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Allegra Levy Puts Words to John McNeil’s Music

The vocalist writes lyrics to the trumpeter's instrumentals on her new album

Allegra Levy makes a statement. (Photo: Michael William Paul)
Allegra Levy makes a statement. (Photo: Michael William Paul)

When John McNeil, the esteemed trumpeter/composer, recorded his original tune “Lose My Number” in 2001, it had no lyrics. “It’s the opposite of a love song, a no-love-lost song,” McNeil said recently. “I had that concept, even though it was an instrumental. I never even thought about putting words to it.”

McNeil, 72, likens the composition to something by Ornette Coleman. As in some of Coleman’s music, “there’s this happy triad kind of thing going on,” even though the triads “don’t have normal relationships—they go up a whole step, down a major third, up a whole step,” zooming around the song’s structure like a pinball. “The song is negative, but it’s happy,” he said.

It’s also damn near unsingable.

That didn’t faze the jazz singer and songwriter Allegra Levy, who wrote lyrics to it and eight other McNeil instrumentals for her latest album, Lose My Number (SteepleChase). She not only masters the tune’s odd intervals and meters but also adds a degree of wit and cheek uncommon in the often self-serious jazz world. Levy’s lyrics have a mordantly funny, feminist slant: “You may think that I’m the one/But I can promise you that I’m no fun, no/Lose my number/Lose it!/Don’t you dare call me up on the phone.”

McNeil, a stalwart of the New York jazz scene, played with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Horace Silver Quintet, and Gerry Mulligan before establishing his own bands. His post-bop aesthetic is one part cool jazz, one part free jazz; his strong melodies are dependably matched to unusual, occasionally outré harmonies and rhythmic curveballs. JazzTimes contributor David R. Adler once called his compositions “enormously sophisticated and a bit warped.”

“John’s songs always tell a story,” Levy, 30, said via FaceTime from her Manhattan apartment. “They’re still modern and challenging,” she added, even though many of them were written in the late ’70s and ’80s. “He takes complex ideas from theory and turns them into astute melodies.” McNeil was a mentor to Levy at the New England Conservatory and produced her first two albums, Lonely City and Cities Between Us.

Levy comes from a family of writers; her three previous albums, praised by critics, have mostly featured her own songs. Her own music embraces swing and American songbook tradition, with lyrics that are wry, occasionally caustic, yet often wistfully romantic. She recently won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for her pandemic-era children’s song, “Wash My Hands.”

McNeil and Levy collaborated closely on Lose My Number. First Levy asked McNeil to suggest songs of his that might lend themselves to lyrics. “Writing lyrics after the music has been written is a different skill set with its own challenges,” she said. “You have to know the music really well. We went over everything together, but the truth is the songs became new entities on this project.

“For example, if you listen to his 2001 song ‘Strictly Ballroom,’ it’s very different. We made a playful feminist diatribe out of it. (The witty lyric, about a Lothario on the dance floor, includes the memorable line, “Don’t you dare/You’re no Fred Astaire.”) He let me run with it. He was very supportive of my ideas and gave me space to work. At other times he told me go back and try again, it wasn’t hitting the mark, and he was right every time.”

Levy performs the songs with an all-female band of seasoned pros: pianist Carmen Staaf, who has appeared on all of Levy’s previous albums; bassist Carmen Rothwell; and drummer Colleen Clark. McNeil is featured on trumpet on three songs.

Staaf, who also studied with McNeil at NEC, is currently music director for Dee Dee Bridgewater, among other projects. She relished working on the project. “Some of John’s pieces remind me of Wayne Shorter,” she said by video chat, “short, compact pieces, but they take you on a story melodically and harmonically. There’s so much music packed into a compressed form.”

The pianist praises Levy’s leadership. “Allegra has a clear concept—there’s no wondering should we do this or that; it’s always like, okay, here’s the plan. She’s self-possessed, even though she’s also humble. She knows herself well. That’s a great quality in a bandleader. And she hired a band who are fun to hang out with. And they happen to be women.”

Levy, who co-leads the New York-based Women in Jazz Organization (WIJO), made a conscious decision to hire an all-female band for the album. “I just felt that this music needed to be played by young women, specifically. I wanted to make a statement with this record. Anybody could play these tunes, but I feel like these women really understood what I was trying to say, and we just had fun. These women came to play—it’s very apparent.”

McNeil couldn’t be more pleased with the result. “Allegra was the first person to ask to record a whole album of my tunes. I was really happy, because I like her lyrics. She combines compositional skills with the lyrical skills. I think she’s great, man.”

Allen Morrison

Allen Morrison is a music journalist, musician, jazz critic, lecturer, and a regular contributor to JazzTimes and 
DownBeat. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Jazziz, American Songwriter, and Departures. He lectures frequently on jazz history aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Allen worked as a music publicist and a pianist. He is working on a book on how musicians and non-musicians hear music. He maintains a blog at AllenMorrison.com.