But he surely holds particular affection for Acoustic Express, the unusual ensemble he'll front Friday and Saturday nights at the Green Mill Jazz Club. For unlike Levy's contributions to the hard-charging Latin band Chevere or his grandly scaled statements in his Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra, his work in Acoustic Express unfolds in uncommonly intimate terms. Joined by guitarists Chris Siebold and Pat Fleming, plus bassist Larry Kohut, Levy conceived Acoustic Express as an organization unlike the others.

"I wanted to put together a band where the harmonica balanced acoustically with the other instruments, which it usually doesn't," says Levy, one of the world's leading harmonica players and an artist equally compelling in jazz, classical and ethnic traditions.

"Ninety percent of the time, you need a whole lot of (amplification) help to compete against drums and electric guitars.

"The idea was that we could sit around in a room without amps, and I could feel happy about it. And I could dig back into my love of the Django (Reinhardt) and (Stephane) Grappelli stuff."

Levy refers to Reinhardt and Grappelli's classic Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which put European jazz on the map in the 1930s and has spawned generations of followers (including the Hot Club of Detroit, which played the Green Mill last week). The joyousness of that music attracts listeners to this day and indeed inspired Levy to launch Acoustic Express several years ago. But Levy's lineup – featuring harmonica, two guitars and bass – veers from the Hot Club prototype.

Moreover, while Acoustic Express embraces some of the Reinhardt-Grappelli repertoire, it also ventures into Eastern European music, original tunes, blues melodies and just about anything else that can make deep impact at hushed volume levels. On many occasions, Acoustic Express performs with no amplification at all, the music stated in its most natural form.

You can get a sense of this from "Time Capsules," Acoustic Express' sole album, but the band's essence emerges in the same kind of intimate club setting that launched Reinhardt and Grappelli. Because Levy works in so many different musical contexts and spends so much time on the road, any chance to hear Acoustic Express represents a valuable opportunity – for listeners and for Levy, himself.

"It's a very warm and soulful feeling to play with this band," says Levy. "There's a lot of rapport and a lot of soul. …

"And it has a range of material that is unique."

The "Time Capsules" album underscores the point, its repertoire spanning Jelly Roll Morton's "Sidewalk Blues" and Reinhardt's "Nuages" to Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" and Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay." But Levy and friends have expanded that song list through the years with original compositions, and the band redefines itself in concert, Levy stepping over to the keyboard (he happens to be a first-rate pianist), while various members of the band sing, as well.

All of which is but a slender portion of Levy's art, the musician now practicing piano assiduously, he says, in preparation for a solo-piano album, and he plans to write a piano concerto to complement his harmonica concerto.

In addition, he operates an online harmonica school that offers video lessons, interactive instruction and other forms of high-tech education to more than 250 students around the world. They access his online lessons, play along with his pre-recorded cuts and send him videos of their progress (all via his website levyland.com).

Only in this way could a performer in constant motion reach so many students, he says.

But doesn't Levy, who has developed extraordinarily complex techniques for coaxing the full chromatic scale from the diatonic harmonica, feel conflicted about giving away his hard-won secrets?

"I'm not giving it away – I'm getting paid," he quips.

"But I do have mixed feelings sometimes, of course. On the other hand, it's the natural progress of humanity, and I get a huge kick out of seeing some of the techniques I've developed become part of the harmonica mainstream. ...

"The people who originate things always sound a little different, but sometimes the people who stand on your shoulders can surpass you, and I feel real good about being a part of history."

In truth, his harmonica playing alone gave him a role in the instrument's history long ago.

Also worth hearing

Eric Schneider and Pat Mallinger: The 59th annual "August is Charlie Parker Month" festivities at the Jazz Showcase, where Parker reigns as supreme deity, launches with the rare pairing of two of Chicago's most formidable saxophonists: Schneider and Mallinger. Expect a high degree of competitive heat, as well as collegial affection between two masters. They'll be joined by three stalwart Chicago musicians: pianist Stu Katz, bassist Marlene Rosenberg and drummer Robert Shy. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

Rob Mazurek: The intrepid Chicago experimenter, who now commands a wide following, leads his Pulsar Quartet. When this band celebrated the release of its "Stellar Pulsations" album earlier this year at the Green Mill Jazz Club, listeners heard Mazurek's delicate lyricism on cornet set against a whirr of ensemble sound. The four musicians collaborate with instinctive empathy, Mazurek joined by pianist Angela Sanchez, bassist Matthew Lux and drummer John Herndon. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10; constellation-chicago.com

Paul Marinaro: A Chicago singer rapidly on the rise, Marinaro until a few weeks ago hadn't played the Green Mill Jazz Club in the entire decade he has been based here. Since the recent release of his breakthrough album, "Without a Song," he practically has become a regular at the Mill, this time filling in for Chris Foreman's early show on Friday (while Foreman tours the country with the Deep Blue Organ Trio, opening nationally for Steely Dan). 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; free; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Christopher McBride: An increasingly busy figure in Chicago jazz, alto saxophonist McBride has acquitted himself well in mainstream and more adventurous idioms, turning in some of his most striking work alongside trumpeter Marquis Hill, leading his own quartet and in his recording "Quatuor de Force." 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com

Chicago Jazz Orchestra: Jeff Lindberg's mighty ensemble holds down the early shows Monday nights at Andy's this summer, the room barely large enough to contain the CJO's energy. They'll be joined by vocalist Frieda Lee, a singer with enough voice to hold her own alongside all of this sound. 5:15 and 7 p.m. Monday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Howard Levy's Acoustic Express

When: 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway

Tickets: $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com