Bela Fleck & and the Flecktones perform in Beaver Creek Friday night
Bla Fleck & the Flecktones proved to be too much for Howard Levy. After helping found the quartet in the late ’80s, Levy became overwhelmed by the growing popularity of the group and the ambitious touring itinerary. In 1992, after recording three landmark albums with the group and playing hundreds of concerts, Levy bowed out at the end of 1992.”After doing it about four years, the touring schedule got so heavy,” Levy said. “I had little kids at the time. Plus, Bla and the rest of the Flecktones lives in Nashville and I was in Chicago. I said, ‘Hey, if we could do it half as much, I could do this.’ But there was no half-way. I couldn’t do it half-time.”That part is easy to understand. Levy, who is 60, was several years older than his fellow Flecktones – brothers Victor and Roy “Future Man” Wooten, and bandleader Bla Fleck. The Flecktones were trying to make a name for themselves – and, as an instrumental combo, fighting fairly long odds to do so. Touring relentlessly and recording often – they made four albums in their first four years, the final one without Levy – seemed the only way to go. Living in a different region of the country and starting up a family didn’t seem to mix with being a Flecktone.Here’s the part that’s slightly harder to grasp: The Flecktones were also not quite enough for Levy. Surrounding Levy were three absurdly talented players who reeked of creative ambition. Fleck was in the early stages of dramatically reinventing the possibilities of his instrument, the banjo. Future Man had actually invented an instrument – the synthaxe drumitar, which is shaped more or less like a guitar, but instead of strings has finger pads that are hooked up to a stack of percussion synthesizers. Victor Wooten was simply playing electric bass as well as anyone had; he would go on to be named bass player of the year by Bass Player magazine three years running.Beyond the talent, the Flecktones aimed to break new musical ground. The quartet, with Levy on piano and harmonica, mixed elements of bluegrass, funk, jazz and classical for a fusion that opened up new territory and raised the bar on virtuosity and innovation. Still, Levy sought room to do more.”It gave me no chance to do anything else,” Levy said of the Flecktones’ early years as diehard performers. “I needed variety. I needed a break.”
After leaving the Flecktones, Levy took full advantage of his freedom. He composed a concerto, the first for diatonic harmonica and orchestra, that he recorded with the Czech National Orchestra; made three albums with Trio Globo, a combo with cello and percussion; collaborated with dance companies, a Lebanese oud player, and with his girlfriend, Fix Fehling, a violinist with the Chicago Symphony. He recorded on albums by Kenny Loggins, Dolly Parton, Donald Fagen, the subdudes and many more; the count of albums Levy has contributed to tops 100 and touch on jazz, classical, country and Latin styles. He started an online harmonica school and a record label, wrote a book.And he kept up his relationship with the Flecktones. On occasion, he would sit in with the group he co-founded. In 2009, Jeff Coffin, who had joined the Flecktones as a saxophonist in 1998, became a member of the Dave Matthews Band, and soon after left the Flecktones. Down a musician, the Flecktones reached out to Levy and invited him to do a three-week tour at the end of 2009.”I thought, you know, I could do that. It has a beginning and an end,” Levy said. “Whatever my feelings were from playing 130 times a year – that wasn’t there. The old excitement was there immediately.”So was the old magic. Fleck himself was enthused about reforming the original quartet. “The music we made with Howard was the seminal Flecktones stuff. The truth is, the band was designed with him in mind,” Fleck said in an interview with The Aspen Times in 2010. The three-week tour begat 90 Flecktones shows last year, as well as the 2011 album “Rocket Science,” and the track “Life In Eleven,” co-written by Levy and Fleck, which earned a Grammy for best instrumental composition. And the Flecktones, with Levy on board, continue on. While doing our interview, Levy was at the Steinway at the Sunset Center Theatre in Carmel-by-the-Sea, warming up the piano and his fingers for a gig that night. It is one of 50 Flecktones dates scheduled for this year; the group performs in Beaver Creek Friday night.
Levy was born in New York City to a father who sang opera and Broadway and a mother who played cello. He began playing piano at 8, and spent four years at the Manhattan School of Music. He then got into bands – rock, jazz, blues – one of which featured a drummer who doubled on harmonica.”I thought, If he could learn it, I could learn it,” he said. In fact, Levy struggled on the instrument for six months before having a breakthrough. “I started getting really good, really quickly.”As a freshman at Northwestern University, Levy went through a musical explosion, picking up saxophone, flute, mandolin and more, and digging into every style of foreign music he could get his ears on. During this period he made the discovery that the harmonica was an incomplete instrument: It was missing a lot of notes. Rather than bow to those limitations, he developed a technique called overblowing that made the harmonica “pop up to other pitches, providing all the notes that were missing,” he said. “It’s wild that it happens that way – as if by design.”Levy began earning a reputation among harmonica players. The attention came mostly from the blues realm, where the harmonica was most common, but what the blues players appreciated was the way Levy was opening things up. “It was this liberating thing, freeing up the harmonica to a whole new kind of expression,” he said.Appearing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1988 as part of the band Trapezoid, Levy got an urgent message from one of his bandmates, singer Lorraine Duisit. “She kept saying, Howard, you and Bla have to play together,” Levy recalled. “She said it the first night, the second night, the third night.” Eventually Levy found Fleck – a fellow New York native who refused to accept the conventional thinking about his instrument. Fleck had fallen in love with bluegrass, but also with jazz, and, following the dissolution of his string-band New Grass Revival, was looking to start up something totally different. The two jammed all night in a hotel room, laying the foundation for that new idea. The following summer, a Nashville TV show invited Fleck to bring an unusual act on the air. Fleck called Levy, the two rounded up the Wooten brothers and the Flecktones were born. Levy is pleased to be, once again, a Flecktone. “It’s a special group that has a special chemistry and seems to create a special response from audiences,” he said. He is happy that Fleck is showing interest in playing Levy’s compositions; “Rocket Science” features three tunes written or co-written by Levy. And he has enjoyed the way that the Flecktones are not quite the same band they were when he left. “Everyone has grown in the same way. Everyone has done so many things; we all bring a lot of life and music experience back to it, which really enriches the music.”And Levy is satisfied that this time around, being a Flecktone leaves room for other things. Like the four-part Latin jazz suite he premiered last year, the harmonica concerto written by a former student of his that he plans to record, the “Melody of Rhythm” DVD and book he has been working on for 15 years.