A leap into the sublime

On their latest release, Shem Tov Levy and his ensemble infuse jazz and rock with a distinctive touch of their well-honed tone and personality.

Shem Tov Levy 311 (photo credit: Gerard Alon)
Shem Tov Levy 311
(photo credit: Gerard Alon)
Shem Tov Levy has traversed expansive musical domains in his extensive career. He has applied his compositional, vocal and keyboard skills and – particularly – his excellent flute playing to jazz, pop, blues, avant-garde and classical material for more than three decades, enjoying synergies with many of the iconic figures of the local music scene, the likes of Arik Einstein, Shlomo Gronich and Yitzhak Klepter.
For some time now, 60-year-old Levy has been moving in the more ethnic-seasoned spheres of the music business, with the emphasis on material with Balkan intent and putting out albums such as the polished Circles of Dreams and Stations. But his latest release, Ben Adama on the Hatav Hasmini label, sees Levy take an incremental leap into more sublime realms. There is quality everywhere you look among the 11 tracks, and the sextet’s snug playing smacks of a generous amount of shared stage and on-the-road time.
“I think the members of the band flow so well together,” Levy observes. “Each of them is a wonderful musician in his own right and brings his own expertise with him, and all that comes together perfectly on Ben Adama.”
The group’s efforts were certainly appreciated at last month’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, where Levy and his cohorts played two sell-out shows.
For Levy, the new CD is a milestone on an ongoing shared path. “This band has been together for about seven years. Each of us has absorbed different things along the way.
During the course of my work and explorations, I have gotten into Arabic music – on Stations there is a number by [Egyptian composer Mohammed] Abdul Wahab – and Bulgarian music, which is my own root music, and something by [gypsy jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt. I have also started attending Jewish culture study sessions at Hillel House in Jerusalem, where I come in contact with the world of piyutim (Jewish liturgical music), so that also comes into my work.”
Levy has evidently taken his liturgical endeavor a long way, as evidenced by last Tuesday’s concert at this year’s Piyut Festival at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem.
Ben Adama is very much a summation of Levy’s familial and acquired musical influences and stretches his artistic mix even further. There are well-crafted readings of a couple of jazz standards – Dizzy Gillespie’s ever-popular “Night in Tunisia” and Miles Davis’s “Nardis.” Levy has also included his own jazz-inflected “Seven Eighths,” which harks back to his days with shortlived early 1970s progressive rock outfit Sheshet, which also included Yehudit Ravitz. And there is a contribution from late Argentinean Nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla, evidence of Levy’s past synergy with the Pitango Quartet that mixes tango, classical and popular Israeli music.
“This album is about what I have lived and experienced in the last few years,” Levy declares. “Naturally, out of all the material I have encountered and worked with during this time, I chose the music that fits this band the best. But nothing is forced. In ‘Night in Tunisia’ and ‘Nardis,’ for instance, there are ethnic motifs in the actual melody. I didn’t try to forcibly remold them for my purposes. I just added something of our color and personality, that’s all.”
The current Levy ensemble is, as the leader puts it, a true labor of love. “We all do lots of other things, outside the sphere of the band – from playing [Jewish soul Shlomo] Carlebach songs to Greek music. And I write movie music and sometimes play with [intermittently resurrected late 1970s rock-pop group] Tzlil Mechuvan. We’ve all got to make a living, but this band isn’t going to make any of us rich. We all do it because we love the music and playing together.”
Word of Levy and the sextet is getting out abroad, too. Next month the band will follow up its Red Sea stint with performances at jazz festivals in South Korea and China. Levy’s gowith- the-flow attitude appears to be taking him in the desired direction.
“I hadn’t sung on any albums for a while, but it just felt right to do that on Ben Adama.
You’ve got to do what feels right.”