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Lou Levy: Lunarcy

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Lou Levy is not the only major jazz performer shunned by US record companies, but few musicians of his prominence and importance have less music on domestic labels. While developing players of half Levy’s age and artistry have contracts, Columbia, Capitol, RCA and Warner Bros., not to mention companies that specialize in jazz, ignore this profound pianist whose work has continually deepened. So, the youth marketing phenomenon continues rampant, white guys over 50 are out, and life isn’t fair. What else is new in the music business?

Fortunately for those willing to search them out and pay the price for quality imports, these four CDs from France provide a broad picture of Levy’s talent. All were recorded in the first half of the 1990s. Lunarcy and Ya Know are quartet albums of dramatically different textures. Lunarcy has a routine configuration, rhythm section plus tenor saxophone. Its music is anything but routine. Levy, saxophonist Pete Christlieb, bassist Eric Von Essen and drummer Ralph Penland play music of extraordinary harmonic textures. The title tune grew out of “How High The Moon.” The benevolent spirit of the old bop anthem hovers over the performance, but Levy’s quirky melody line and crafty changes make this an altogether new experience. In “Pathetique” he adapts snatches of Tchaikovsky and Harold Arlen and transmutes them into a piece as intricate as “Giant Steps.” Levy works his conceptual magic on seven other tunes including the masterpieces “Zoot” by Johnny Mandel and “Ah Moore” by Al Cohn. The integration of the quartet is absolute. Christlieb, full of power and pizazz, matches Levy’s inventiveness as an improviser.

In Ya Know, Levy’s quintet includes drummer Alvin Queen, bassist Von Essen-who also plays cello on two pieces-and a second bassist, Pierre Michelot. Rather than bottom-heaviness, the music has space and airiness. It floats because of Levy’s touch, the functional separation of the basses and the virtual weightlessness of Queen’s drumming. At the same time, it has specific jazz gravity that is centered in an exquisite collective time sense and sophisticated harmonic concepts. Delicacy and strength exist in the same plane, in the way that they do in the best small band works of Count Basie and John Lewis and in the Gary McFarland chamber pieces with Bill Evans. Levy’s intriguing, vastly altered, “How High The Moon” changes reappear in a piece called “Lunartique.” The standards include “Dancing In The Dark” and “No More.” Levy’s compadre Al Cohn is represented again, by “T’ain’t No Use,” Charlie Parker by “The Hymn” and classical composer Joe Emley by “Ya Know,” which has an unusual modulated melody line and challenging harmonies. Levy’s playing on “The Hymn” and his waltz “Davana” would be enough to establish him as one of the great modern jazz blues improvisers.

By Myself is Levy’s only collection of unaccompanied piano since Solo Scene (RCA) in 1956. Despite, or because of, his being alone, it is the most complex of these albums. This is Levy reflecting, ruminating, applying his capacity for melodic invention and his store of harmonic wisdom. He takes none of the 12 pieces faster than a medium tempo. No matter how slow, none is without a core of bone-deep rhythm, expressed or implied. His interpretations luxuriate in modulations, key changes and chromaticisms that invite repeated hearings. Levy excels at avoiding the obvious notes in a chord to choose the best, and often most unconventional, ones. Among the many examples here are the gorgeous sets of voicings in his out-of-tempo final eight bars of “Easter Parade” and in his long introduction to a single chorus of “Embraceable You.” “How High The Moon” appears with its own name and tune, but sly changes and permutations of the melody. For Levy not to have been a part of Concord’s Maybeck solo piano series is absurd.

The Pinky Winters album is a product of the long personal and musical partnership between Levy and one of the best-kept singing secrets in modern music. Ms. Winters unlocks the magic and meaning in good songs by performing them in tune with perfect phrasing and breath control and an understanding of how words relate to notes. As Red Mitchell pointed out, simple isn’t easy, but in this collection Pinky Winters makes it sound as if it is. The album includes some of the best work of Jobim, Dennis, Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Burke and Van Heusen and Arlen, among others. Lou Levy’s contributions to the success of this splendid work are his accompaniments-which seem to breathe with the singer-his modest but tailored arrangements, and his solos. He has been accompanist to Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Mary Ann McCall, but I can’t recall his working more sensitively with any of them than he does here with Ms. Winters. Pete Christlieb has solos and obligatos in which he often reaches passion and inventiveness reminiscent of Al Cohn. Joe LaBarbera’s drumming is quiet, firm and impeccable. Eric Von Essen’s bass work emphasizes what a loss it was when he died so unexpectedly last summer.

Levy played a supporting role in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s recent Dear Ella tribute CD on Verve. That speaks well of Verve’s and Ms. Bridgewater’s good judgment. The logical next step is for the label to distribute these four superb albums in the United States, then to record Levy, often.