When South African-born bassist Yosef-Gutman Levitt made the journey to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, he encountered a number of likeminded souls there. One of them, a guitarist originally from the West African nation of Benin, had come to Berklee from Paris. His name: Lionel Loueke. After moving to New York, the two continued to nourish their musical bond on a weekly gig in Brooklyn.
Their paths diverged: Loueke became one of the most sought-after musicians of his time, signing to Blue Note and joining the bands of Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock, among others. Levitt left the music business, got married, started a family, found success as a tech entrepreneur, and moved to Jerusalem in 2009 following a spiritual rebirth. By 2018, he returned to music and began to refine a distinctive voice on the five-string acoustic bass guitar, his musical calling card, heard to great effect on his debut trio album Upside Down Mountain.
Reuniting after many years, Levitt is excited to share his new album with Loueke, Soul Song, available on his recently launched label of the same name. The album reflects a mutual love of music played from the heart, with melodies clearly and lyrically expressed. Pianist Omri Mor and drummer Ofri Nehemya complete the marvelous quartet lineup. The tracks are primarily Levitt originals cowritten and arranged with producer Gilad Ronen. Levitt plays mainly upright bass, preferring to accompany Loueke rather than attempt to share the lead melodic role. “Lionel is bringing himself to the music, he’s coming as a player,” Levitt explains. And what you give a player like Loueke is all the room he wants.
When Levitt does play five-string bass guitar — on the leadoff “Chai Elul,” “The Tender Eyes of Leah,” “Amud Anan” (both duo and trio versions) and “Kave El Hashem” — he is more prominent, changing up the blend with Loueke’s nylon seven-string acoustic (the same guitar, incidentally, that Loueke used on Hope, his recent duo album with Kevin Hays).
“When Lionel plays a solo, when he improvises, it’s his soul song,” says Levitt. “When I improvise with him, I play my soul song. It’s the music that my head is not engaged with —only my heart. I learned a lot from Lionel at Berklee, and that learning percolated for a bunch of years. We played at the North Sea Jazz Festival, we played in Cape Town, we traveled and spent a lot of hours together, explored a lot together. I look up to him. He’s a special person and it was such a delight to have this opportunity.”
“It’s been years since we saw each other,” Loueke says, “but Yosef and I still stayed connected. And as soon as we started playing, I remembered right away how much love and passion comes through in his sound, in every single note. There’s a different maturity and devotion, too. Back in the day we were thinking only about music, but now it’s more about bringing love to people and sharing beyond the notes.”
Along with Levitt’s original material are several adaptations of nigun (plural: nigunim) — mystical, wordlessly flowing, monophonic melodies drawn from Hasidic Jewish tradition. Levitt has explored this body of repertoire on his duo albums with New York-based guitarist Tal Yahalom (Tsuf Harim and Tal Yasis), and on earlier band releases as well. The nigunimheard on Soul Song are “Torah Tsiva,” “Myriad” and “Kave El Hashem.” “The meaning imbued in nigunim is really clear — it’s like a sledgehammer of meaning,” Levitt says, and this explains much about Loueke’s beautifully intuitive response to the material. In an elemental way, he gets it. Levitt seeks to create what he calls a “new garment” for these Hasidic songs. Setting his fertile musical imagination free, he’s able to preserve the stylistic essence of nigunim while creating a sound all his own.
When composing, Levitt tends to draw on imagery from the Torah, as with “Amud Anan.” The translation is “pillar of cloud,” i.e., the divine presence that arose to shield the Jews during their Exodus from Egypt. “As a Torah portion moves through the days and weeks,” Levitt explains, “I follow along and every day there’s some new inspiration. I try to create music based on these grand and mysterious ideas that are always arising in the text. I’ll ask, ‘How does this idea make me feel?’ I try to capture it with notes, and color, in a musical way.”
As Levitt sends Soul Song out into the world, he launches the Soul Song label based on the same core principles and values: “The goal is to create music, and to create a label that stimulates others to do the same — to make their soul song. To create music that’s intimate and honest, improvised, and Jewish if you will. What makes Jewish music, to me, is a profound honesty, stripping away anything that’s not needed. That’s the work I want to do with the artists on this label — whether they’re Jewish or not is not important. What’s important is that the music is inspired by something higher. I want to work with artists who are interested in getting to that place.” Omri Mor’s forthcoming Melodies of Light is on deck, to be followed by releases with eminent guitarists Gilad Hekselman and Ralph Towner.
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