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The University of Hartford

Jazz: Record Review
Rob Levit Group- East River View- Whirlybird Records
by Chuck Obuchowski

     What paths are improvising guitarists of the post-fusion generation pursuing? The two most common approaches are neoclassical (read: rehashed bop licks) and smooth jazz (read: elevator music).
     Not so for Mr. Levit! On East River View, his third release since 1994, the Virginia native continues to tap his own Muse, ably assisted by the trio who helped make the previous Afterimage such a rewarding musical journey.
     This time around, the plectorist also reveals a new dimension of his artistry to those who know him only from his prior releases: five selections here mark his first recorded ventures on acoustic guitar, an instrument he is clearly well acquainted with. Going unplugged has in no way diminished Levit's strong individual sound, however. Rather, it has added a new depth and breadth to his compositions. There are occasional nods to the acoustic works of Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny and one of the leader's early mentors, John McLaughlin. Levit's professed debt to 20th century classical music is also more detectable on the compositions which feature acoustic guitar. Still, the overall sound is quite distinctive.
     Levit's greatest strength as composer is his ability to balance innovation with respect for tradition. On his past efforts, he's written several fine homages to his elders: "Magic Sam" for Sam Rivers and "Bleyism" for Paul Bley among them. East River View presents us with "Last Stop Cuernavaca", a reference to the Mexican town where Charles Mingus died. As with the aforementioned tunes, Levit manages to evoke the spirit of his subject without resorting to imitation. This eight-minute piece weaves balladry, blues and tango into a succinct suite. Even more astounding is "5 Miniatures", which juggles a frenetic guitar/tenor chase, Balinese gamelon sounds, grunge rock, contemporary chamber music and gritty blues into a volatile three-minute cocktail; it will either intoxicate or repulse, depending on one's tolerance for such a strange brew.
     Saxist Chris Cheek is a powerful presence throughout, whether on tenor or soprano. Referred too recently by a musical peer as "one of the three Chrises" (Speed and Potter being the others in this holy triumvirate of young New York reedmen), Cheek also freelances with Paul Motian and Wolfgang Muthspiel. Bassist Stephan Crump and percussionist John Mettam complete Levit's "New York Quartet", one of two foursomes he currently fronts, given his recent relocation to Maryland, necessitating a second group on his new home turf.
     East River View may not be easy to find locally; it is the first jazz release on Whirlybird Records, a label founded by electronic music iconoclast Simeon, whose band Silver Apples achieved cult status nearly thirty years ago. For information on this and other Whirlybird recordings, phone (410) 269-7651, or email whirly200@aol.com.

Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 1998

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