Tony Levin on Working with Marco Minnemann and Jordan Rudess: ‘An exciting challenge’

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No sooner had Tony Levin’s new collaboration with drummer/guitarist Marco Minnemann and keyboardist Jordan Rudess been announced by Lazy Bones Records, and the always-busy bassist was back on the road.

He’s still touring in support of the Stick Men’s sweeping triumph Deep, even as he preps for a set of European shows as part of Peter Gabriel’s anniversary tour in celebration of So. That’s to say nothing of his just-completed dates with the Crimson ProjeKCt (featuring fellow Crim alums Adrian Belew and Pat Mastelotto), work on the new David Bowie release — oh, and sitting in with the Buddy Rich band.

But back to Levin Minnemann Rudess, due on September 5, 2013 and featuring Minnemann (Steven Wilson, Trey Gunn), and Rudess (Dream Theater). The album is Levin’s second with co-producer Scott Schorr, who also helmed 2011’s celebrated Levin Torn White with Yes drummer Alan White and guitar virtuoso David Torn — and it shares a similar free-form energy.

But this is no sequel, as Levin explains in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. He also talks about previous collaborations with Minnemann (with Jason Sadites) and Rudess (as part of Liquid Tension Experiment), returning to work with Gabriel and the Stick Men, and getting back into the swing of things with a jazz group …

NICK DERISO: Explain how the sessions for Levin Minnemann Rudess unfolded. It all feels very organic.
TONY LEVIN: It does feel organic to me, and I’m really happy about that. It’s not the easiest thing, when you assemble some musicians for a project, to have the music gel — to have it have a flavor of its own — even if the players are great. I think we succeeded very well with this album.

NICK DERISO: Where you always in the room together, or were there basic ideas that were then built upon through the recording process?
TONY LEVIN: No, we weren’t all in the same place at the same time — Photoshop joke pics notwithstanding! Because Jordan was busy with Dream Theater recording, the pieces were instigated by Marco and by me. We traded those files a lot, in the months before Jordan was free — so when his turn came, poor Jordan was given pieces with so many tracks on them, it was hard to whittle it down and hear the essence of the piece. He did an amazing job of coming up with parts that worked really well, and the sound and flavor of the music changed in a big way, and in a good way, when Jordan was done.

NICK DERISO: Your last recording for Lazy Bones featured David Torn on the guitar. How does the addition of a keyboard player like Rudess change the improvisational landscape? What special qualities did he bring to the recording?
TONY LEVIN: David isn’t just a guitarist on a record; he has a unique approach to music and often doesn’t sound like a guitar at all. Then, what Jordan brings to the musical table is a whole other world of sounds — and he does things like re-enforce my bass line with low lows, which to my ears bring the music somewhat into the realm of what we did together with Liquid Tension Experiment. He also is a great soloist. And to further complicate the answer to your question, Marco plays guitar in addition to drums, and he did play it quite a bit on the record. So, to summarize my answer, I think each player brings something different to the music, but also the nature of keys and guitars brings a different feel too.

NICK DERISO: In some ways, Levin Minnemann Rudess reminds me of those Liquid Trio sessions with Rudess — in that it feels like an open-ended, very symbiotic musical discussion. How did this new trio differ from that experience?
TONY LEVIN: Again, with different players, the experience is sure to be different. But also, the Liquid Trio material was done together, and quickly, and based mostly on improvs. The LMR record is all compositions. We headed in the improv direction at the end of the recordings, when Jordan and I did some long jams in his studio, and filmed them — but the decision was made that, because we already had so much material for the CD, we’d use those jams, pretty much unedited, as bonus video footage on the Deluxe Edition CD/DVD, instead of adding Marco, editing down, and making them album pieces.

NICK DERISO: You’ve somehow fit this new album in between dates with the Stick Men, who are now out for a set of Italian dates. Are you finding new areas of inspiration on stage as you continue presenting the Deep project? Are the songs evolving?
TONY LEVIN: Yes, the Stick Men material is always a challenge for us live, and we’re always trying to improve as a band and bring our music to new places. On this tour, we’re doing a lot from the Deep album, and a lot of Crimson material as well as Robert Fripp’s “Breathless,” and quite a bit of jamming, both free form and thematic. Stravinsky too. Some of that material is, indeed, evolving for us — especially the improvs. On other pieces, at least speaking for myself, I’m still working to get them just right!

NICK DERISO: This summer also saw you performing with the Buddy Rich Big Band, after some time away from jazz. Was it a difficult transition?
TONY LEVIN: That was a lot of fun, and challenging for me. Not so much the fact that it was jazz, but a type of jazz, playing with a big band, and with Fender type of bass, that I did a lot of some years ago — and had recorded with Buddy’s band in the mid-70s. Re-visiting the old recordings, I felt I’d been pretty good at the style, but don’t have those particular kind of chops any more. So I practiced quite a bit before the tour, and was grateful there were multiple shows so I could get back into, pardon the expression, the swing of things. Got exciting doing the music with great players, and it turned out quite well in the end, and reminded me that sometimes there’s a reward for pushing myself beyond what’s comfortable musically.

NICK DERISO: Later this fall comes another round of shows with Peter Gabriel on the Back to Front tour, as well. How have things changed in the interim from a technological standpoint? Is it easier now to coax out the So album’s complex web of sounds in a live setting?
TONY LEVIN: I’m not aware of much, technically, that’s made reproducing that music different now. It’s a pretty analog band, and there’s room in that material for some looseness in approach, so we can have fun with the show, and the playing is not the same every night. As you mention it’s another round of shows, in that we toured last October. It was pretty thrilling, then, to re-assemble the same band that had originally toured with the So album. Thank goodness we’re all healthy and playing pretty darn well, 30 years or so after the first time around. And in this show Peter has chosen to do the So album in its entirety and in order, as the middle third of the show, surrounded by some very interesting other material. I’m looking forward to October and playing the show through Europe.

NICK DERISO: What has working in a creative environment like the one Scott Schorr has created meant to you as an artist? These days, having this kind of freedom, quite frankly, typically means issuing the album independently.
TONY LEVIN: I’m very happy with the albums I’ve collaborated on with Scott. As a producer, he acts something like a fan, just wanting to hear the playing that’s made him love each of the players. So, the musicians come into the project knowing they’re free to do whatever they want, and pursue wherever the music takes them. We owe him a lot of credit for that. It’s also an exciting challenge for all of us, to pull the stuff together in a way that’s cohesive and distinctive, and not all over the place. Scott’s a great help with that too — and very experienced at the technical end of editing and mixing.

NICK DERISO: You’d previously worked with Minnemann as part of a Jason Sadites project. Was there a deeper connection there that told you an album-length collaboration like Levin Minnemann Rudess would work?
TONY LEVIN: We had also toured together, for a short time, with Eddie Jobson’s UKZ band. And I’ve heard Marco’s playing a lot, so I knew how good he is. But it’s a good point you make because, with a new combination of players, you can’t be really sure how it’ll come out unless one of the musicians is in charge and writing all the material — and I prefer the surprises you get with equal collaboration. We gave it our best shot, and I think we are lucky with the combination of musical personalities and that it did work very well.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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