Review: Howard Levy takes the harmonica to unexpected places

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The harmonica simply was not designed to play music that flies at the velocity that Howard Levy routinely attained Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club.

Yet there he was before a capacity audience, throwing off ideas at outrageous speeds and with a degree of clarity, precision and tonal beauty that one might not have thought possible.

Even apart from Levy's technical prowess, though, it was the musicality and stylistic breadth of his work that left the deepest impression. Combine his mastery of the instrument with the depth of his musicianship, and you begin to understand why Chicagoan Levy is widely regarded as the world's leading jazz harmonica virtuoso.

For this two-night engagement, Levy led his Acoustic Express band, an unusual quartet staffed by guitarists Chris Siebold and Pat Fleming plus bassist Larry Kohut. The instrumentation may be unconventional, but its soft-spoken nature gives the harmonica the sonic prominence it does not usually enjoy and allows Levy's work to be heard at its fullest. Levy, to no one's surprise, took full advantage of this setting.

He opened the evening with a rhapsodic, Hebraic solo evoking cantorial and klezmer traditions and setting the stage for the vintage "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." But this was a far cry from the famous Andrews Sisters version, Levy transforming the tune with fleet, mercurial lines set against a chugging rhythmic backdrop. When Levy and guitarist Siebold began "trading fours," as jazz musicians call the process of exchanging four-bar solos, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" became a vehicle for hyperactive jazz improvisation.

For all his notoriety, Jelly Roll Morton to this day does not receive the respect or attention he deserves, but a few top musicians – including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Marcus Roberts – have worked for decades to change that situation. So has Levy, and he furthered the cause with an evocative version of Morton's "Sidewalk Blues." Morton likely never heard the piece played by these instruments, but Levy's combination of expressive melodic lines and easygoing virtuosity echoed Morton's approach to the piano. Acoustic Express rekindled the sensibilities of 1920s jazz, at least as far as we've been able to understand them from historical recordings.

When Levy sat down at the piano to accompany himself in Django Reinhardt's "Nuages," it was not a stunt, though some listeners may have admired it as such. Close your eyes, and it really wouldn't matter if two musicians or one were handling both instruments. More important was the exquisite shape of the single-note melodic lines Levy articulated in unison on harmonica and piano. In other passages, the piano part answered the harmonica, two instruments riffing in the consciousness of a single musician.

Each subsequent piece took Levy and Acoustic Express into another stylistic realm, from the exotic Macedonian scales and time signature of "Jovano Jovanke" to the Brazilian undulations of "Carinhoso" to solo excerpts of Levy's Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra. If "Howard's Rag" more closely suggested a hoedown, the misnomer did not diminish the joyous, bluegrass-tinged, all-American high spirits of Levy's work.

He's one of a kind.

Howard Levy's Acoustic Express plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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