Spontaneous Improvisations by Michael Levy, Piano
Tracklist: 1. Birthling 3:35 2. Lush Life 7:50 3. Birds Blue Sphere 7:05 4. Ornithology 7:02 5. 317 E. Tristano 6:00 6. Moose the Mooch 2:52 7. Lobster Bisque 4:00 8. Contology 7:47 9. Rocking Chair 3:35 10. Body and Soul 4:41 11. Tears for My Father 3:20 12. Thoughtless 2:13 13. Yardbird Suite 4:07 14. Ruby My Dear 4:38 15. Flood for Love 4:16 Total Time: 66:19
You might think I was thoughtless in choosing the title for this CD. It wasn’t the first title I thought of. You might say it was the first title I didn’t think of! It came so effortlessly in one moment that I could honestly say I had nothing to do with it. It just arose, as does my music (when it works) from an effortless place of no-think. Only effortless stretches are on this CD. The “efforts” I have discarded because those are mind-driven and never as true as when I can truly get my mind out of the way.
When I first started studying with Connie Crothers around 1973 I was really in trouble! I was trying, on my own, to spontaneously improvise and I kept having the same experience. I would play for 30 seconds or so and one of two things would happen: either what I played sounded good to me, or I judged it to be pretty bad. In both cases when I had the judgment “This is really good!” or, “This is really bad!!” the same result always ensued. No more playing! It just broke down. My thinking mind was the culprit.
I could have been a great success if I put out a CD of 100 successful thirty second stretches! That title would have been easy, “The Half-minute Waltzer”. Then came Connie. She explained it to me in two words: “Don’t judge!” So for the next several months, guess what? I judged! I couldn’t help it. Then, one day I asked: “Connie, if I play something really good should I play it again?” Her answer: “Play anything but!” What? Anything but!? Oh…Oh!…Oh Ho!…AH HA! I finally got it. She was telling me for the hundredth time, in the hundredth different way, don’t play from a thinking place. Leave that thinking mind to pay the bills, drive the car, fix the toilet, but don’t use it to improvise. Put your mind on pause or let it ramble. If you have to think, think about sex, think about lunch, but don’t think about what to play next and, for gosh sakes, don’t label it as good or bad.
Record it and listen a month later. What you thought was good may sound bad. What you thought was bad may sound great! Aiee! What a web these thoughts weave! No answer to this koan but one: Thoughtlessness is the empty road on which true improvisers travel. No ground beneath their feet. No ideas lining up pretending to besomething they are not. Just the thrum. The thrum of the universe having fun. The universe (meaning: “one song”), playing through you.
If your mind wants to think, let it! Merely bend away like a martial artist. Let the thoughts fly as they will and the universe will have its way with the music. You can count on that always. The mind? Don’t trust it when it comes to improvising. Trust your heart. Trust your gut. Trust life. When you trust like that you can dance on the razor’s edge and have a blast! — Michael Levy
When Mike was tall enough to reach the keys of his sister’s Baldwin Acrosonic, he played his first notes. They were improvised… and original. This first expression of what was to come could only be defined as noise by most people, except, of course, Mike’s mom, who interpreted it as “potential”. The fact that Mike could not even see the keys at that point had no bearing on his mother’s insight, an insight only a mother could have. This native state, which might have led immediately to an improvisitory epiphany if left to itself, was marred by the introduction of two extraordinary musical compositions about a year later. “Chopsticks” and “Heart And Soul” became the musical nexus by which the young artist touched the universal longing for musical consciousness (in the West at least. Although “Chopsticks” seems to be of Asian origin, extensive research has shown it to have been composed by a Benedictine monk in the 1920’s, playing on a keyboard that was having the sharps relaquered.).
Observing his remarkable progress, his mother engaged a local piano teacher to nurture Mike’s obvious gifts at age nine. Mr. Lisanti was a nice man from Italy who told Mike’s mom after a year of study that her son was a hopeless case and should instead try carpentry. Mike was in agreement. Hitting a key or a nail seemed pretty much the same to him at the time. Mike’s mom implored both student and teacher to try it for one more year. Both reluctantly agreed. Remarkably, at the end of that year, Mike was still playing and Mr. Lisanti, unfortunately, returned to his native Italy to die. A coincidence that does not go unnoticed at this writing.
Next on the scene was Mr. Feldman, a knob engineer from Long Island who played a hell of a “Revolutionary Etude” and had long spatulated fingers and gaunt eyes. After four or five years of that, Mike was ready to play in a band. After countless renditions of “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” and “The Swinging Shepherd Blues” he found himself in the forefront of mundane adolescent improvisors in Queens, NY.
Upon his graduation from college and several rock bands later, Mike was writing his own material and singing in a voice that sounded like a hound from hell. He was angry. So angry, in fact, that he told his mother to sell his piano so he could spend the money on dates. At this fateful juncture, destiny whose name was “Mom” stepped in. She told Michael there were no offers (she lied) and that the piano was there if he ever wanted it again. He did.
The problem for Mike was that his attempts at improvising lasted for about twenty seconds and then collapsed. So, without the aid of his mother this time, Mike sought professional help. He asked a serious musician for a suggestion and he recommended Lennie Tristano, a name Mike had never heard. After a brief interview, Mike was informed that Lennie didn’t have room in his schedule, but that he could study with Connie Crothers, a long time student of his, and great teacher in her own right.
Mike agreed and began studying with Connie. Together they attacked the problems that prevented Mike from improvising real music. The issues were mental, emotional and physical: How to ignore the condemning judgemental voices in his head. How to develop a note-to-note feeling that circumvented conscious thought. How to develop a non-muscular touch. How to breathe. How to improvise based on melody and not chord progressions. How to be himself, musically.
Progress was made. But Mike was not quite there. So, he quit.
Instead of improvising he decided to write musicals. After writing several with a brilliant guy named Joe Safferson, the fledgling team was selected to particiapate in an ASCAP workshop directed by Stephen Sondheim. This small taste of success was too frightening to contemplate, so the partnership broke up. On his own now, Mike wrote another musical based on the Nazis’ occupation of Czechoslovakia. This effort met with some success and the show was optioned by two producers who promptly went bankrupt. Finally seeing the light, Mike abandoned show business and returned to his early interest, improvising.
He began studying with Connie Crothers once again, and this time, after almost thirty years of playing, Mike started to succeed. He could really improvise, and his sound was… original. In 1989 he performed a solo concert at Greenwich Music House in NYC. It was later released as Michael Levy at Greenwich Music House on New Artists CD 1009. In 1994 he released SOUP, a collaborative effort with Madeline Renard (vocal) and Charley Krachy (tenor sax). In 1996 he released his second solo recording ON THE SPOT (NA 1024). In 1999 he released KOO-KOO (NA1031) with vocalist, Dori Levine
CD version (incl. shipment cost world-wide)