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Talking ‘Jew’s harp’ and more with Flecktones’ Howard Levy

Howard Levy

Howard Levy will perform as part of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on June 27 and Powell Hall. 

When Howard Levy, a harmonica and piano player, left Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in 1992, he was the only band member who was married with children, and he didn’t want to spend some 200 days a year on the road, he said.

But there was another reason the Jewish musician left the Grammy Award-winning band: He wanted to participate in a variety of other musical projects, including performing for the High Holidays at a Chicago-area synagogue.

A couple decades later, Levy, 67, returned to the Flecktones, whose songs range from classical to bluegrass to funk, when saxophonist Jeff Coffin left for Dave Matthews Band.

And now that the Flecktones’ touring schedule is significantly lighter, Levy has figured out a way to play both Red Rocks (the iconic Colorado outdoor amphitheater where the band opened its summer tour) and Rosh Hashanah.

He and Bela Fleck and the other Flecktones (Victor Wooten and Roy “Future Man” Wooten) will also perform at Powell Hall on Thursday night, and Levy spoke with the Jewish Light ahead of the show.

How has the tour been going?

The tour is divided into two sections, and we did the first part of it starting in late May, which was fantastic. We started at Red Rocks, doing a collaborative concert with the Colorado Symphony and some other special guests, which was quite a way to kick off the tour, and I would say that every show after that was just fantastic. And we took a break and came back and started at Telluride [Bluegrass Festival, in mid-June], and that’s a tough place to start out after you haven’t played in 10 days because you are up at almost 9,000 feet, so that creates some difficulties. But it was beautiful and very inspiring, and the audiences have been wonderful.

Howard Levy

Howard Levy rejoined the Flecktones in 2009.

So now it’s been a while since you rejoined the Flecktones, but what has it been like for you to be back with the band?

Well, we weren’t sure how it was going to work out, so we did a little trial run at the end of 2009, and everyone got along great. We recorded the “Rocket Science” album in 2010, and then the tour in 2011 and 2012, we played about 130 shows. It was super intense, and we all still liked each other after it was over, but we all decided that we needed a break, that we didn’t want to keep touring like that because everyone has their own projects, but after a few years, we really wanted to do it again. And when we went out in 2015, I think it was the best the band ever sounded. Somehow taking breaks and learning all this new stuff and everyone working on their own thing made the band really sound its best, and that’s the way it sounds this summer, too. Going back and revisiting some of our older pieces that we haven’t done since the 1990s, they feel really fresh and very creative, so there is always a way to make things feel fresh in this band.

Which pieces from the early ‘90s have been especially fun to play?

I really love “Mars Needs Women.” That was from our first album. It’s a two-part suite that was named after some cheesy science-fiction movie poster that Bela saw. I love that tune. I love soloing on it. I love the group ensemble passages on it. We are also doing a tune from the second album called “Jekyll and Hyde (and Ted and Alice).” I started listening to old stuff of ours, and I honestly didn’t remember playing that one. It’s really complicated but really a cool piece — all sort of mixed-time meters, with all these different sections and all of us really liked it when we got to Bela’s basement to rehearse.

I read through a piece you had written on your website in which you talked about your experience at Jewish summer camp. I think that’s a common experience for Jewish musicians, first becoming connected to music at summer camp. Can you tell me what that was like for you and why you were able to connect with folk music there?

It was interesting because you’re outside. You are living in tents that have platforms. One of my friends named Marty played guitar and sang, and he was good, and we started a little band together. He was the one who turned me on to folk music because growing up, I was into classical music, and my parents were both into classical music and Broadway music. And gradually after years of piano lessons — and I had been composing music since I was 8 years old — I started getting interested in popular music when I was 12, 13, listening to radio, rock and roll stuff. But I didn’t know about folk music. At this Jewish summer camp, people are sitting around playing guitars at night around the campfire. It’s a special magic, and so I started to really love this music.

You wrote that you learned “the Jew’s harp.” What is that?

That’s the metal twanger that goes boing, boing, boing. I wish I had one on me. It’s an ancient instrument that is found all over the world. Sometimes it’s made of bamboo, sometimes metal. It’s everywhere from Indonesia to southeast Asia and Europe. In India, they have virtuosos who play it; they call it the morsing. But in Europe, it got to be called the Jew’s harp for some obscure reasons that I’m not sure of. You place it against your teeth, and it resonates on the inside of your mouth. I somehow got one when I was at summer camp and started twanging away. And the first tune that we have been playing at every show, I start the whole concert off playing the Jew’s harp solo, so it’s one of those little specialties I developed. They use it on a lot of cartoons for the sound of a frog jumping, but you can play a lot of really cool musical stuff on it.

I saw that you have played some gigs at synagogues. How long have you been doing that, and what are shows at synagogues like for you?

I really love playing music for sacred events, whatever they might be. I have played in a lot of churches, things where people meditate to, but the thing with playing for Jewish services, it’s special. Having grown up Jewish, some of these melodies and prayers are just a part of me, but I’m not the kind of person that enjoys going to a service and being in a congregation because I think the best way for me to pray is to play music.

So there was a very interesting congregation in Chicago (where Levy lives) called Etz Chaim that asked me to play for them and also wanted me to compose some original music for some of the prayers. I started doing that probably close to 20 years ago, and after a while, they started asking me to play for the High Holiday services. That took a tremendous amount of work, and it’s one of the greatest things that I do because this congregation is so unusual. They really want to have me not only accompany the music but also bring in fresh material, to write original things, to discover music that might be pertinent from all different styles, pop and blues and folk and jazz. It’s been a very rewarding thing for me to do, so we are going to do it again this year with an Indian tabla player who also plays drums and a really great virtuoso bass player.

I have actually explained the blues as a form of therapy especially for the High Holidays where you are supposed to go over everything and atone, and the blues is a very good tool for that. As a matter of fact, I’m writing a tune right now called the “Al Chet Blues.” Al chet, the sins that you are atoning for on Yom Kippur.

I read that one of the reasons you left the Flecktones is that it had become such a time commitment and it didn’t allow you the time to do other projects. So is a project like working with this synagogue something you wouldn’t have been able to do?

Oh yeah. Yes, as a matter of fact, when we went back on our heavy touring schedule in 2011-2012, I made a point of calling the Flecktones manager and saying that we have to start our tour a little later in the fall because I have to play High Holidays.

I learned just earlier today that Bela was Jewish; I had no idea. Does that serve as any sort of other point of connection for you and him?

Well, yeah, we are both from New York City, and yeah, absolutely, but I feel like I have just as much in common with Victor and Roy. We are like brothers, the four of us — and Richard Battaglia, too, our tour manager. It’s like a family. We know each other so well and have known each other so long. And once you have played that much music with people, you get to know a lot about them just from the way you interact musically on stage.

What can fans look forward to at the show tomorrow night in St. Louis?

Hearing some of those tunes that we haven’t played for so long and also just the joy of interaction that we have and the fact that all of us are bringing new stuff this time around. I think that this year sounds better than last year. This is the fourth summer that we are doing it and I have sort of a little gauge that I run in my head, and this time it feels just wonderful.