Jazzreview: Let’s talk about your latest release, Serengeti. You have a fine group of sidemen; a great bassist, Peter Barshay, Peter Van Wageningen who was Pete Escovedo’s drummer for years, and Michael Spiro, a top-notch percussionist. How did you hook up with those guys?
Mark Levine: "I’ve known all of them for about twenty years. San Francisco is a relatively small city. After you’ve played here that long, you kind of know everybody. Also, the Latin jazz scene is kind of incestuous in that everybody plays with at least five different bands. Putting the band together was pretty much a no brainer. I just took the three people I thought I’d be most compatible with, and it turned out right. We’ve got one previous release called Hey It’s Me. Michael, Paul and myself also play in a band called ‘Que Calor,’ which came out with a Latin jazz record about two years ago."
Jazzreview: The CD has some great compositions by people like Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and Wayne Shorter, as well as one of your originals.
Mark Levine: "The Tony Martinez tune is getting the most airplay [Cha Cha Cha Para Mi Alma]. He’s a young Cuban musician who’s an excellent player, composer and arranger who currently lives in Switzerland. He’s come out with a couple of CDs. One in particular is called Maferefun. This is probably heretical to say this, but for me, it’s the greatest Latin jazz record ever made. It ranks right up there with anything Tito Puente, Fort Apache or Ray Barretto has done. It’s an extremely important record because it gives kind of a picture of where Cuban jazz is in 2001. Many of the musicians on that record like Julio Barreto, the drummer, and Julio Padron, the trumpet player, are among the absolute best in Cuba. I think just about everyone in the band has played with Irakere at one time or another. That record was a big influence on me and as soon as I heard that tune I said, ‘I’ve got to record it!’"
Jazzreview: Your last two releases are fine examples of Latin jazz. The left coast seems like a real hotbed for the Latin jazz sound these days.
Mark Levine: "Well, I could see how you might see it that way, but to me Latin jazz is a pretty universal phenomenon. Latin jazz has really taken off in popularity in the last few years. There is certainly more activity coming out of the West Coast than there was previously, but there is also a tremendous amount of stuff coming out of New York. John Benitez’ new CD is excellent, as well as Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s new one, Supernova.
There is also a lot of stuff coming out of Europe now. As I said, Tony Martinez lives there, as well as Omar Sosa, a leading piano player in the field. I was in Switzerland recently and was amazed at the number of Cuban musicians living in just that one tiny little country. There’s quite a bit happening all over the world, so I wouldn’t describe this as a West Coast phenomenon even though your favorite five records might be from the West Coast."
Jazzreview: Whom do you count as some of your major influences? I know you admire Mulgrew Miller’s work.
Mark Levine: "Really the entire history of jazz piano and Latin piano. I listen to James P. Johnson, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. I listen to Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and people like that from the ‘20s and 30’s. I guess I first got into the music listening to the pianists of the bebop era, Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk Mulgrew is just the latest. There are an awful lot of great piano players out there.
In the Latin scene, same thing from Paruchin, the great Cuban pianist of the ‘40s and ‘50s, to Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo [Rubalcaba], Danilo Perez and the guy on John Benitez’s new CD, Luis Perdomo. There are an amazing number of young and not so young great pianists coming up or just getting recognition for the first time. All of them have influenced me.
I also had a number of teachers that had a tremendous influence on me. One was Jaki Byard whom I studied with when I just entered college. Then there’s Herb Pomeroy, who was kind of the guru at the Berklee School of Music in Boston for many years. In New York, Hal Overton, not very well known, but he was the big band arranger for Thelonius Monk at the Town Hall concerts. I learned an awful lot about Monk’s music when I studied with him. There are a lot of people I owe a debt of gratitude to."
Jazzreview: You selected a Mulgrew Miller composition as the title cut for your release One Notch Up.
Mark Levine: "I have an affinity for Mulgrew’s tunes, but especially if you’ll pardon the expression, to ‘latinify’ them. To take an American tune and play it with Afro-Cuban rhythms, it has to fall into a rhythmic pattern called clave. Some great jazz tunes simply cannot be played with Afro-Cuban rhythms because they don’t fall into clave. Mulgrew’s tunes much like Thelonius Monk’s tunes, which are also very popular among Latin jazz artists, seem to lend themselves to be played in clave rhythms with a minimum of changing notes or rhythmic signatures. I’ve recorded about seven or eight of his tunes for that reason."
Jazzreview: Can we talk a little more about your development as a jazz artist?
Mark Levine: "I went to school in Boston. That’s where I met Houston Person, because he’s from Boston. I did my very first record playing with Houston back in 1966. It was called Underground Soul on Prestige. It sold about seven copies, and I think I have two of them. He’s getting to be a pretty big star now. His last release with Etta [Jones] was, I think, number one or two in the country, so it could be that Prestige would go back and reissue that. I had a tune on there, and y’know maybe I could make some royalties off that!"
Jazzreview: Did your teaching draw you out to California then, later?
Mark Levine: "Actually, I had moved to Los Angeles in ’66. During my eight years there, I had quite a few gigs up in the San Francisco area. Though I liked living and working in L.A., I was getting better work up here in San Francisco, so I moved up here in ’74."
Jazzreview: Is that where you started working with Harold Land and Blue Mitchell?
Mark Levine: "Right. Although I did work with them occasionally in Los Angeles. When I moved to San Francisco, I became the head of their Northern California rhythm section. Whenever they would have a gig up here, they would call me and I’d get the band together. I did that up until the time of Blue’s death in the early ‘80’s."
Jazzreview: Is that where you met drummer, Smiley Winters?
Mark Levine: "Yes. Smiley is a product of Oakland. He was one of the first people I met when I moved up here. We played together innumerable times and recorded together. We made one duo album, Smiley and Me. We did make one other record with Blue. It was recorded in 1980 and took 19 years to come out. But, that actually pales in comparison with Afro-American Latin that I recorded with Mongo Santamaria in 1969 which was released last year by Columbia, 31 years later. So don’t despair, you musicians out there, if your record doesn’t get released, just live long enough and eventually, it will!"
Jazzreview: You are one of the only musicians I know of that is equally skilled on both piano and trombone. Bob Brookmeyer and yourself are the only two I can think of.
Mark Levine: "Used to. I don’t play it anymore."
Jazzreview: How did you pick it up?
Mark Levine: "I took it up in junior high school simply because as a piano player there was no school band to play in. So, I took it up just so I could play in the band. It was kind of a secondary instrument for many years. Then it became my primary instrument for a few years in the early ‘80s. I played trombone on Poncho’s [Sanchez] first two recordings. Then I released one CD under my own name on Concord playing trombone."
Jazzreview: The latest Jazz Times crowns Poncho Sanchez as the "King of Latin Jazz". What’s your opinion?
Mark Levine: "It’s a rather controversial choice. Based on record sales and popularity, it’s probably deserved, but I know there’s a lot of steam coming out of New York right now because a lot of people don’t think of Poncho as quite in the same league as some of the other great congueros on the scene right now, like Giovanni Hidalgo or other percussionists. My feelings are it’s good for the music. It’s great publicity for Poncho, whether you think he’s the king of Latin jazz or not. I think a lot of people got a little bit upset about it because Tito Puente was the king. After Tito died there’s nobody the music community wanted to put in his place."
Jazzreview: Let’s talk a little about your years with Cal Tjader. His groups are a great example of how Latin jazz has influenced the whole American culture.
Mark Levine: "Oh yeah, that was the diversity band. Cal was Swedish, Poncho Mexican, Vince Lateano Italian, Rob Fisher was Greek, Roger Glenn African-American, and myself Jewish."
Jazzreview: You wrote two of the numbers on the Grammy award-winning album, La Onda Va Bien, Serengeti and Linda Chicana. Could you tell us a little about that?
Mark Levine: "Linda Chicana is a tune originally titled Sheila. In fact, the original record of it was Mongo’s [Santamaria] version called Sheila in 1969. That’s on the record that was just released last year. The next time it was recorded was by Cal. It’s been recorded eight or ten times since by other artists titled Linda Chicana. With Cal, I was lucky enough to have it on a record that won a Grammy, although that wasn’t the reason it won."
Jazzreview: Carmen McRae is one of my favorite vocalists. You recorded with her on a date with Cal titled Heat Wave. I understand she could be quite a difficult personality to work with.
Mark Levine: "I’ve heard that from many people. A friend of mine was her drummer for many years. She used to chew up piano players pretty rapidly. He would call me about once every two months and say, ‘You want the gig?’ Because of the reputation she had, I said no. The one time I did record with her was on that date and everything was fine. But it’s true, she did have a reputation as being kind of rough to work for."
Jazzreview: You’re a very well respected jazz educator. You’re on the faculty at the University of California-Berkley and have conduced several jazz camps. Has working with students been rewarding for you or has it affected your own playing?
Mark Levine: "I would say both. It’s certainly rewarding to work with other musicians regardless of their age. I’ve also learned quite a bit from it because when you teach, when you organize your material, you discover very quickly what your own shortcomings are, what you don’t have clear in your own mind. So, teaching has also definitely helped my own playing. By teaching at various places, I’ve also made a personal discovery of a few musicians that I’ve ended up playing with."
Jazzreview: You’ve written some very important books on jazz, The Jazz Piano Book that is like the jazz bible and The Jazz Theory Book. Jazz Times listed the theory book as their #1 choice for its recommended jazz libraries. They must have taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to complete. What motivated you and kept you going?
Mark Levine: "With The Piano Book, there were a lot of good piano books out there, but only dealing with very small corners of the music like voicings or things like that. I decided a comprehensive kind of ‘How To’ book was necessary. I wrote it mostly just for the fun of it. I never expected it to make any money or for it to be successful in any way. However, I had the backing of a publisher right away, Sher Music that wanted to do this. Rather than write the book first and then try to sell it, I was very fortunate to have had a publisher in my corner right away who was picking up some of the expenses. The Jazz Theory Book came about five years later."
Jazzreview: You have such a nice touch on the keys and your solos are very fluid and imaginative. Any advice for budding jazz pianists trying to follow in your footsteps?
Mark Levine: "Just practice, really. Practice and listen. Transcribe off records. Learn from the masters directly. Get a good teacher. You know, the usual advice, but definitely practice. You’re not going to get anywhere unless you practice. The world is full of extremely talented musicians who don’t ever really get anywhere because they’re too lazy. So, go practice!"
Jazzreview: Any new recordings in the pipeline?
Mark Levine: "The next one is in the planning stage. We’ve already picked most of the tunes and are rehearsing them. I anticipate it will come out sometime next September."
Jazzreview: Is there a process you go through to make your selections for the CD’s you record?
Mark Levine: "I pick a tune and write a kind of minimalist arrangement, and we play it. I see what kind of reaction I get from the other guys. If no one likes it, then it’s out. If they start making suggestions on how to make it better, then we start that process. Although some of the tunes I can honestly say are arranged by me, most of them are arranged by all of us. Michael will suggest a different montuno, Peter might suggest a different bass line, and Paul might suggest taking one section and playing it in a timba rhythm. So truly, all of us arrange the material. I just start the process."