2014 Retrospective

2014

Another year “in the books”, as they say. It’s funny, but sometimes I really don’t make a sharp delineation as to when one year ends and the next begins, or even what day of the week it is. I stopped caring about that when I was 19, when I left college and set a course into the relatively unknown and unstructured world of just being myself. For about 5 years I played a lot of music, gave lessons on piano and harmonica, and had part time day jobs that included making waterbed frames, furniture moving, plumbing, house painting, welding, even a brief shot at instrument making. Then I realized that all I wanted to do was be a musician. I stopped the day jobs and committed my life totally to music, and the distinction between weekends and weekdays really lost its significance.

The work schedule of a musician is totally different from that of most people. It can even be totally opposite- we tend to work mostly at night and especially on weekends. It is even hard to find calendars and schedule books with weekend days that are the same size as weekdays…

We tend to sleep late (which can be tough if you have kids), go to sleep MUCH later (especially after playing till 2 or 3am). Some of us have teaching jobs, some of us live largely on the road, traveling by bus, car, or plane, living out of suitcases in hotels. I’ve done all of these things- teaching, touring, playing locally, recording, and even more, and can’t imagine a life without the incredible variety of experiences that the pursuit of music has brought me. So here is some of what last year was like…

January started with a trip to the Canary Islands, where Fox was playing with the Chicago Symphony. I also visited my parents in Florida and my sister and family in Atlanta on this trip. The Canaries were very different, the orchestra sounded fantastic, and I saw places that I never otherwise would have seen. It was also great to be around so many great musicians out of their usual downtown Chicago setting.

After that, I flew to California where Chris Siebold and I played at the NAMM Show for Hohner. This was a fantastic experience. We were treated really well by Hohner head honcho Clay Edwards and everyone else. We also got to see and hear so many great players (my favorite thing was hearing Giovanni Hidalgo and Paul Rekow play an incredible duet on congas at the LP booth). And as an extra bonus, my friends Ruben Alvarez and Kalyan Pathak sat in with us on percussion, and CJ Vanston hand- carried a great Casio keyboard for me to play. After that, we flew north and played shows in Santa Cruz and Napa, where we also got to record a bunch of lessons at Artist Works Studios for my online harmonica school. It was great to see David and Patricia Butler and the whole crew in Napa.

February was a slow month. I thought I would do a lot of composing, but it was hard to compose with the horribly cold and snowy weather. I have to confess that I got depressed and couldn’t come up with many ideas that I liked…I spent a lot of time shoveling and shivering, although I did practice a lot. Finally, I played a wonderful concert with Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. He wrote a great arrangement of “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” featuring me on harmonica, and I also played on a bunch of other very cool New Orleans – flavored material.

March got me back in the swing of things. A very cool gig playing with the U. of Puget Sound big band in Tacoma, WA, a solo concert in Everett,WA organized by my harmonica pal Jim McLaughlin, a weekend with Chévere at Chicago’s Green Mill, another concert with Orbert Davis’ and the CJP, and a harmonica workshop on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with some very fine players from all over the US and Canada.

April was even more diverse. Richard Van Kleeck, director of concerts at Northwestern U in my home town of Evanston, IL, revived the Harmonica Convergence concert. It was a great one, with Pablo Fagundes (Brazil), The Windy City Trio, Corky Siegel, and myself. We played in about every possible style to a large, enthusiastic audience. A week later I was part of a big Beatles’ Tribute at the same hall, with my friend Chris Siebold putting together a great band, and featuring guest artists like Anthony Molinaro. I played with him, with Chris and the band, and the sold-out crowd loved it. Van Kleeck is a concert promoter with vision and imagination, and it is a shame that he decided to retire after putting Pick Staiger on the map with his wonderful programming.

In between those concerts, I played 2 concerts in Virginia with my old friend Paul Reisler (Trapezoid), and also played a concert in Williamsburg, VA with the College of William and Mary Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, led by Anne Rasmussen. She plays the kanun and has extensive knowledge of just about every type of music from the Middle East. This was a great experience, and probably the first time anyone had ever performed all of this music on a diatonic harmonica. Next, I played a show with Deacon Blues, a Chicago area Steely Dan Tribute Band. They featured me on the 2 tunes I recorded on Donald Fagen’s “Morph the Cat” CD, as well as other Steely Dan material. I love this music.

At the end of the month, I traveled to New York to accept a distinguished alumni award from “my old school”, Poly Prep in Brooklyn, which I attended from 7th grade through high school. I had only been back there 2 or 3 times for brief visits since 1969 and I’ve stayed in touch with just a few friends from back then. I received the honor along with a female judge, the first woman honoree, which was a good thing to see, as it was an all boys school until 1975. The place has changed in many good ways. I was glad that I went and accepted the award. It was an honor and it felt great to receive it and see old friends and classmates. My son and his girlfriend came to lend me moral support for my largely improvised acceptance speech and playing of the school fight song on harmonica. The melody and its archaic lyrics are embedded in my brain cells…

May was a month of a lot of travel. I played several solo concerts, a show with Michael Riessler and Jean-Louis Matinier, and 6 duo concerts with Chris Siebold in The Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany. I got to see many good friends, including Klaus Stetter, former managing director of the Hohner factory in Trossingen, Dr. Christian Niederwieser, Hohner’s former head of Artist Relations, my dear friend Michael Timler (former Hohner product manager and a legend in the harmonica world), as well as Richard Weiss from Hohner, and many other friends, including singer Satya Gummuluri, who I played with on bassist Matt Geraghty’s “Passport” CD, and who now lives in Ulm, Germany. It is always great to play in Europe and I owe much thanks to Raimund Kast for setting up this tour. Later in the month I traveled to NY and played 2 concerts with my old friend John Guth and his trio- Don Falzone, bass and Rich Stein, percussion. John is a guitarist and singer who writes unique vocal and instrumental music that combines Jazz, Folk, Rock and more. We have recorded a CD of his tunes which I will soon release on my label- stay tuned! During all of this I also keep up with my online harmonica school and do recording sessions for vocal and instrumental artists from all over the world- mostly overdubbing harmonica at my home studio with Joel Fox engineering.

June was the month when I started to work really seriously on completing a commissioned piece, an oboe sonata for Robert Morgan from the Rembrandt Chamber Players, accompanied by Jeannie Yu on piano. This is the first instrumental commission that I have written for someone else to play. It was challenging. I spent a lot of time in late May, all through June, and into July, composing this music and finally working with Ben Lewis, who entered into Finale for me. If not for him, my semi- legible notation would have been unplayable…Also in June, Trio Globo played an unforgettable weekend at The Green Mill- our first weekend at a 3-set/per night Jazz club. We had to resurrect some older material, which worked out really well. It can get pretty noisy in there sometimes, but you could have heard a pin drop during all of our sets over 2 nights. After that, Chévere played an outdoor festival in Franklin Park, IL booked by our old friend Murray Weiner. It was an unlikely location between noisy freight railroad tracks and a carnival, but the sound was great and the fantastic audience applauded every solo as if they were in a concert hall. Then I played 3 concerts with Corky Siegel in Illinois and Wisconsin. It was a great experience, except for the fact that I got a very bad case of bronchitis and had to take some pretty strong medicine as we were doing this. We have a blast playing together and he made me sing a tune- I picked the old Blues “Corinna, Corinna”. Nobody threw tomatoes at me, so I guess ONE vocal from me was just the right amount, especially with Corky playing the greatest piano accompaniment imaginable.

July started with A Prairie Home Companion’s 40th Anniversary Weekend July 2- 5th. This was a marathon- 2 full concerts and several smaller ones, lots of rehearsing. It was unforgettable and wonderful- such an amazing collection of great musicians and singers. One of the highlights was going to a Twins game with Garrison and Joe Newberry after 2 days of intense rehearsals. Garrison just needed a break and asked us if we wanted to go with him. He had a box behind home plate. During the 7th inning, he felt that his head was cleared, and he said, “C’mon, it’s time to leave”.

After that, back home, much frenzied work to finish the oboe sonata. I played an outdoor concert in MI with Chris Siebold, a church service in Hyde Park with Ben Lewis and Larry Gray, a concert with Chris at The SPACE in Evanston, and a concert at Orbert Davis’ Summer Music Camp. I thrive on this kind of variety when it is high quality.

August– I finally finished the sonata in late July and was able to take a deep breath. I went to several Chicago Symphony concerts at Ravinia, gave a bunch of lessons, etc. After a few smaller Chicago gigs, Fox and I flew to Florida to visit my parents. A few days after our return, I flew to Berlin to perform solo and with a Renaissance music group that improvised, and also included my old friend, the great French tuba and serpent virtuoso Michel Godard. This was at a wonderful venue called Radialsystem V, a former water pumping station. It was a supercool experience, made even better because Air Berlin flies there direct from Chicago.

September– I started preparations for playing for Jewish High Holiday services for Aitz Hayim. This involves extensive meetings, rehearsals and research with Cantor David Landau and Rabbie Julie Pelc Adler. I have done this for many years and my son Miles plays drums and percussion. It’s a challenging and spiritually rewarding experience- more on this later. Next, I played a big concert for the Jewish Council for the Elderly at a Chicago hotel. This came about through my connections with Aitz Hayim. I put together an all-star band that included Chris Siebold, Ernie Adams, Larry Kohut, Victor Garcia, Dee Alexander, and from Chévere, Steve Eisen, Joe Rendon, and Ruben Alvarez. The evening was a great success, thanks largely to Chris’ help arranging and making legible Finale charts! After this, I played a unique concert with Alberto Mizrahi for the Hellenic-Israel Alliance at Chicago’s Francis Parker School. My years of playing in a Greek wedding band came in handy. For part of my solo feature, I played one of the better- known Greek folksongs, and many people started to sing and clap along (in 7/8!)

Then I traveled to St. Paul to play another Prairie Home Companion Show- every one of these is special. This one also featured a street dance after the radio show with unforgettable events like a Bob Dylan sound – alike competition, a Loon- Calling competition, etc. It’s hard to play harmonica while you are laughing hard…Then the three Rosh Hashona Services at the Northbrook JCC, followed by an appearance with Orbert Davis on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight”. And finally- the Chicago premier of my oboe sonata at Nichols Auditorium and The Driehaus Museum. It was a thrill to finally hear my piece performed. I also played Bartok’s Rumanian Dances at both concerts on harmonica with a string quintet. I take repeats and improvise on some of the sections.

October– Miles and I played the 2 Yom Kippur Services for Aitz Hayim. These are really intense experiences, impossible to describe and very different from what you would find at traditional Jewish congregations. There is a lot of communal singing and dancing, some of my original music, music of John Coltrane, Leonard Cohen, et al, as well as all the traditional Jewish tunes. Guest rabbi Burt Visotzky was incredibly enlightening and to the point. After that, I played a concert at Cleveland’s Severance Hall with Jamie Haddad, Julien Labro, and The Hot Club of Detroit. This was a blast. The next day flew back and performed excerpts of Bach sonatas and organ pieces for Bach Week in Evanston’s 40th Anniversary Benefit Concert. Then, a drive to Lexington, KY to perform solo and with the U. of KY Faculty Jazz Quartet at Natasha’s Bistro. Miles Osland and Raleigh Daley have a great thing going down there. Next, a concert with Trio Globo at Western Michigan U. in Kalamazoo, MI, followed immediately by a tour of Europe. I played 5 concerts with Riessler/Levy/Matinier in Germany and Austria, and one with pianist Dominic Cuzzato in Treviso, Italy. In between Passau and Treviso, I spent 2 days in Vienna with Fox, who was on a Chicago Symphony European Tour. I got to hear the orchestra play at the magnificent Musikverein concert hall. Their encore of the overture from Verdi’s “Nabucco” under Maestro Muti was something indescribable and electrifying. The place went crazy- and so did I.

November…. A concert at DePauw U. in Greencastle, IN with Trio Globo and vocalist Loire. Then a big concert with Orbert Davis at The Auditorium Theater, one with Deacon Blues at Fitzgerald’s, a benefit concert for EISMA (they bring great music to Evanston schools) with Jazz violinist Diane Delin, and finally a wonderful concert in Indianapolis with Trio Globo, Loire, and percussionists Yousef Sharonick and Shane Shanahan. It was a very special occasion- The Percussive Arts Society inducted Glen Velez into their Hall of Fame. We all felt inspired and the music seemed to play itself as everyone honored Glen’s achievements and prowess.

December– Two more concerts with Corky- this time I wasn’t sick, and I sang my “Christmas Blues”. Also, the annual Harry Shearer/Judith Owen Holiday Concert at SPACE. This is an unforgettable, hilarious, poignant, indescribable show with a ridiculous amount of talent onstage- Jim Peterik, Nick Tremulis, CJ Vanston, Kathy Richardson, etc, etc. It was an insanely good time. I put together a solo harmonica medley of Christmas tunes for this that was very well received. The next night I played a Hanukah service/concert with Alberto Mizrahi and a fine band at Anshe Emet Synagogue. For this, I played a solo harmonica medley of Hanukah melodies. Drummer Mo Jennings joined me at just the right moment when I played Maot’zur and Mi Yemalel with a Bo Diddley groove….

But the most special event took place earlier in the month when I played a concert with Alberto at a temple in Boca Raton. I played a bunch of Sephardic music and Jazzy Hanukah tunes with him, an oud player and conga player, and one very soulful tune with the cantor who organized the event, Ben Tisser. There was a great PA, a perfect Steinway B piano, many guest vocal artists, and an audience of about 1200. Alberto said some very kind words about me before I played a solo harmonica version of excerpts from my Harmonica Concerto. I got a great response. But the highlight of the night came just after this, when I introduced my father, Ira Levy, to sing a song as a surprise guest. Although we had planned it, he wasn’t listed on the program, and there was a gasp from the audience when I mentioned that he was 91. He walked slowly up the steps to the stage and took his place near a microphone. I didn’t say what tune he would sing. I played the introduction and he started to sing. My father has a beautiful bass baritone voice that flows out of him with effortless power. After about 10 seconds of “Some Enchanted Evening”, the audience began to cheer the way a crowd at a baseball game cheers when someone hits a home run… They quieted down till he finished, then gave him a roaring standing ovation. I was stunned. He was stupefied. It was hard to go on with the show- it was truly a show- stopper.

The background story to this is very long, but part of it is that my mother (88) fell and broke her femur, had surgery, was in a hospital and a rehab center for almost 3 weeks and came home the day before this concert. My dad was exhausted and under a terrible strain from this. Somehow, he was able to sit in the audience for 2 hours and get up and sing with no warmup…it was incredible and I think we will play some more concerts together in Florida in 2015. And my mother is doing much better, and will soon be able to walk without a walker. Fox and I will fly down there and visit them in January.

New Year’s Eve, I play First Night Evanston with Chévere at The First Presbyterian Church. This is a great big party with many acts and venues that I played last year with Acoustic Express. Come if you can. I wish all of you Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year, and hope that this next year brings the world more sanity and sees people behave in more humane ways to their fellow humans.
Love to all,
Howard

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