Music News & Reviews

Howard Levy blows away the stigma of the harmonica

Howard Levy says most people underestimate the harmonica.
Howard Levy says most people underestimate the harmonica. Levyland.com

Howard Levy has heard it all before.

He has heard the jokes, sifted through the stereotypes and dealt with the stigma: The harmonica as an unscholarly instrument, a lowbrow artistic device that is great to pal around with but is unworthy of placement in even the remotest regions of musical sophistication.

Of course, if you have ever heard the reach and expression that Levy creates from the harmonica, you will realize how decisively the last laugh falls on him. Yes, Levy has heard it all. But people who haven't heard Levy really haven't heard anything.

"Those remarks, ... that's all any good harmonica player runs into," said Levy, who performs a duo concert Sunday with guitarist Chris Siebold at Natasha's Bistro. "People think of the harmonica as this little toy they can pick up and toot through. But if they hear somebody really play music on it, they're kind of shocked. They think, 'How do you do that on that instrument?' I go, 'Well, it's a real instrument.' It's just that it looks so simple.

"The thing about the harmonica is that it's invisible to the player and to the person watching it because there are no fingers involved. You can't see anybody pushing keys or moving their fingers or anything. That's the hardest thing about learning how to play it, too. You can't see it. You have to spend a lot of time getting a mental picture of the instrument so that when you pick it up, you don't have to look for where the fourth hole is. It's different from any other instrument in that respect."

Levy has taken the harmonica to stylistic regions as varied as the type of band settings in which he has performed. Equally versed as a pianist, he has explored jazz, Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music, blues, swing and more. Onstage, has collaborated with duos, quartets, combos and full orchestras.

"People are always surprised at all the different styles and textures that I can get out of the harmonica, because they are used to hearing it playing blues or a Bob Dylan kind of thing," he said. "Most people are just not aware of all the other types of music that can be played on a diatonic harmonica.

"The more I play piano, though, the more I can see how piano transfers directly to my harmonica playing, because I visualize the harmonica as a piano keyboard as I play. There is a definite carryover from the one to the other."

That Levy has discovered so many stylistic avenues for the harmonica stems partially from the variety of music he was exposed to in his youth and the risks taken by the artists who created it.

"As a kid, I listened to a lot of classical music. That was a very big inspiration for me. When I was first studying classical piano, every time I would hear a great piece or a great pianist, I would just want to practice and get better. I started improvising when I was 8, so music was always something I did very naturally. My own music was influenced by everything that was going on around me. The next big thing was hearing Chicago blues artists playing live — people like Paul Butterfield and James Cotton. Then, when I was about 17, I heard a John Coltrane album, Crescent. That was almost a religious experience. A lot of people reacted that way to his playing."

The outlet that was a springboard for Levy's revolutionary playing was the banjo-based fusion and funk of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Levy was a co-founding member, but he left after four albums, fearing that his entire musical life would eventually revolve around the band's work. He rejoined the band on a temporary basis in 2011 for a new album, Rocket Science, and a 130-show tour. Last year, Levy and Fleck won Grammy Awards for their joint Rocket Science composition Life in Eleven.

"The whole experience with the Flecktones this last time was very positive. One of the reasons why was that I knew it had an end. I was just trying to enjoy it as much as I could and not feel like, 'Oh my God, I don't want to do this the rest of my life,' like I did the first time, like there was no way out.

"It had a beginning and an end, so it was great."


IF YOU GO

Howard Levy with Chris Siebold

Opening act: Osland/Dailey Jazztet

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11

Where: Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade

Tickets: $22. Available at (859) 259-2754 or Beetnik.com.

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