Our guest today here at JazzMonthly.com is the multi-talented NY based composer, arranger and recording artist Josh Levinson. Josh’s life has always been about music. Only four when he began piano with his mother, Alice, he continued studying the piano and was introduced to the trumpet in elementary school. When Josh heard Eliot Goldenthal play “Oh When the Saints,” he was struck by the instrument’s ability to be both bold and sweet. Josh studied jazz with John Lewis, played in an ensemble led by Ron Carter for two years, and performed with Gil Evans, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, and his trumpet hero, Freddie Hubbard.
His musical adventure eventually drew him to the energetic and expressive Big Band sound. Here Josh found his creative home. He began composing and arranging and has since amassed a catalogue of over 100 compositions arranged for his band, which he leads and performs his compositions and arrangements in and around New York City.
Josh’s current project titled “Celebration” will energize you right from the start and includes some of the finest musicians in the business.
Please welcome Josh Levinson.
Jazz Monthly: Tell us about your musical journey and what drew you to the Big Band sound?
Josh Levinson: I have been composing music and leading either a sextet or a septet for over 20 years. I've always loved the sound of a big band. There's nothing else like it in music. My first introduction to jazz was though the music of Maynard Ferguson, who I was lucky enough to have seen at the height of his musical genius in the mid 70’s. My love for this context grew from my high school big band experience and subsequent college experience, doing concerts with guest composers Jimmy Heath, Gil Evans, and Slide Hampton, to playing 3rd trumpet in the late band leader Peter Silver’s Blue Nitrous Big Band.
JM: Your new release "Celebration" combines very creative compositions with exciting high-energy arrangements. What does the title refer to as a whole. What is the concept of the album?
JL: "Celebration" is the title tune off the record. It’s a song that reflects everything I love about music and music’s utilitarian role in many cultures all over the world. I don’t deny music’s efficacy as escapism, its ability to take one away from the world and into another place. I embrace that. But in much of the music I write, there's a here-and-now which I want to present. Music can be very much a part of the world in a way that inspires people to want to be present, to be here in the world of rhythm and harmony and melody, to dance and sing and shout in the glory of everything that music has to offer us. Beethoven is not a denial of reality. His music might be transcendent, yes, and may elevate us away from our mundane, prosaic, day-to-day lives. But to me, Beethoven is life, the possibility to experience living in the moment, seeing in the moment, hearing and being in the moment. "Celebration" is that. I love that each tune on the album offers the listener some of that, and yes, a little bit of escapism as well.
JM: There are so many incredible musical "twists and turns" on your compositions that keep us entertained and captivated. Being a very advanced player with superior writing abilities, how do you come up with new ideas? What was the process of choosing, writing and arranging this material?
JL: My number one goal in writing in the big band format is to have musicians improvise like they would in a small band setting. I don’t have a more grandiose vision for it than that. I've always loved multiple feels in my songs. Each song can traverse different planes of music, from funk to jazz to Latin to the blues. I am very inspired by other jazz composers and their songs, like "A Blue Tale" inspired by Lee Morgan’s "Sidewinder," or "A Change of Course" inspired by my hero Art Blakey. I've been using many of my songs previously arranged for septet and sextet. I've also been writing covers of other artists, such as "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell and "Peace" by Horace Silver.
JM: “All Day Joy” has a cool, blues-flavored opening that just explodes into an assortment of interacting Jazz improvisations. You really let your fellow musicians branch out and radiate on your record with their solos. Was that a conscious goal of yours?
JL: I sing on that particular tune -- if you can call it singing! I try to let the music flow through me, to allow the music to inspire me to get past all inhibitions, to be free to just feel it and go with it. That's always my goal, to inspire the improviser to get past the norms, to traverse into uncharted territory, to say something no one has ever said before.
JM: A “Prayer for George” is a very moving piece with a lot of musical colors and emotions. There’s a definite message here. Please tell us more about “Prayer for George.”
JL: Thank you for your appraisal of the song. I was deeply hurt by all of the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd. I watched many of the speeches and looked on in admiration of all the love his family and the Black community showered upon his memory. I wanted to just express my love of George Floyd and to celebrate his and his family’s lives by stating the obvious, which is something we don’t always do. He was a person of depth, value, and intelligence, no matter what the circumstances of his arrest of that horrible day, and he deserved to be noticed and heard.
JM: A very driving track, with a great arrangement is “No Sweat.” What was the creative process behind “No Sweat?”
JL: I wanted to write something up-tempo and that swung in a modern way. I gravitate towards the music of the mid-sixties, harmonically dipping into the palate of Trane and McCoy, Herbie, Miles, Joe Henderson, and so many others, to express my love of that genre of music. Hard bop is where my heart is at much of the time. I hope that this tune honors that music, above all, and that it swings with intelligence and fire!
JM: How did you go about putting your group together? Tell us a little about the band.
JL: Having a big band in New York is one of the biggest challenges a bandleader can possibly face. I thought getting rehearsals for a sextet was hard! Try getting seventeen people together on a regular basis to play your music. It’s extremely difficult. I tried to inspire people to want to play music no matter what the environment and who the other players are. I hope I've done that. There are some regulars like Peter Brendler and Ethan Kogan (bass and drums respectively) who have been at most of the rehearsals and continue to inspire me with their approaches to playing and to making the music sound as good as it can. There are so many musicians who have given of their valuable time and energy to making this music come alive. I am eternally grateful to all of them.
JM: What have you enjoyed most about this project?
JL: I have enjoyed facing my fears and insecurities head on. Hopefully I've done my best to overcome my inner obstacles, facing them with the confidence that I need to continue to lead seventeen musicians and to write music that instills the musician and listener with hope, and that motivates them to want to be better music-makers and more attentive listeners. I've enjoyed the process of seeing my hard work come to life.
JM: Do you ever listen to your older compositions and albums? How do you feel you have evolved as a composer, arranger and musician along the way?
JL: I listen to all of my music. I've been inspired by this new canvas -- the large ensemble -- and have been retro-fitting, so to speak, my music into the new context. It has been so wonderful to hear these older works be given new life. I'll continue to do that, while composing newer works that I'll also arrange for big band.
JM: Is there one more fulfilling to you, recording in the studio, performing live or just sitting down in your home studio and composing? Since you are terrific at all of the above, how would you compare the three?
JL: Thank you so much for this affirmation. I love playing live. There's nothing like it. I have always loved the sound of a big band. There's nothing like that either, so being able to play my music in this most exciting context is extremely fulfilling. I maintain in any artistic endeavor that process is more important than product. You learn much more from the act of doing. That's why I love this so much and why it continues to inspire me to make more music.
It is an exploration of yourself in so many ways, your belief system, your passion, your decision-making skills, your love of seeing your dreams come alive. So all three are wonderfully fulfilling routes taken in pursuit of my goals to make music that feels good, sounds good, and attracts a diversity of people.