Feature/Interview

Composer/Arranger/Orchestrator Jeremy Levy – (Grammy nomination)

Jeremy Levy is a composer, arranger and orchestrator who has worked across a wide range of mediums and styles over the past decade. Originally from Hannibal, Missouri, the town where Mark Twain grew up, he is now based in Los Angeles. He is responsible for the  orchestrations for Netflix’s hit mini-series The Queen’s Gambit. He recently received his first Grammy nomination for the track Uranus: The Magician off his album The Planets: Reimagined, a modern big band jazz reinterpretation of the famous classical orchestral suite by Gustav Holst. Interview by Leah Williams: 

Jeremy Levy. Publicity Photo Supplied

LondonJazz News: Tell us a bit about your musical background…

Jeremy Levy: I started off as a jazz musician, studying the trombone, and then transitioned into composing and arranging after college. I moved to LA in 2006 and have been working out here as a composer, arranger and orchestrator ever since. My first love though was writing for jazz big band so doingThe Planets: Reimagined has been a real passion project.

LJN: Why The Planets?

JL: I got back into this piece while doing some work with composer Gordy Haab on the Star Wars Battlefront video game. For research I went back and listened to the original John Williams score and then Holst’s The Planets, which was a big influence on John Williams’ music. 

It’s a piece of music that has come up for me across the years and been quite influential in my musical upbringing. And then when I went to see it performed live in LA I had this idea that it would be really cool to adapt the piece in a new way, not just traditional big band but in a modern fashion with a lot of latin rhythms and rock ’n’ roll as well.

LJN: It’s a big undertaking, how did you approach it?

JL: I had a general concept for each movement before putting anything down on paper. I started with the first piece Mars, which is the famous war movement – you hear knock-offs of it in movies all the time. It has this ostinato in the strings that just repeats over and over, building up and up like an army marching to war. My idea was to take that and give it a latin feel so I traded strings for a piano with montuno.

Sometimes I’d start with the idea of including a reference or tribute. Like for Venus: The Bringer of Peace, I wanted it to be a little tribute to the Basie Band. There’s a song they play called Cute where the band plays bits with drum solos in between for this call and response; it’s quite well known in the big band genre so I did a little nod to that in the opening.

LJN: What did you find the most challenging?

JL: Figuring out how you want to tackle the overall feel of it is probably that first hurdle and then it’s working out how to incorporate jazz elements as well. It can’t just be a jazz orchestra playing a classical piece of music with a new rhythm, it also needs to have integrated improvisation and be a fully fledged work of its own. So the trickiest part was working out how to open up the classical form, making it work so there’s space for soloists to improvise and then building the band underneath the solos so they’re all coming to a climax at the same time to give something really exciting to the listener. 

LJN: There’s clearly a wide array of styles and influences in there…

JL: Yeah, I listened to a lot of different music growing up. My parents introduced me to bands like the Beach Boys and the Beatles and then I started listening to hair metal bands in the 80s and 90s, which is perhaps where my love of rock guitar comes from! I then got really into jazz and orchestral music in college as well.

LJN: Rock guitar takes us on to the track Uranus: The Magician, which has recently been nominated for a Grammy – congratulations.

JL: Yes, thank you. My inspiration for that was a memory I had of Emerson, Lake & Palmer who did these rock fusion versions of classical songs — it was Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man that I particularly remembered hearing. I didn’t listen to it again before I started writing, I just had this vague musical memory of what it might have been — ‘heavy metal rock shuffle’ was in my head and so that’s how I approached writing Uranus. Once it was all done I did listen to that song again and actually I was way off on what I remembered! 

But it had given me a starting point for what I wanted to do. Then as I was writing it, it ended up going from this rock feel to a heavy latin feel — the idea for that actually came from my pianist Andy Langham who plays with the percussionist Poncho Sanchez out here — then I decided to do a hard break in the middle for the tenor saxophone solo then it went into a hard 12/8 afro-cuban feel… It was cool making these transitions and then doing the musical machinations to get it from one to the next smoothly. 

LJN: Is this your first Grammy nomination?

JL: It is! It’s all been delayed due to the covid situation of course so it’s now due to take place on 14 March but it’s all really exciting. Although I was hoping to get a nomination in the Large Jazz Ensemble category, as that way it would have recognised the entire record rather than just the one song — and most importantly the band. Obviously the writing is really important but it’s the band who really brings it to life.

LJN: You did the orchestration for the recent hit Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit — tell us about that…

JL: Yes, I orchestrated the music written by composer Carlos Rafael Rivera and helped produce the recording sessions, which we did remotely with the Budapest Art Orchestra. There was about 100 minutes of music, primarily strings, and I had around a month to complete it, which is actually pretty good. Often it’s a much tighter timescale than that! 

LJN: Did you have any idea when you were working on it how big a success it was going to become?

JL: Well, we knew it was probably going to be good because the director Scott Frank is great and his last series, Godless, did really well too. So we thought it would be a good show but not that it would find the audience it did — I mean, it’s about chess! But he just really tapped into something with that kind of underdog story that has a universal appeal.

LJN: You’ve worked on quite a wide range of films and TV shows. Are there any genres you’re particularly drawn to?

JL: For the most part, I’m happy to do anything that comes my way. For orchestration work you have to know how to do a wide variety of styles and so you get the chance to work on all kinds of things and genres. From a personal perspective though, I particularly enjoyed working on the Frozen 2 project, just because I have a young daughter who’s really into the films so it’s given me that connection with her. Plus I love working for the composer Chris Beck. He just really knows what he’s doing and writes so beautifully. 

LJN: Are there any other composers who have particularly influenced you?

JL: I have to say John Williams. I was such a huge fan growing up of the movies he worked on, Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones. They’re really what opened my ears to orchestral music and film scoring. And Jerry Goldsmith as well. These days, I really enjoy working with Mark Mothersbaugh – he writes in such a unique fashion. I worked with him on the Lego movie scores and he’s so great at bringing together electronic and orchestral music in a really organic, non cheesy way. Plus he’s also just a really nice guy. 

The Planets: Reimagined is out now and is available from Jeremy Levy’s website and on all streaming services. 

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