Thursday, November 11, 2010

Talking with Honeydog Adam Levy about jazz, hip-hop and Sunday's "Lush Life" gig

Originally published at, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010

Adam Levy
Jazz and hip-hop get along famously, even if some jazz purists don’t approve. Hip-hop artists have long mined the jazz catalog for samples, and many jazz artists who grew up with hip-hop flavor their music with beats, sound bites and scratching. Both genres include elements of improvisation; spontaneous composition and conversation in jazz, freestyling, DJing and emceeing in hip-hop.
This Sunday at the Southern Theater, some of the Twin Cities’ most popular and accomplished hip-hop artists — Mayda, Ill Chemistry (Desdamona and Carnage the Executioner), Toki Wright, Omaur Bliss and others — will offer their takes on classic jazz songs in a program called “Lush Life: Interpretations of the American jazz canon.”

The instrumentalists of Heiruspecs are the house band; keyboardist DeVon Gray (dVRG) is the music director. Adam Levy (The Honeydogs, Liminal Phase, Hookers & Blow) and DJ Jake Rudh (Transmission) will host.

“Lush Life” is the first show in a three-part new music series called “Southern Songbook.” The series continues on Feb. 14 with “Desire and Death: New love songs on yearning and loss” and April 14 with “The Rites of String: The intersection of song, songwriter and strings.”

MinnPost spoke with Adam Levy by phone earlier this week.

MinnPost: Why this show?

Adam Levy: I have an interest in this music that’s part personal and musical, part academic because it has fascinated me since I was in college. The opportunity to do this brings together a whole bunch of my interests in musical endeavors and collaborations with people.

MP: What are some of the challenges in doing a jazz show with hip-hop artists?

AL: You run the risk of doing a tribute show that becomes jazz karaoke. I found it to be incredibly labor-intensive in terms of the amount of research I’ve had to do on the history of the music, the coordination of artists, and the arranging of songs so we’re not doing hackneyed covers that have been done hundreds of times. I’ve been doing the arranging with dVRG, having artists over to the house, pulling out a guitar, banging out rhythmic options. It’s a lot of deconstructing of a very complex batch of materials.
MP: Why are there no jazz musicians on the bill?

AL: I personally consider DeVon Gray a multi-genre musician. His playing in Heiruspecs is drawn from the R&B/soul tradition, Wurlitzers, organs, pianos, and synthesizer sounds from the '60s and '70s. He’s also a music conservatory guy who studied classical music and played bassoon. He’s part of a long tradition of great Minnesota musicians who have formal training. He sits at an interesting intersection of all these styles of music. We’ve been working together on Liminal Phase, an experimental group with elements of classical, jazz, and ambient music. The dude is very much a jazz musician. He can do Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk  and Bill Evans.

Steve Roehm is playing vibes. He’s an awesome improvisational player. Sean McPherson [Twinkie Jiggles] from Heiruspecs is also a great jazz player. Janey Winterbauer is singing; a lot of people ID her as alt-country, but she grew up in the Broadway tradition.

Great songwriters have always lifted from these traditions. The boundaries are much more porous than people think.

MP: In general, are the musicians playing it pretty straight? In your video on Facebook of Winterbauer and dVRG doing “Stardust,” that’s kind of how it looked.

AL: Honestly, that was the first time they played that song, before we did any sort of work or tweaking. I don’t want to just do the songs like you’ve heard Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, or Sinatra do them, although those versions are marvelous and have influenced all of us. I’m trying to say, “Look what you can do with the music.” We’re retaining the harmonic movement, cool chords and melodies, combining them with more contemporary feels and making something new.

MP: Are you adding hip-hop beats?

AL: Carnage [of Ill Chemistry] is doing some beatboxing. We deliberately didn’t do a lot of sampling. The mash-up has become the postmodern way to listen to a lot of pop music. There’s a little bit of that but not too much. I didn’t want to have exclusively hip-hop arrangements, or traditional jazz/rock. There are moments of alt-country in terms of textures and rhythms. We’re trying to represent how music is being made now.

MP: You’ve used the phrase “the Minneapolis jazz renaissance.” What do you mean by that?

AL: You mentioned the Clown Lounge earlier. I mean those artists — JT Bates, Bryan Nichols, James Buckley, Chris Thomson. Guys who are young, in their mid-20s and -30s, and are doing a bit of what we’re talking about right now. The New Standards, who are taking contemporary music and reconfiguring it. It feels like there’s something here that wasn’t here 15 years ago. There has always been a jazz scene in Minneapolis, but generally it was more curatorial. Artists today are trying to extend the boundaries. After jazz fusion in the '70s, there was a loss of direction, with some people trying to move forward and others trying to retain the past. With these young artists, the boundaries don’t exist. They’re schooled in tradition but much less afraid to mix in pop music and hip-hop.

MP: What would you say to jazz fans or purists who are skeptical about this whole “Lush Life” thing?

AL: It’s all about the love of the music. I think there’s a place for the sort of museum retention of the music, the origins of the style, but I’m also a big fan of trying to push music forward. Is what we’re doing true jazz? I don’t know and I don’t really care. If there are moldy figs out there who think we’re not staying true, they’re neglecting the origins of the music itself, which was always on the vanguard. Early Big Band jazz, early swing, bebop, more free stuff — those were people pushing the envelope. Jazz has always walked that fine line.

MP: Has this experience changed your relationship with jazz?

AL: Absolutely. I’m not a jazz musician. My improvisational skills are something I’m working on in my later years. I’ve always loved the music, but sitting down and actually going through these songs, figuring out why things happen where they do and seeing the patterns across songs, has changed my understanding of the music. For example, finding commonality between “Alfie” by Burt Bacharach and “Bewitched, Bothered and  Bewildered” [by Rodgers and Hart]. Bacharach pilfered chord changes from that song.

MP: Do you think you’ll bring more jazz into your own music?

AL: [Years ago] I got the Ella Fitzgerald box set on Mercury. If you listen to my records — “10,000 Years,” “Amygdala,” “Here’s Luck” — you’ll hear where I stole stuff. The more my music theory knowledge expands, the more that will continue to happen.

MP: What will the show on Sunday look like?

AL: DJ Jake Rudh will be hosting with me, and that will be really fun. I chose him because I think of him as a great music historian. He loves old jazz and knows the great torch singing tradition, and big band stuff. He’s singing a song as well. With each artist, we’ll talk about the songs they’ve chosen, their musical lineage, and where they came from. I’m asking people to talk about the relationship between this body of work and their own artistry. For me, it has involved reading a lot about Great American Songbook writers. I’ve gotten a pretty good education on where the songs come from in terms of their historical and cultural context, and the unique musical innovation that may have happened in some of these songs. So these will not just be performances. We want to orient listeners and take them on the journey we’ve gone through.

MP: What songs will you perform?

AL: I’m doing Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” and a medley of “Midnight Sun” [a jazz standard by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke] and “All the Things You Are” [by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II]. Sandwiching together one of the older songs and one of the newer parts of the canon.


“Lush Life: Interpretations of the American jazz canon,” 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis ($25/$22). Tickets online or call (612) 340-1725.

On Thursday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m., Levy will be featured in the “Making Music” series at the Whole Music Club in Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota. Tickets are free and seating is limited. Co-presented with the Southern Theater.

On Friday, Nov. 12, at 10 a.m., Levy, Mayda, dVRG and Steve Roehm will appear on MPR’s “Midmorning” with Kerri Miller.

Take a backstage look at “Lush Life” on a blog being written by U of M students in “Covering the Arts: New Media, New Paradigms,” part of a class being taught by Camille LeFevre.

Read a review of the concert here.

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