For a really brief but informative Bio for Elliot Levin, please check out Eugene Chadbourne's Post From
VP: I've seen you perform several times through out the years, usually just jumping up on stage and diving right into the groups performing.
Is improv your primary mode of playing music?
EL: Improvisation is spontaneous composition.
is the way we all learn to play I believe- at least at first. I was drawn into playing by the pleasure and the power derived from the consciousness which is opened and developed through this process of tuning in to this creative force- through the disciplines of practice, meditation, magic, and other devices of trance attainment.
Sometimes it's for a moment, sometimes for hours. I remember very clearly one of the first times I experienced this on a higher level when "jamming" with some close friends with whom I was undergoing shamanic rituals and training. There was a point where we clearly and openly found ourselves reading each other's minds...our souls! It was at the same time frightening, awe-inspiring, humbling, and joyful. There were many various lesser incidents leading up to this over the early years. It is a continual process to keep finding that space in different contexts with different individuals. But practicing and creating through "classical" forms has always been an interesting way for me to fine tune a pathway to this state.
There were several key "teachers" who led me to these paths, but ultimately the greatest lesson they all taught was that you can only learn it by yourself...but draw profoundly from "inspiration". I have worked with many ensembles, but mostly with a nucleus (though expanding) of people I have played with over a number of years. Although I enjoy the practice of performing with no specific rehearsals, the truth is we rehearse all our lives., and when we understand that, we are always practicing at any given time, whether through an instrument- or as Sun Ra said- "people are the instruments".
But using preconceived compositional vehicles is a good way for many of these collaborations to find "focus" and "intonation" among the players.
Within the context of a continuous ensemble, this can grow very complex and powerful; but there is always an excitement and beauty to the sound that occurs from new, unplanned, and even chance encounters with other artists.
VP: So within certain constructs, it's OK to start with a preconceived notion to develop the inspiration within an improvised piece of music to attain "Entrainment" or what the old jazz improvisers called "crossing the bridge"?
EL: I guess in any situation- with known or unknown musicians, there are some preconceived notions- whether verbalized or not. Totally spontaneous "unplanned" improvisation is something I have always enjoyed. I have noticed this is common with European free-improvisors...also with musicians who come from "classical European" educational backgrounds, and who have expanded or redirected their performance into the improvisational realm.
This is a beautiful form I think, but the most intense improvisational experiences I have had have been with musicians with whom I've worked many hours on predetermined structures- even if loose or more conceptual than standard "music staff/score" notation...and then using that as a focal point, finding ways to diverge and stretch into far-reaching tangents.
Cecil Taylor is one of the great masters of this form. I have spent many long hours (at least 4-6 hours a day, for periods sometimes of many weeks or months) practicing specific -though constantly changing- preconceived melodies and rhythms with his ensembles, preparing for a concert. But when we do get to the stage, the structures are so internalized, the performers are free to interpret them as literally- or not- as they both personally and collectively choose. It's a system of constant personal choice and aesthetic going through changes- which is the heart and soul of improvised music...to me. And certainly what I have come to know and love as "jazz".
VP: Cecil Taylor is known for his percussive playing style, odd time signatures, and his approach to the avant-garde. How has performing with him changed your approach to music?
EL: Meeting and playing and being friends with Cecil Taylor has changed- or helped direct- my music, and my life.
Cecil is a master musician- one of the world's greats of our time, He is also a great shaman, or teacher...mystic, guru...all terms I don't use often, but in his case they are valid. I met him in 1973- when I was just turning 20. I was also just starting to take music seriously, and considering it to be the major force in my life. This was after just going through my adolescence - in that incredible time of the 1960's when attaining higher consciousness became a major driving force in many of our lives- and for me has remained so to this day.
Cecil Taylor was a great affirmation in what I was doing, and where I was headed- certainly musically, but in many aspects of life as well. Even though I was very limited in my music training (1 year of music studies at a university, and maybe a couple more of private study- coming out of many years of listening and jamming), after just a few months of sitting in on his residency classes (and ensemble) at Glassboro (now Rowan) Univ., he invited me to be part of his Orchestra in NYC in 1974, which contained many of my musical idols, along with contemporaries, who have since become mainstays on the modern ("jazz:) music scene.
This alone was a great lesson, in that he could have chosen any number of musicians with greater knowledge experience and reputation, but knew that from me he would get an abundance of enthusiasm, dedication and energy that maybe wouldn't have been offered by a more "seasoned" musician. Even though probably most- if not all- of the musicians involved were ahead of me in terms of study and experience- when he asked me if I thought I was ready to hang with this group, I never hesitated for a second. I have always felt totally comfortable, and at home in the society and context of this part of the music world... I will clarify this and say- more at home there...because anywhere in the world among human beings, there is always some conflict and division. But to this day, I have found it is where I am at my best, and where I most want to be.
VP: Please tell me about what your working on now and your ESP release.
EL: The ESP release came about through my old friend Michael Anderson- who is a drummer, and used to play with The Sun Ra Arkestra, when he lived in Phila. He came to my house one day and asked me to hear any recordings I had that I would like to release. This was difficult because I have 30 years of (at least to me) very interesting music on recordings, varying from cassettes, 1/4", 1/2", 1", 2"- reels, DATs, CDs, etc.
I played him quite a few, and one of the ones he took with him was NEW GHOST. This is a band that guitarist Rick Iannacone and I started with his 2 twin-brother cousins Steve & John Testa (bass & drums). They at the time lived together, and Rick and I shared a house for 15 years, so it was like a family band. We rehearsed for many, many months- recording jams, and constructing "songs" out of the playbacks, often adding my poetry as lyrics. It was a phenomenal experience.
I love the music , and we got to do a few tours in Europe, but mostly played in Phila/NY. But the cousins got married, moved away, it became difficult to travel. Thurston Moore, John Zorn, and others asked me for tapes- they all heard it and said it was incredible, but didn't know what to do with it(?!)...Bernard Stollman heard it, and immediately said he wanted to record it.
I had met Stollman when he came to record Cecil Taylor's ensemble at The Iridium ( I am on 2 of CT's FMP Releases - "Light of Corona" and "Almeda"). CT let him record us, but not release it (yet, anyway)...I found a lot of people didn't trust Stollman, but Mike Anderson insisted he pay me up front before I gave him the CD. It wasn't the greatest business deal in the world, but Bernard heard I was playing one night at The Stone- shortly after this- and he came over with a "wad of cash as a down-payment".
I wasn't getting rich, but it was equal to what any of the other independent "free jazz" labels have been offering. Plus, regardless of what people may think about the business, it was an honor for me to be on ESP- which produced many of the records I "grew up" listening to.
I also have a record out on PORTER Records- INTERPLAY- another band Rick and I have played with for many years- with 3 great percussionists: ED WATKINS, RON HOWERTON, AND KENO SPELLER. This was another live recording (as was NEW GHOST)...from TRITONE in PHILA. NEW GHOST was live UPSTAIRS AT NICK'S also in Phila. Both clubs were run by Rick D. (a punk/hard-core producer WHO ALSO LOVED FREE-JAZZ...HE PASSED AWAY LAST YEAR). Luke Mosling of PORTER sent me out to San Diego last year to record with drummer DAVID HURL'S band: ELLIOTT LEVIN MEETS SEESAW.
I have done several poetry CDs- one with guitarist/producer TIM MOTZER, and one for Paul Green's School of Rock label. I have done quite a bit of playing with MARSHALL ALLEN over the last few years- both live and in the Studio- usually with a band UB-313 (with keyboardist BRIAN MARSELLA,and drummer ED WATKINS). I play often with a great Gypsy/Balkan/jazz band called- The West Philadelphia Orchestra. We went to the Ollin Kan Festival this year in Mexico City. I went there earlier in the year to play with drummer GABRIEL LAUBER'S group.
I toured Europe several times this year- with bassist JAIR-ROHM PARKER WELLS, also various drummers- Klaus Kugel, Tony Bianco, Peter Uskylaa, and we recorded a CD with drummer ERIC SLICK(On AYLER Records). I also did tours with SIMONE WEISSENFELS a pianist from Leipzig.
I have 2 CDS out on drummer WEASEL WALTER's label- one with MARSHALL ALLEN, and bassist DAMON SMITH , the other with SCOTT LOONEY. We hope to record again next month with drummer MARC EDWARDS.
I play with ODEON POPE'S SAX CHOIR whenever they work over the last few years, and I am on his last CD LOCKED & LOADED Live at The Blue Note in NYC. Man...I guess a lot has been happening...but I certainly look forward to much more.
Post Script at press time:
For now we are doing a Sun. Jazz series at JC Dobbs in Phila. Tonight was INTERPLAY with Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Next Sun. I play with Calvin Weston & Waill which includes Yanni & Alexi Pappodopolous (from Stinking Lizaveta). The Sun. after is gypsy Balkan music with West Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nov. 1st is Robert Kenyatta's LA TUMBA (Afro-Caribbean jazz); then Nov 8th is Dan Peterson's BOTTOM FEEDERS where I have a chance to play baritone- which I rarely get to do, but love it. Also my Friend -poet John Sinclair will do a set with us. On Nov. 15th I believe I will be collaborating with bassist Warren Oree...and will see what happens after that. You can always check out my schedule, plus some of my music and poetry at: www.myspace.com/elliottlevin. Thanks. Elliott