May 2010

Albums

When the harmonica is heard in jazz, it is most often the 12-tone chromatic harmonica, not the diatonic “blues harp,” which is associated more with Bob Dylan and Chicago blues. Howard Levy, however, has almost single-handedly developed the full jazz potential of the diatonic harmonica. His harp can be heard with the original version of Béla Fleck’s Flecktones and with Paquito D’Rivera and Kurt Elling, as well as on a host of pop recordings by artists as varied as Steely Dan and Dolly Parton.

But this, happily, is by no means only an album of diatonic jazz harmonica; it is instead a marvelous piano-trio album featuring Levy’s harmonica. And the pianist is none other than Levy, who overdubs his harmonica on all but one of the seven trio/quartet tracks. The only two tracks that aren’t Levy compositions are on-the-spot improvisations by the trio, sans piano, with harmonica, Larry Gray’s acoustic bass and Ernie Adams’ drums: “Flunky Jazz” gives us Levy’s bluesiest, train-whistle folk/blues harp style over a rolling brushes rhythm; “Triosity” features a long rubato prelude segueing into bop riffs and ending in a strolling swing finale.

For the most part, Levy avoids obvious blues-harp gestures, playing more like a jazz saxophonist than a bluesman and leaning toward bop strategies even on “Howard’s F-sharp Blues.” Although he cites McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock as influences, Levy the pianist has a sunnier, more ebullient style than either, enlivened by an unfailing upward momentum, even on the relatively slow ballad “Floating.” The trio interplay is first-rate throughout, as are the arrangements—the best being last: the eight-minute-plus mini-suite from which the album is titled. The track’s trajectory is simply captivating.

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