We spoke with Dave Levine about expression versus commerce, the common musical denominator of hardship, his emotional connection to ambient sounds and what he’d say to certain long-gone artists of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the conditions that spawned these American art forms were hardship and oppression. You see that over and over throughout history.
I like that Lowdown Brass Band kind of lends itself to creative omnivorism — it would seem that nearly every kind of 20th century music is fair game for the muse. That reminds me of a time in American history I’m completely gobsmacked by — the crucial point in which blues, folk and country music were nearly indistinguishable by race or by sound, before they jutted off into their various subgenres. Do you have any thoughts on this, and do you see all these wildly eclectic forms as more similar than different?
We see a thread in most, if not all, 20th century Western popular music that goes back to origins in the Deep South starting as early as the mid-1700s. Unfortunately, the conditions that spawned these American art forms were hardship and oppression. You see that over and over throughout history. The roots of rhythm and harmony of all of these genres were laid way back then and you see it, feel it and hear it through a nuanced evolution into blues, country, folk, bluegrass, soul, hip-hop, rock & roll, etc. It’s all related. That’s why it all works.
I really gravitate towards that reedy low end of the bari. I still play other horns (tenor, clarinet, flute) but there’s something about the complexity and overtones of the baritone that really speaks to me. Yeah, it can be big and boisterous, but there’s this really beautiful fragility when it’s in the upper register. It makes me think of the Cool School guys like Gerry, like you said, but also kind of emulating the vibe and phrasing of cats like Zoot Sims, Chet Baker and Bob Brookmeyer, although they’re not bari players.
Can you describe your favorite hat, coat or other article of clothing in as much detail as possible? Does it have sentimental value? Do clothes make the man, or vice versa?
Right now, it’s probably my pair of Carolina Blue Adidas Matchcourt Mids with reinforced white shell toe. Crisp “show J’s” are part of a Lowdown Brass Band member’s required stage attire. We pride ourselves on our footwear, although I don’t think we’re overly sentimental about it. I do have some sweaters and blankets my grandmother knit that I love, though.
As far as the clothes making the man, I do feel like there’s a certain element of turning on a switch when you’re wearing the “right” gear. Like your favorite pair of jeans or a shirt that fits just right. I think it’s a confidence thing. It’s really about being comfortable in your own skin and being who you are. That’s sexy.
I know we’re still evolving and we try to move forward without too much of a preconceived aesthetic, kind of allowing things to develop organically.
I listen to jazz albums nearly exclusively at home, but I play power pop music on my own time. Lately, I’ve been working on my own vocal approach, and realized that a song can have a great effect if I slip out of time a little bit, go a little slack with my phrasing. In a way, it can make a song come alive! And speaking of crossing forms, I’m sure you apply that “swing” constantly with your playing — do you? How so, or not?
There’s definitely a swing to what we do, although some things are straighter than others. I think at this point, it’s pretty inherent and we don’t have to vocalize how we approach a certain feel, how much swing it needs or doesn’t. One advantage to being a band for over a decade is that after a while, some things just happen.
What do you think about the concept of sophistication, or “cool”? I guess I’m asking because when I think of jazz, I think of all those amazing Blue Note covers. Some of them are masterpieces of sleek, minimal graphic design that just make me feel good to see. How does that whole cross-pollination work, with jazz as a look as much as a sound?
We play with that concept a little bit, modernize it, subvert it, reference it. It’s really such a great period in music from about 1950-1965 that has that quintessentially “cool” aesthetic. Our last couple releases, Lowdown Sounds and Lowdown Bounce, as well as our upcoming record Lowdown Breaks have that minimal, colorfully graphic sensibility.
As far as the sound goes, I know we’re still evolving and we try to move forward without too much of a preconceived aesthetic, kind of allowing things to develop organically. So far, so good?
Absolutely. Loosely speaking of which, I’ve lived in New York for about a year now, and one thing on my mind has been what has taken place or existed in the past but kind of faded away through gentrification. It depresses me that some impossibly historic location, like an old jazz club or musicians’ hangout, might be an Urban Outfitters now. What do you think about artistic cultures, movements and locations being in flux or dying out?
It’s sad. In most of these instances, it’s really just a function of the “bottom line.” Unfortunately, capitalism usually wins out over what may be, for many, more valuable in terms of cultural significance. We just don’t have the public money available to preserve a lot of these historic venues and more importantly, modern culture hasn’t placed enough importance on the art that is produced in these establishments to come out and support it, as a whole. The model for consuming entertainment has changed and we rely on what seems more and more like a counterculture of those who like to see live performances.
I think true genius is often very tortured and sometimes laced with illness. That struggle was necessary to transcend the current paradigm and create something totally new.
Do you think that everyday sounds have melodic properties just as much as music itself? When you go about your day, what sounds wash over you that you like, that you process almost as a song?
Most definitely. I’m completely enamored with the train. I live in an an area on the west side of Chicago that’s one block from an elevated train and just south of freight trains that run in and out of the city. The L has a distant roar that crescendos and fades and late at night — the freight trains squeal and sing in the switching yard. Throw in some sirens, and you got the West Side Soundtrack.
Finally, please briefly meditate on any long-gone artist of the 20th century and one thing you’d mention to them if you could. Can you relate in detail what you’d say?
Man, there are so many musicians whose lives have ended in tragedy because of self-destructive behavior: Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Jaco Pastorius, Dinah Washington, Chet Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain — the list is endless. I’d like to think that I could talk some sense into them, to help them appreciate their genius, how important their lives are to the world.
I don’t think that’s reality though. They all probably had people telling them that they were on a dangerous path but I think true genius is often very tortured and sometimes laced with illness, whether it’s addiction, depression or a host of other things. There’s a part of me that thinks that their struggle was necessary to produce the kind of music they did, to transcend the current paradigm and create something totally new.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: December 21, 2017
Total questions: 8
Word count: 1263
Reading time: Five minutes
Adidas, aesthetic, art, band, baritone, blanket, Bob Brookmeyer, brass, Carolina blue, Chet Baker, Chicago, color, cool, Dave Levine, elevation, evolution, freight, Gerry Mulligan, graphic, hardship, jazz, Leo Parker, Lowdown Brass Band, meditation, minimal, nuance, oppression, paradigm, Pepper Adams, saxophone, similarity, sophistication, sweater, swing, train, transcendence, vocalization, West Side, Zoot Sims
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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