Exclusive interview with Philadelphia free jazz artist and poet Elliott Levin

Elliott Levin is one of those types of musicians and poets where everyone in Philadelphia in the last 30 years has been exposed to what he does. From Questlove of The Roots to Sun Ra himself, Elliott Levin will go down in history as one of many of the leading free jazz musicians in the Philadelphia music scene. His roots stem in many directions of modern music, touching many areas outside of the free jazz scene. His extensive time at the University of Oregon along with his works and time with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Odean Pope, Marshal Allen, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and many others has led him to this beautiful lineage point of so much music and poetry left for the world to really take something from. We sent Elliott some questions recently while he has been on a very busy touring schedule and he sent us some really incredible answers back. Eliott Levin has crossed many boundaries in his works, always bridging new ideas and that is what we express at Sound Colour Vibration. We hope you enjoy this interview.

~ Erik Otis


Cecil Taylor was one of your main teachers, how did you come to meet him and when was this?

Cecil was artist in residence at Glassboro U. (now Rowan) from 1973-74. I was playing with some musicins in the area at the time, and got to see him perform at the school, and was subsequently invited to “sit in” on his class- which became an ensemble, and eventually migrated to NYC, where in March of 1974 I performed my first concert in NYC with Cecil and a large ensemble (The Unit Core Orchestra) at Carnegie Hall.

Cecil Taylor was known for being ferocious, almost savage like on the piano, at times breaking parts of the instrument, did you ever encounter moments like this in close proximity?

Playing with CT is often ferocious, but in a very fiery, loving way…not to say there isn’t danger involved, as with anything really important or profound. Getting to know him as a person and friend, as well as teacher, you can find these moments to expand into all walks of the relationship, interplay, and your life.

What were some of the biggest philosphical ideas you took from studying under Cecil Taylor?

That you are responsible for everything that you do in an ensemble, as a soloist, performer, friend, human being. You must find the best ways to refine this , and to best communicate it to others, while remaining true to your ideas, feelings, concepts.

What are some things about Cecil Taylor the general public never came to know about?

While being considered mysterious, by some, CT is proabably one of the most open and honest individuals I have known in this life. He has put much of what anyone would want to know in his music and poetry. There is an interesting film “All The Notes”- by Chris Felver, which is a very intimate look into Cecil’s life and ideas. Several people have discussed biographies…I’m sure more things will come out over the years.

You have been know for a lot of your street music, when did you decided to use natural and man made landscapes as a means to perform and express and not rely soley on studios and concerts halls?

I started- like many- playing in basements, lofts, streets, parks, coffehouses…I even remember jamming in the bathroom of my high school , and getting suspended for it…I never relied on studios, halls, etc…It is a struggle to even get to play in those places on any regular basis- even to this day.

You have recorded and toured with Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, how do you define him as a musician and his role in modern music?

Marshall is another dynamic and unique individual I am very grateful to have been able to call my friend, teacher, and collaborator. When Sun Ra was alive, he was not so free to play with other bands…but since he became leader of the Arkestra, he has fortunately (for me, and others) been open to expanding his musical collaborations. He has a phenomenal sound, and concept of playing the saxophone- and also a wonderful innovator on EVI (electric valve instrument). Plus he is an amazing and beautiful person, a joy to be around and to play with. At 86 he has more fire and energy than many a fraction of his age. I have played several concerts with him in the past months, and he plays with an energy that can still elevate the stage.

You have done extensive work and carry a very healthy gigging resume from year to year, what are some of the most memorable performances you have been a part of during your lifetime?

Starting playing with Cecil at 20 in Carnegie Hall (with a 40 piece orchestra) was a pretty daunting experience, especially finding myself playing in corner bars playing R & B gigs, etc…for many years soon after- intertwined with so many eclectic playing experiences…I got to play with Cecil years later in many beautiful situations…a midnight set on my birthday in Macedonia (where we, with the Mingus Dynasty band, came in to “replace” the U.N. peacekeeping troops) for the Skopje Jazz Festival. Touring Europe with my band New Ghost (twice)- provided many great moments. Playing in Moscow (at the American Embassy) with a combined group of Russian/European/American free improvisors in the last year of the Soviet Union was a very powerful experience. Playing in Mexico City twice last year, first with a great Mexican free-jazz band (Gabriel Lauber, etc.); the second time with West Phila. Orchestra- for a “World” music Festival- sharing the bill and hotel with bands from every continent- plus The LAst Poets – was quite an experience…We got “quarantined” because of the “swine flu” epidemic in the middle of the Festival…and ended up having a huge jam session among the 100’s of musicians gathered at our hotel one night…I could go on for a long time…it makes me realize that no matter how tough things get, my life has been truly blessed. Thank you.

You grew up in Philadelphia’s rich music heritage and legacy, who were the first musicians you really started to be inspired by and what kind of groups were you first in when you started to create your own music?

I played recorder in elementary school, liked it a lot, but never thought much about it, until later- when I started hanging out- and eventually jamming with friends- in high school. Actually , in Jr. High, I briefly played harmonica in a “jug band”. In high school , I was jamming with a lot of friends- listening to progressive rock, folk music, jazz, African and Indian music. A great singer/song writer- Buzzy Linhart- befriended me when I was very young, and gave me great inspiration. A good friend- Bob Woods (who I have heard very recently passed away) helped inspire me to play. Also 2 high school friends- Mike (Urbanek) Mantra (with whom, we started the first “New Wave” band in Phila.-ILTAR), and Richard Preston (who gave me my first flute, on the condition that I learn to play it). The late vibist Bill Lewis was very encouraging to me…also saxist Byard Lancaster- who to this day has helped get recorded- and always networking and spreading the “Philly SOund”…I also met percussionists Keno Speller, Ron Howerton, and Ed Watkins (who along with guitarist Rick Iannacone- comprised the free-jazz/poetry group Interplay- which has played together over 30 years)…I was fortunate enough to be neighbors of the Sun Ra house, and got to hear them play literally 100’s of times- especially John Gilmore, and Marshall…playing with many R & B bands, and then touring for 11 years with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes- introduced me to that side of the “Sound of Phila”. Playing with Odean Pope and the Sax Choir for many years- helped connect me to a deep tradition and heritage of all the “local” roots…Robert Kenyatta & La Tumba, and the many great Philly drummers of the Afro-Carribean-American tradition…and of course back to Cecil to whom I connected so early and so strongly…My first band to come out of that was Olduvai- (with late drummer Jim Richards, and guitarist Tom Rollison)- we are hopefully re-releasing our LP(from 1977) on CD soon with Porter Records…

You have embeded poetry into your work as much as the musical aspects of your talents, does your poetry come from long hours of writing and editing or is it more of a stream of consciousness free flowing approach?

I actually started writing very early- before playing music…writing has always come easy to me…I never felt the urge to do much editing or re-writing…I let it flow, like a musical improv…It has taken me years of studying sound and rhythm to help do this in a satisfying way..I find the 2 are often interchangeable…

Music, is of course, a universal language, in your travels do you find your language is more well recieved in other countries outside of America?

Many other countries appreciate poetry much more than we do… In Russia they have statues of poets…In Ireland, poets pictures and statues are in local taverns, inns, parks, street corners… In America, we do have the Walt Whitman Bridge, …Rap and the “spoken word” scene have brought a new interest in language perhaps…But most poets- whatever “successful” ones we may have- often find they are better received in countries, where the audiences may not even understand their meanings… I have had this experience.

Now that 2011 is approaching, what are your plans and where do you see yourself going in the next decade?

Surviving into the next decade(s)- and staying strong and healthy, and able to do what I do- is a big goal for me. Thankfully, I have wonderful role models like MarshallAllen, Cecil Taylor, Odean Pope, pianist Raymond King, keyboardist Don Preston (with WHom I do a short S. CAl. tour next month)…and others who are still quite vital, lucid, and powerful in their later decades… I hope to also be doing this strong as long as I am here. Immediate future: NEW GHOST at Tritone on Dec. 26. WEST PHILA. ORCH. at Tritone on New Year’s Eve…we’ll take 2011- and beyond- when it comes.

Thanks for your time, Elliott.

Download the piece “Never Yet Ever Get” from Elliott Levin meets The Seesaw Ensemble released in 2009 courtesy of Porter Records.

Jaci Downs Photography

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