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Re-organized: Keyboardist Pete Levin Makes the Jump!by Peter Aaron

For a working keyboardist, the fingers are the meal ticket. So God forbid something should happen to any of those precious little digits.

Organist and synthesizer player Pete Levin holds up the bandaged and broken pinky and ring fingers of his right hand. “I had a run-in with my snow thrower,” he says. “Slipped and fell on some ice and my hand went partially in—luckily, it kicked me back out instead of pulling me in farther!” This interviewer shudders, but Levin shrugs it off. “Ahh, you know, country living,” he adds with a wink. The mauling took place less than a week before a gig in Kingston, and yet listening to Levin’s flawless performance that night gave no inkling at all of the handicap. Of course, Levin, 69, didn’t get to such professional levels overnight.

With a resume that spans several decades, Levin has performed and recorded with a ridiculously diverse list of the biggest names in jazz and pop: Paul Simon, Miles Davis, Annie Lennox, Wayne Shorter, Carly Simon, Robbie Robertson, Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, Olivia Newton-John, Charles Mingus, Liza Minelli, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Gerry Mulligan, and even Salt-N-Pepa, to barely scratch the surface. Though an eight-year stint with saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre was also key, it was Levin’s long run with pianist and arranger Gil Evans’s groundbreaking big band that has most deeply defined his career.

The older brother of famed King Crimson/Peter Gabriel bassist and Chapman stickist Tony Levin, Pete was born and raised in Boston’s Brookline area. “Tony and I are both lucky we grew up in [Brookline’s] school system,” explains Pete, who started out playing the French horn. “It had a really great music program; the instructors were really knowledgeable and encouraging.” After learning the rudiments of piano and studying classical styles at Boston University, the elder Levin moved to New York in 1965 to attend the Julliard School of Music. By the late 1960s he was haunting the jazz clubs and, in line with his training, building a name in the studios. “In the ’70s I was doing two or three sessions a day sometimes,” he recalls. “But because of recording technology and the way the industry’s changed, that whole scene is gone forever now.” During those nascent studio days, however, things were still riding high. In 1974, the Levin brothers and drummer Steve Gadd even had a modest hit as fictitious unit the Clams, with a Spike Jones-styled novelty send-up of the Carpenters smash “Close to You.”

One night in the early ’70s Levin got a phone call from tuba player Howard Johnson. “He said, ‘Pete, I’m doing a week with Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard and one of his guys just quit—grab your horn and get down here!’” Levin says. “So I did, and I got the gig and stayed with Gil for 15 years; it helped that I already knew him from being around the studios. I really loved playing organ, which I did outside of Gil’s band, but when I got one of the early Moog synthesizers I brought it to a gig. Gil loved it, and, since it was hard for me to switch between the synth and my horn quickly sometimes, he ended up adding another French horn player and I just quit bringing my horn altogether.”

Thus, Levin ended up being one of the first to introduce synthesizers into jazz, and it was largely through that instrument that he would make his name in the commercial world by cutting and composing jingles and soundtracks and doing “sweetening” on pop records. But, not surprisingly, he more fondly recalls his globe-touring time with Evans, who is perhaps best known for his arranging on Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, and Porgy and Bess. “Gil was amazing, he taught me so much,” says Levin, who made close to 30 albums with the Grammy winner.

After Evans died in 1988 Levin started focusing on his solo career, releasing several synthesizer-dominated fusion and new age discs. In 2003 he joined his brother upstate—he now lives in Saugerties, while Tony resides in Kingston—where he instantly felt at home, leading and playing on local jazz dates and cranking out bar-band rock with the Retro Rockets and other acts. 2007’s Deacon Blues (Motema Music), however, heralded a return to the organ stylings of Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and Billy Preston that he’d so loved early on. “I’ve always dug the sound of a Hammond organ, but I’d put mine aside in the ’70s,” he says. “At that time nobody wanted to hear a Hammond—and now people can’t get enough of them!”

Levin’s re-organization continued with 2008’s cheekily named Certified Organic (also Motema), a buoyant soul-jazz set featuring guitarists Joe Beck and Mike DiMicco, drummer Harvey Sorgen, percussionist Ernie Colon, and others. But the keyboardist’s newest offering, the self-released Jump!, pares the lineup down to the classic 1960s organ-trio format and finds Levin accompanied by Miles Davis/Return to Forever drummer Lenny White and Jimmy McGriff/Stanley Turrentine guitarist Dave Stryker (Return to Forever percussionist Manolo Badrena also appears).

“Pete is a musician with a great history,” says White, recently on the road with the reunited Return to Forever. “His playing tells stories of the many great musical experiences he’s had.”

And with some rare East Coast dates by the Pete Levin Organ Trio this month and a European tour in April, more of those great experiences are on the way. “I’m a journeyman musician,” adds Levin. “My best and most creative ideas come from playing live.”

The Pete Levin Organ Trio, with Lenny White and Dave Stryker, will play at the Falcon in Marlboro on March 24 and the Rosendale Café in Rosendale on March 26. Jump! is out now.

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