When Yosef Gutman-Levitt plays his acoustic bass guitar it takes you places. There’s a purity in his tone and an honesty in his expression that draws you into his musical journey—one that has brought him from his South African upbringing to his musical devlopment in Boston and New York City to his current Jerusalem home base. A prime example is his latest effort, Upside Down Mountain, a story of unwavering love and joy told through exquisite written and improvised melodies. We reached out to Yosef to gain insight into his first trio album.
What was your concept for Upside Down Mountain?
The album is a work of music from the heart—it features many of my original instrumental compositions recorded with pianist Omri Mor and drummer Ofri Nehemya live in the studio without separation. Conceptually the album echoes but doesn’t quite touch my South African roots and my Hasidic roots, saving space for the listener while not imposing my story or the “concept” too much. I grew up on a farm in a rural area in South Africa and many of the melodies are a combination of Hasidic Nigun [a sung, repetitive wordless melody] and African melodies that are in my blood. When I envision an album, it starts with the players; and much of the music or the concept naturally forms around what’s possible and what flows as we work together. Upside Down Mountain is an honest expression of my musiciality, with minimal interference from my head!
How would you describe the role of your bass on the record?
The bass plays both a traditional role and a melodic role. However, I’d clarify and say it plays a “musical” role. The instrument itself and the way I play it could be termed slightly unusual but it’s not on purpose or contrived.
What musicians and bassists influenced the music?
I’ve learned a lot from [Brazilian composer, guitarist, pianist] Egberto Gismonti and his creative entourage while having deeply appreciated Steve Swallow’s contributions to jazz and the development of the bass guitar’s place in improvised music. I draw musical inspiration much of the time not from other music per se but through thinking and feeling, making space to think and feel, making improvements in my sensitivity to others and the world around me, trying to soften the hard parts of my personality—all are sources from which music can come. Lately I’ve been enjoying Lars Danielsson, the bassist and cellist. There’s something I like and very much identify with in the gentle composition and improvisation of the Scandinavian players.
How much of the music is composed and how much is improvised?
I’d say about half. Most of the compositions themselves are products of improvisations that I went back over together with my co-composer and producer Gilad Ronen, to extract moments of delight and lyricism, from which we formed many of the compositions. Those fragments then became lead-sheets with harmony upon which there was significant room to bring the player to the table and within the forms, spaces for improvisation.
What can you tell me about your 5-string acoustic bass guitar, and how did you record it on the album?
My primary instrument is based on a design from a few years ago by upstate New York luthier Harvey Cintron. The bass is carved out of a solid piece of mahogany, with a super-solid walled body—not thin like most acoustic basses or guitars. It has an Adirondack spruce top and an Indian rosewood fingerboard. The bass is a long-scale instrument with a high C string and no metal parts on the body. There are five pickups underneath the bone saddles that allow me to finetune the intonation on the bridge. In simple english, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable instrument to play. I recorded the bass direct with a D.W. Fearn Hazelrigg Industries VDI tube DI. For the room sound, I used a Walter Woods head into an Aguilar SL 112 cabinet, at a very low volume. I used a BeesNeez Lulu Fet SDC KM84 mic for the soundhole and an off-axis large condensermic to capture some of the cabinet sound in combination with the acoustic sound of the instrument. When it came to mixing, due to bleed issues, the favored signal was the DI.
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