Time usually doesn't get away from Tony Levin. One of today's most versed and visible bass guitarists as well as a pioneer of the multitasking string instrument known as the Chapman Stick, he has helped keep time and groove for some of the foremost names in contemporary music.
Among those he has recorded with: John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Warren Zevon, James Taylor, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and T Bone Burnett. And that goes without mentioning the two acts with which he has enjoyed his most longstanding artistic relationships: Peter Gabriel (since 1976) and King Crimson (since 1981).
But the realization that much of the past decade has afforded him the space to focus more on his own music — by way of five solo albums and the forthcoming debut disc of his new trio Stick Men — took Levin by surprise in a recent phone interview.
"I can guarantee you one thing," said Levin, who performs with Stick Men on Tuesday at Southgate House in Newport. "None of this was planned. There was never a thought of, 'OK, now I'm going to do more solo albums and work in more projects.' Always in my career, I've been lucky. But another big factor is that Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp, our King Crimson leader, don't like to tour as much as they used to. Most of the troops, meaning the guys in the band, want to tour as much, or more, than before. Certainly I'm that way.
"So consequently, I have more time and more musical energy now to do other things. And so I do them."
Levin's reputation extends beyond strictly musical boundaries, however. Just ask some of the artists who have collaborated with him over the years.
"I don't know a better player in the world than Tony," said guitarist, Kentucky native and longtime King Crimson colleague Adrian Belew by e-mail last week. "Best bassist or whatever ... he's so far beyond that. But as a lifelong friend, the thing I cherish the most is Tony Levin the person. He is a messenger sent to earth to show the rest of us what a person can be."
"Tony is the most musical person I know," added guitarist Paul Richards of the California Guitar Trio, which has toured and recorded extensively with Levin. "Every time I hear him play, there is always something that catches my ear and touches my heart. Often when we are performing together, his playing is so good that I become drawn in to the point where I have to be careful not to lose my attention on my own playing."
Stick Men teams Levin with bandmates familiar (Pat Mastelotto, King Crimson's drummer since 1994) and new (fellow Chapman Stick player Michael Bernier) to promote an instrument with which he has become synonymous. For more than three decades, Levin has explored the musical possibilities of the Chapman Stick, on which strings are tapped instead of plucked to create myriad sounds, from bass foundations to strong guitar and keyboardlike melodies.
"In the last five years, I've had a kind of reawakening to the possibilities of the Stick," Levin said. "Those possibilities partly come from meeting Michael and hearing what he did, partly from doing my Stick Man album (a 2007 Levin record featuring Mastelotto that set the stage for Stick Men) and partly because life is like that. A musical life is like that if you don't settle into this feeling that you've done everything there is and you're not going to explore anything new. If you keep an open mind, there's always more."
Stick Men's debut album, Soup, explores the Stick's range through a selection of original compositions with deep prog rock overtones. One of the record's most striking pieces is Bernier's Fugue, which echoes the inspirations of mentoring guitarist Allan Holdsworth. But the showpiece is unquestionably Levin's adaptation of four movements from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.
"I'm a guy who likes challenges in all ways, in my life and in my music," Levin said. "But, boy, did I bite off a lot on that one. We've been playing it live for quite a while, and the piece has become quite satisfying, as challenges do when you somehow get through them... even if you don't master them."
With no work on the horizon with Gabriel (who is touring with an orchestra) and King Crimson (which hasn't performed live since 2008), Levin plans to make Stick Men something of a priority in a musical life that continues to thrive on variety and challenge. But the Stick man from Stick Men also has his eyes and ears tuned to his next artistic adventure.
"If I'm lucky, I'll get to work everything in," he said. "But if I'm very lucky, there will also be new things that I don't even know about today that I'll be doing."