Tony Levin: The Stick Man Switches Gears

TONY LEVIN’S CAREER HAS BEEN A REMARKABLE, four-and-a-half-decade journey to discovering exactly the music he wants to play.
By Chris Jisi ,

TONY LEVIN’S CAREER HAS BEEN A REMARKABLE, four-and-a-half-decade journey to discovering exactly the music he wants to play. It just so happens that along the way he has established himself as one of the cornerstone bass sideman in contemporary music history, locking down landmark recordings in the jazz, rock, folk, and pop realms. Since discovering that rock—especially progressive rock—is the music that most speaks to him, Levin has enjoyed one of the most enviable existences, sideman or solo-wise, in bassdom. He takes on only the projects, sessions, and tours he wants to do, while growing musically and technically as an artist from his choices. His latest endeavor is a bit of a twist, and quite the eye-opener: Levin Brothers is an intimate, vibey ode to the cool jazz Tony and his older brother, keyboardist Pete, grew up on. Joined by such savvy vets as drummers Steve Gadd and Jeff Siegel, guitarist David Spinozza, and saxophonist Erik Lawrence, the pair penned 15 über-melodic, bop-tized heads to swing their way through, respectfully capturing the era’s elegance and ease. The true star of the show is Levin’s lead and solo work on his plucked and bowed NS Cello— a revelation even when considering the diversity of his output on bass guitars, Chapman Stick, and NS Upright (the latter of which he also mans on the CD).

Born in Boston on June 6, 1946, and raised in the suburb of Brookline, Tony began playing upright bass at age ten, studying classical music. He laughs, “According to my parents, I just liked hearing bass and had no other reason for selecting it. I seem to have made the choice from an inner part of me, not intellectually. Lucky for me, as I still enjoy playing a good, low bass part.” Picking up tuba in high school, and also starting a barbershop quartet, Tony stayed the course on bass, attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. There he met Steve Gadd and began the transition to pop music, via an Ampeg Baby Bass and B-15 amp, and then a Fender Precision upon moving to New York City in 1970. Cracking the session scene soon after, he recorded with everyone from Buddy Rich to Carly Simon. Producer Bob Ezrin began recommending him for rock sessions with artists like Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel (where he met Robert Fripp). While maintaining his session and jazz sides via pivotal platters with John Lennon, Paul Simon, Herbie Mann, Chuck Mangione, L’Image, and others, Levin’s preference for prog rock led to his taking up the Chapman Stick, joining King Crimson, and becoming a permanent touring member of Gabriel’s band.

By the late ’80s, Levin’s legacy had grown to include Pink Floyd, Yes, and Gabriel’s seminal album So, for which Tony famously used diapers packed for his newborn daughter to mute the strings on “Don’t Give Up,” and developed “funk fingers”—drumsticks attached to his fingers—to duplicate Jerry Marotta’s drumming on his strings for “Big Time.” The ’90s saw the release of Levin’s first solo effort, World Diary; his photo books and weblog; and assorted collaborations, with names like ProjeKct Four, Liquid Tension Experiment, Bozzio–Levin–Stevens, California Guitar Trio, Stick Men, and Upper Extremities. Over the past decade, Tony has continued his partnership projects while slipping into the studio for select dates with longtime clients, including the most recent outings by David Bowie, Paula Cole, and Judy Collins. His band of brothers is a special stop in his super-active agenda, and it’s where we began our visit.

What was the concept for the Levin Brothers album?

I got an NS Cello about three years ago, and as I practiced, it came to me that Pete and I could write music in the style of the two “cool jazz” musicians we loved growing up: French horn player Julius Watkins—because Pete started on that instrument—and Oscar Pettiford on bass and cello. They played on each others’ records and wrote these wonderful, short, melodic pieces with everyone taking brief solos. The idea was for Pete to play organ or piano bass while I soloed on cello, and I’d switch to bass when he soloed. The delay came because I couldn’t play cello well enough! I went almost a year in the standard cello tuning of 5ths before admitting I’m not a cellist and changed the tuning to 4ths—the way I’ve been playing bass since the earth cooled. I had experimented with a 5-string cello that NS makes, which got me down in the bass range, but I ended up being the most comfortable on four strings. The other challenge was intonation, given the smaller-scale fingerboard; however, with the authentic pizzicato and bowed sound the NS gets, I found my pitch mistakes didn’t sound too bad. Finally, early this year, I realized I would never feel “ready,” so I took a deep breath and jumped in.

Your show a strong command of melodic phrasing and soloing on cello. What was your approach?

For this album and group, Oscar Pettiford’s playing is my guide. His solos always seemed to me to be melodies equal to the head of the chart, and they were succinct—play your best ideas and move over for the next guy. That style of jazz had its time in the ’50s, but it really stuck with me as a sweet way to present your instrument without getting self-indulgent and trying to show everything you can do. Technically, I guess I hear a line in my head and try to play it, but maybe, knowing my technique is pretty limited on the cello, I hold to more melodic lines.

Levin onstage with Peter GabrielYour bow work on cello is nicely featured on “Jumpin’ Jammies,” “When Sasha Gets the Blues,” “Special Delivery,” and “Havana,” where you sing with your bass solo.

Because bowing was my first training, it’s easy in some ways, and hard in others. The electric cello and bass don’t resonate, so I need to hold the bowed notes longer than I’d normally phrase. Harder still, on the up-tempo pieces, is the swing feel of eighth-notes with a bow. I’m no Stéphane Grappelli, and I keep running out of bow! “Jumpin’ Jammies” took more practice hours than anything else I’ve done on the cello. What I liked about the way the track came out, with Erik Lawrence on tenor, is that it sounds more like two saxes in octaves than like sax and cello. So my phrasing must have been okay, and the practice paid off. “Havana” is indeed played on bass; it’s my tip of the hat to Slam Stewart.

What was your concept for “I Got Your Bach”?

I got the idea to do an eighth-note accompaniment line to Pete’s organ melody that happens to come from the opening of the Bach Cello Suites, thus the title. Then, when the organ cuts loose, instead of bringing a bass in, I kept the groove going on cello. It’s perhaps not as low as it should be, nor with the growl you’d like, but it seemed kind of cute to do it that way.

You get a different, almost fretless bass tone on your cello for your cover of King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai.”

That’s the “Polar” bridge-mounted piezo pickup system Ned Steinberger developed for his NS instruments, which can be switched to sense lateral or vertical string vibration, or both. Vertical mode has an increased sustain that indeed provides more of a fretless bass sound. Lateral mode is great for bowing. I wanted to do one King Crimson song because, let’s face it, I’m better known to Crimson fans than to jazz fans. It’s a beautiful song that stands up well as an instrumental. There’s also an echo-on-the-melody track timed to the tempo that I mostly muted, leaving it there in the few spots it worked best.

Turning to bass guitar, what led you to first pick up the instrument, and who were your key influences?

In the late ’60s I had switched to Ampeg Baby Bass and a B-15 amp, to be better heard on gigs in Rochester. [Jazz vocal duo] Jackie & Roy came through town, and their bassist, Andy Muson, was playing a Fender Precision. I asked him where to get one, and he directed me to “find a used one at Dan Armstrong’s shop in New York City for about $180.” I did exactly that, and it became my main axe for years until my friend, the late Joel DiBartolo, recommended and sent me my first Music Man, and I’ve been happy ever since on the StingRay. Influence-wise, it all goes back to hearing Oscar Pettiford. I think unconsciously I’ve tried to do in rock what Oscar was doing so effortlessly on his jazz records: playing the choice notes in the right place, adding melodic elements when they work, and having the bass make the overall piece become better music. On the rock side, it was Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, and Tim Bogert.

Let’s talk about the Chapman Stick. Is your concept that it’s an extended-range bass, or a guitar-like instrument?

When I got my first Stick, in the mid ’70s, I just played the bass side of it, wanting to progress slowly. It was in joining King Crimson that I added some simple guitar side playing to my bass lines. Eventually, I started using the instrument as a writing tool, and my Stick Man album [Lazy Bones Recordings, 2007], and subsequent forming of Stick Men, marked my move to seriously playing the guitar side. While I play bass lines on the Stick, I don’t really compare it to a bass; it’s quite different in sound and in what it can handle. For example, you can hammer low-D eighth-notes really fast and they speak very clearly, in a way that no bass would, even with a pick. And huge jumps in range are easy on the Stick—hence the parts I made up for King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk.” I think of the guitar side, especially in Stick Men, as a separate instrument—using it for melodies and sometimes chords. Although, when I want a heavy rock or metal line, I’ll double it, in octaves with the two sides of the instrument—much like a down-tuned guitar and bass would do in a metal band.

Have there been any key developments in your Stick playing?

I’ve found it handy to tune the low guitar string the same as the low bass string—on the Stick they’re adjacent. Then, by barring across the two strings, I can be facile with moving lines; and with a heavy amp crunch on the top side, it makes for a powerful line from one player. I’m always listening to other Stick players for more techniques, as so many have found their own style on it. I’d say the non-standard technique I used most in the past year is something I picked up from my former Stick Men-mate Michael Bernier: When playing melody lines on the guitar side and wanting a wide vibrato, you hold a note with your right hand while pulling that string with your left. That gives a much fatter vibrato than doing it with one hand.

Last year’s Levin–Minnemann–Rudess album is a great example of your entire “bass” arsenal at work. How did you put the material together?

Some of it started with demos I did on my own for the other guys. Much of it was generated by Marco [Minnemann, drummer], in his home studio. But the crucial factor was how Jordan [Rudess, keyboards] brought it all together, adding bits, making the original idea become a better piece of music. So it was the opposite of jam-based material—although we did a little jamming for the DVD. It was compositions, passed back and forth to our home studios. You never know how a “collaboration” album is going to gel. With special players you’re going to have really good playing, but to me the composition is more important than the playing, and it’s not easy to have that come together in a limited time frame. That said, I really liked the way the album came out.

Is there a set way you choose which “bass” instrument to play, or is it more an on-the-spot, gut decision?

For me, it’s all contingent on the piece of music I’m asked to play bass on. That determines everything, so, yes, it’s a gut decision. I listen and become sort of a fan of that piece of music, and I just try to get an inner sense of what, on the low end, would improve it. Maybe doubling something that’s there in the piano, guitar, or vocal; maybe something rhythmic, or pumping, or melodic, or angular, or fat; something thick and low or light and high. Maybe something that draws attention to itself; maybe something in a different time signature; maybe something wild that’s never been done before. Or—and most often this is the case—something simple! The point is, whatever licks I’ve been practicing, and whichever bass is sounding great to me, I won’t try to impose that on the music in question. It’s all about the music, not about me.

More recently, with Peter Gabriel, you’ve been playing the music of So, having marked the album’s 25th anniversary in 2012. Has your approach to that music, or any of the music you recorded with Peter, changed any?

It’s great music; I’m aware of that every night while we’re playing pieces we’ve been playing since 1985. I’d be very bored if it wasn’t. I have changed a few parts a bit, and there’s a lot of fun within the band. [Drummer] Manu Katche and [keyboardist] David Sancious mix it up, introducing fresh, new ideas each show, while [guitarist] David Rhodes and I pretty much hold down the fort. So the band feels good to us; Peter’s a great performer, as ever, and the material is a pleasure to play, even after all these years.

What can you share about the upcoming King Crimson fall tour, with a new seven-piece lineup?

For me, Crimson is what “progressive” music is all about: not reproducing something that was radical 30 years ago, but the more difficult route of putting aside old ways of playing to try to come up with meaningful new music. It’s a noble quest, whether you achieve it or not. And our fans are wonderful, willing to stretch and grow with us. So in our fall tour we’ll be attempting to take ourselves and the audience to those new places—even if it’s with some pieces that have been written long ago. The lineup combines players from different Crimson eras: group founder Robert Fripp, ’70s saxophonist Mel Collins, myself in the ’80s, and drummers Pat Mastelotto in the ’90s and Gavin Harrison in the 2000s. Guitarist/singer Jakko Jakzyk and drummer Bill Rieflin are new to the group. Robert’s only instruction to the drummers is, “Re-invent rock drumming!” As the bassist playing with all three, it’s going to be a big challenge and lots of fun.

How do you decide, whether as a hired sideman or a collaborator, to take on a project these days?

Assuming I’ve got free time, I listen to the music, and if I like it, I’m going to want to be part of it. Time, alas, doesn’t allow me to do it all. This year has been particularly lucky for me, with back-to-back tours most of the year. So I had to turn down all the studio offers I’d have liked to do. But it’s a great problem to have.

How would you describe the role of photography in your life?

I enjoy taking pictures. Since the ’90s, when I started my website and weblog of tours, I’ve found that people who come to concerts love to see what it’s like backstage and how great they look from the stage—and I can confirm that the excitement from an audience has a big effect on the players. I liked photography most back when it was film and developing chemicals; I really go for the “analog” look. When I switched to digital photography, pictures that looked good at the time seemed dated and restricted by the technology a few years later. Now, I try to use digital editing tools in a way that stand the test of time, especially because photo effects are becoming more like effect pedals: You can grunge up, compress, and distort a picture in ways that remind me of bass playing, or, add a little film grain and leave it pure.

Do you reflect on your career at all, and how far forward do you look?

Like most musicians, I don’t spend much time looking back; I mostly focus on the music I’m working on and sometimes take a glance at what upcoming projects might require. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have played with many great musicians, to have played some great music, and just to have been able to keep playing the bass—the thing I love to do—for all of my adult years. It took some practice and readiness to meet the challenges, but there was a lot of blind luck, too. What’s coming in the short term I can try to predict. Long-term predictions are a fool’s game in the music business; every one of the tours and albums I have planned for next year could fall through. For now, the Crimson U.S. tour is going to be a thrill; then I’ll do a swing with Stick Men through the East Coast and Midwest; and Peter Gabriel has Europe and U.K. dates in November and December. From mid-December, I hope to dig out my warm clothes and go to some NFL games, because that’s when football season will start for me!

INFO

LISTEN

Levin Brothers, Lazy Bones Recordings, 2014; Back to Front: Peter Gabriel Live in London (DVD), Eagle Vision, 2014; Levin–Minnemann–Rudess, Lazy Bones Recordings, 2013; The King Crimson ProjeKct: Official Bootleg Live, Papa Bear, 2012; Stick Men, Deep, Papa Bear, 2012

EQUIP

Basses Ernie Ball Music Man Tony Levin Barbie Flesh Edition 5-string—(“My go-to bass for many years; I probably play that more than all the others combined”); EBMM Reflex Game Changer; fretless EBMM Classic StingRay; fretless EBMM “Sledgehammer” (for Peter Gabriel tours); Chapman Stick; 1994 5-string NS Upright Bass (with low B); NS Cello (both with French-style bow)
Strings Ernie Ball stainless steel round-wounds (“I generally go with medium to heavy gauge, but as tours go on and I get playing harder, I switch to the heaviest gauge”)
Rig Ampeg Heritage SVT-CL with Heritage SVT-810E; Ampeg BA-210 combo (for small gigs); Ampeg SVT-4PRO with SVT-410E, miked with a Shure Beta 52 (for home studio)
Effects EBS OctaBass; Electro Harmonix Deluxe Bass Big Muff and Memory Man; Source Audio Soundblox 2 OFD Bass MicroModeler; Ernie Ball volume pedal; early prototype Retrospec Squeeze Box compressor
Recording Levin Brothers “I used my Radial JDI passive DI for both the NS Bass and NS Cello, and I also miked the instruments themselves. It’s a technique I borrowed from engineer Tom Eaton for making my electric instruments sound more acoustic. There are no amps on the record.”

PLUCKING PEDIGREE

Tony Levin channels such cello-playing jazz bassists as Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Sam Jones, Percy Heath, Ron Carter, and Red Mitchell on Levin Brothers, with a high quotient of melody, swing, and phrasing on both his NS Cello and 5-string NS Upright Bass. Example 1 shows the A section of “Bassics,” featuring Levin on his NS Upright. Notes Tony, “I put ‘Bassics’ in Bb because it’s the basic jazz key. That made it a bit stickier to play than it would have been in A, but the diminished riffs in bar 5 lie nicely. Normally, I might have tried to play on top of the beat with this kind of melody, but wanting to capture the ‘cool jazz’ vibe of the album, I tried to play it right in the middle of the beat. And when you have Steve Gadd playing along on brushes, you’ve got no worries; it’s gonna feel great.”

Example 2 contains the second half of the A section melody of “Cello in the Night,” transcribed for bass. “For me, melodic playing on the cello is way different than on bass. I can stay in hand positions up the neck, and it becomes all about phrasing in a musical way. On the bass I’m always aware of where the strings sound best—usually the low positions on the lower strings—and that overrides what might be easier fingering. So it was a pleasure to be playing this nice melody on my electric cello, where the sweet spots extend up the neck.”

FIVE FOR REFLECTION

John Lennon, Double Fantasy, 1980 “It was an honor, of course, to have been part of that music. John’s first words to me were, ‘They tell me you’re good. Just don’t play too many notes.’ I replied, ‘No problem.’”

Buddy Rich, The Roar of ’74, 1974 “A year ago I was asked to do a week with the Buddy Rich Band, in Tokyo, with a few drummers taking the helm. So I listened to that album, which I hadn’t heard in a long time, and realized I was doing some pretty aggressive playing back then—really unlike the way I play now. I took the gig, and it was only after a few weeks of practice, a week of rehearsing, and a couple of nights of shows that I felt I was back to that musical attitude.”

White Elephant, White Elephant, 1972 “Amazing band, amazing players. A notable lack of success in the business side of things, as often happens with great bands. So there was just the one album and some wild and special gigs. The group had 12 to 18 musicians and vocalists, depending on who showed up!”

Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975; One Trick Pony, 1980 “Working with Paul was an education. Starting on a song, he’d come over to me and just sing and play it, listening to my bass part. Then he’d sing some bass-line ideas, usually very melodic, and I’d fashion something utilizing the grounding that’s my nature, and the melodic sense he brought. It worked great on ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,’ for example, and I incorporated it as an option for my playing from then on.”

Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987 “Who else would say, ‘On the verse, let’s record the Stick, analog, and on the chorus we’ll use the bass, recorded digitally’? Pink Floyd is the class act of our industry. I was thrilled to join in for an album, and sad I couldn’t do the tour. Later, when I saw the video of the song ‘Learning to Fly,’ I could hear that they weren’t playing to the track, but actually playing it live. Who else does that?!”