INTERVIEW: US cellist Daniel Levin (co-publication with Citizen Jazz/France)

Daniel Levin. Photo credit: Frank Bigotte.

Vermont-born cellist DANIEL LEVIN is a major figure on the New York improvising scene. In this interview, simultaneously co-published with Citizen Jazz in France, he explains his story and the background to recent releases to Anne Yven:

Anne Yven: Daniel Levin you’re a composer and improviser: what was your first experience as player of improvised music?

Daniel Levin: The first time I really improvised was when I was 19, at a summer chamber music and dance festival. The organizers brought the two divisions together in a room, and asked if any musicians would be willing to try improvising with a dancer. When I got on stage, I had no idea what to do. I just watched the dancer and allowed myself to respond to her gestures – it was physical and visual information that informed what to play. What I remember best about that experience was the last 10 or 15 seconds: she was spinning, very fast. I matched this movement by going way up the fingerboard and trilling. As I was doing this, at a certain point, I had the uncanny feeling that she was about to crash to the ground. I just went with it, and slid all the way down to the low end of the cello, the bottom of the C string. She and I hit the bottom at exactly the same time. I was astounded, and excited. The music no longer had to come from the page. It could come from other places – a dancer, my own ideas. This was the first big step in finding my voice as an improviser and composer.

AY: Your journey with a fascinating instrument, the cello, has been rather unusual: from classical to contemporary, but in the same time, it reflects all the different steps and stages it takes to become a musician, with his own voice. Can you tell us more about your music?

DL: The long and deep relationship I have with the cello, starting when I was 6, has ultimately been an extremely important asset in enabling me to express my ideas fluently and freely. However, when I was first beginning to improvise, there was a lot about the cello that felt limiting and claustrophobic. For example, the way I was used to using the bow throughout my classical training had a kind of built-in delayed attack and release. I was used to putting micro-fades on most of my articulations – and when I tried to do something different, it was maddeningly difficult. I wanted a different sound in order to get my music out, but it was hard to get that sound because of the way I was used to playing.

For a while, I actually put the cello down and worked on the tenor saxophone, which I had played as a kid. I was studying with Joe Maneri at the time, and he generously lent me his 1926 Selmer Cigar Cutter tenor. The instrument had an incredible sound, and it helped me to focus on getting the gestures and ideas out there in an uninhibited way. The fact that I didn’t have a really developed technique on the saxophone was very freeing. On the saxophone, I wasn’t expected to “sound good”, since it wasn’t my primary instrument. The expectation I had of myself to sound great and perfect all the time was a big obstacle for me when I started to improvise on the cello. Joe liked to talk about some of the best musical ideas being stupid. He would use the opening motive of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as an example. He was trying to help free me from the idea that everything I played needed to be advanced, or hip. It was the way Beethoven used a basic idea that was the amazing part, not necessarily the idea itself. So, using the saxophone for a while enabled me to work on getting my ideas out as an improviser and composer without the hang-up and pressure of having to “be good”.

AY: What I like in your music is its playful, educational content. I know you are eager to deal with the question of transmitting your approach of music to young audience, new players. Can you tell us more about it?

DL: When I’m teaching a workshop or privately to beginning improvisers, especially string players, this is one of the things I find myself continually returning to: don’t be afraid to play something bad/dumb/obvious. It’s incredible the kind of resistance people have to playing something that might be considered bad – particularly when one’s whole ego and self-image is wrapped up with “being good”. The news that I have had to share with many experienced musicians who are just beginning to improvise is this: you’re NOT good, and don’t expect to be good. The fact that you have spent many years developing a phenomenal technique and great refinement as an interpreter of music that has been written by someone else does not necessarily mean you should be able to compose or improvise well. In fact, the self-image of “being good” that many people who are deeply experienced interpreters, but inexperienced improvisers usually makes it harder, not easier, to become a strong improviser. It’s only after dissolving this attachment to being good that one can be successful in doing the work of developing one’s own, original voice as an improviser. That’s what I had to do, and it was a very uncomfortable process. All of this stuff I have been talking about is not about technique, or style, or genre. It’s totally psychological.  Being able to make a shift from being a capable and convincing interpretative musician to becoming a strong improviser/composer requires a bunch of psychological work, at least in most of the people I’ve encountered.

AY: Who would you call as your fellow brothers and sisters on the music scene today ?

DL: There are many musicians active today who inspire, challenge, and excite me. I have had the good fortune to work directly with many of them. Some of these musicians are current and frequent collaborators; some of them I haven’t worked with in a while, or very often. All of them have had and continue to have a positive impact on my growth as a musician and as a person. Here are a few who stand out to me: Peter Bitenc, Rob Brown, Juan Pablo Carletti, Gerald Cleaver, Chris Corsano, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, Jon Irabagon, Tony Malaby, Mat Maneri, Joe McPhee, Matt Moran, Joe Morris, Ivo Perelman, Chris Pitsiokos, Matana Roberts, Nate Wooley, Torbjorn Zetterberg

AY: Why did you choose Clean Feed records, a European label ?

DL: Pedro Costa has created a phenomenal platform that is both focused and open-minded. It’s been a home for most of my recent work as a leader: my last four quartet records, a trio record, my duo with Mat Maneri, and my first solo record. I’ve also been fortunate to record as a sideman on a number of other projects for Clean Feed. Pedro gets and appreciates what I am trying to accomplish and what my music is about, and I’ve been very happy with the situation. I do not know of any other label that shares all of qualities I love about Clean Feed, either in the US or in Europe.

AY: Now The News! An album with your quartet called “Friction ” + two releases, two duos. One with Mat Maneri entitled “The Transcendent Function”, and another one with Rob Brown called  “Divergent Paths”. Can you tell us more about these?

DL: Friction is my quartet’s 7th record, the first one being “Don’t Go It Alone” (Riti, 2003).This record is the first one with Torbjorn Zetterberg on bass, whom I met several years ago doing a trio tour and recording project with Ivo Perelman. He’s a fantastic musician and person, and adds a tremendous amount to the band. There are some new kinds of compositions on this record that weren’t explored on my previous quartet records – for example, some with very minimal loop structures that layer in different ways. There are also tunes that relate more closely to the material I’ve done before.

Divergent Paths : Rob and I have been playing together for quite a long time, starting around 2001, when we were introduced by our mutual friend, Joe Morris. We would play duos at Rob’s house frequently, and then Rob formed a trio with me and Satoshi Takeshi, which made a couple of records and performed a bunch around NYC. After all of the trio activity, we went back to working as a duo. At first, we sort of explored a dynamic that came out Rob’s trio writing. It often reminded me a bit of Julius Hemphill & Abdul Wadud. That sound was certainly a reference point at that time. Our first record. “Natural Disorder”, which came out in 2008 documents that sound. Eventually, we started to move away from that way of playing as being our primary frame, and we explored other ways to engage. “Divergent Paths” was recorded while we were doing a series of duo concerts in Portugal in 2012.

The Transcendent Function. I first encountered Mat’s music when I was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, back in the 90’s. I was studying composition & improvisation with his father, Joe Maneri, who left us in 2009. I would go to Joe Maneri Quartet concerts religiously, and was always awestruck and overwhelmed by the sophistication of their group dynamic, as well as by the stunning virtuosity and brilliance of everyone in the band. I saw that Mat had created a unique voice and approach as an improvising string player, which really helped inspire me to chart my own course in finding my voice as a cellist in improvised music. Playing duo with Mat is incredibly exciting and rewarding. The viola and cello are very similar, using the same strings an octave apart, and we are able to use a tremendous range of timbres and sounds to create phrases and lines in this acoustic setting. We recorded “The Transcendent Function” at the conclusion of a week-long EU tour in February of 2015.

Daniel Levin’s upcoming releases in 2016 :

– A solo LP/CD due out in April 2016 on Smeraldina-Rima. 
– A trio with Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and Chris Corsano is due in Spring, 2016 on TROST.

LINKS: Daniel Levin’s website
Divergent Paths at Cipsela
The Transcendent Function at Clean Feed Records
Friction at Clean Feed Records

Categories: miscellaneous

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