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.
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