Thursday 17 February 2011

Tony Levin

The great bop-to-free drummer Tony Levin died on February 3rd.

A few memories:

A gig he played with a remarkable pick-up band at our club in the early 80s- Ian Carr on trumpet, my friend and jazz educator Conrad Cork on alto, music teacher Ron Reah on piano, free-jazz pioneer and now composer Gavin Bryars on bass and Tony. It shouldn't have worked, and in truth there are some rough patches, but I'm glad it was recorded and still play the cd with pleasure. *

A performance in Birmingham at Tony's club with Evan Parker and a tuba player (Melvin Poore) where Tony and Evan got into what Evan described as 'that Coltrane and Elvin at the Vanguard' thing. We ate afterwards at a Balti place which had a hypnotist and magician who worked the tables, dropping customers to the floor and making money disappear under our nose. Maybe I dreamt the whole thing.

When Evan was teaching at de Montfort University he played a series of duo gigs in the tiny cafe underneath my bookshop - you remember bookshops? There was a disco in the cellar next door and the noise pollution started around 10pm. No problem the night Tony played.

Tony did a short tour last year to celebrate his 70th birthday and one date was in Leicester; first he played with Aki Takase and John Edwards, then with Mujician- Keith Tippett, Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers. I can't fault John Fordham's Guardian review.

And what must have been one of his last gigs- with Peter King's quartet- Steve Melling, Geoff Gascoyne at the Y in Leicester on January 19 this year. It was clear Peter was pacing himself- each set had a piano feature and he sat at the back of the stage when not playing- but Steve Melling was on steaming form and the music was driven and forceful; no sign that Tony was struggling to keep up though he looked a bit frail at the end of the gig.

So the news of his death was a shock; we'll miss him.

* Conrad Cork adds:

This gig almost didn’t happen. A few weeks before it was due, the regular drummer’s wife left him, and he took himself off to be consoled by friends in Bangkok. Fortunately Tony Levin stepped in. Then the day before the gig, it turned out that the promised grand piano was not forthcoming, so there was a scramble to find anything, and anything turned out to be a low quality Wurlitzer electric job.

Bryars barely made it to the gig (minutes to spare) because he came in from Paris where he was in the course of overseeing the run of his opera Medea, produced by Robert Wilson. Bryars and Rhea, incidentally, comprised the entire fulltime staff of the (classical) music department at the then Leicester Polytechnic.

There was no time for rehearsal or prior discussion, and Ian called the tunes and keys as the evening went on.