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Recreating Sound With Avant-Garde Drummer Jason Levis

Jason Levis, avant garde drummer, duo B.

The expansive 109-year-old building set near the entrance to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Oakland’s Piedmont neighborhood is called Chapel of the Chimes. It’s a columbarium taking up one-and-a-half city blocks consisting of three floors, inside gardens, narrow stairwells, fountains, nooks and crannies, high ceilings illuminating natural light and, as it turns out, fantastic acoustics.

This rather grandiose building is the location of the annual Garden of Memories, a walk-through concert celebrating the summer solstice where 50 or so various avant-garde musicians with various instruments (many homemade) play simultaneously throughout the building. Attendees are encouraged to walk around and get lost in the splendor. It’s one of those amazing Bay Area events that seem to justify, however briefly, the high cost of living out here. It was a four-hour event and, when my associate and I arrived at the beginning, it was already packed, a hive of activity and sound. Your reporter was in a foul mood, however, so navigating narrow passageways and standing amongst a lot of people, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, was destined to be an arduous experience.

We made our way into the very west end of the second floor where, set up in the corner, was a stand-up bassist and a drummer who had various bells and gongs behind his minimal kit. According to the program, this was duo B., (bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, drummer Jason Levis) and the music they were creating was one of those smile-inducing moments when you’ve discovered something that resonates.

I stood there for a good 45 minutes watching them play nonstop; it took a while to realize these two were not just improvising, each of them had a music stand which held color images. At one point Levis sorted through his collection, picked one seemingly at random, showed it to Mezzacappa who looked over from her playing, saw the image, nodded and together they effortlessly changed the course and mood of the music. Eventually I moved on to see the rest of the performers, but duo B. had cast a fog over me which made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Better yet: My dour mood had been soundly vanquished. The next day I realized the only natural step was to track down the drummer and force him to tell me the secrets.

A month later I was sitting across from Jason Levis at a small table in a small, nosy café on the edge of downtown Berkeley. To be honest, folks, our conversation didn’t revolve solely around the art of drumming as have previous installments of this column. The reason for this is because drumming makes up only a fraction of Levis’ profession. His PhD in composition from UC Berkeley and a position teaching at the California Jazz Conservatory is merely the beginning. In addition to duo B., Levis’ multiple projects have him working with modern classical, jazz, even an amazing dub-reggae project. While our conversation covered a lot of territory, the theme was the endless possibilities music provides, especially within avant-garde and improvisation. Mostly though, we talked about duo B’s two main projects, No Ins & Outs, their examination of Cecil Taylor’s 1976 solo piano LP Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within), and the more recent exploration of Wadada Leo Smith’s 2002 piece, Luminous Axis, which is what they performed for their Chapel of Chimes performance.

Considering the amount of boundary pushing Levis does, it’s ironic that his first instrument was left alone. “When I was five, I got a Muppets drum set for my birthday and I loved that thing so much that I never played it,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to ding it, wreck it, get spots on it... so I never played it. I don’t know what happened to it, it vanished at some point and I talked to my parents some years ago: ‘What ever happened to that?’ ‘I dunno…’”

It was another instrument which caught young Levis’ fancy, however, after he heard Don Felder’s famous guitar solo at the end of The Eagles 1975 hit, “Hotel California.” “There’s this one spot where he does this arpeggio; ‘Dad, teach me how to do that!’ So, that was the beginning.”

Drumming eventually came back into Levis’ life in high school after his reggae band broke up and he decided to continue exploration of that genre by himself; “I didn’t need those guys,” he says with a smile, thus setting a lifelong ambition of taking on difficult tasks and seeing them through. Levis’ current dub project, Joseph’s Bones, explores this experimental subgenre of reggae, where tracks are remixed into echo-drenched instrumentals giving the re-worked songs an otherworldly sound.

Figuring this was the perfect place to dive headlong into the topic, I lamely suggest: “Reggae drumming is pretty complicated,” and we were off.

Jason Levis: The feel is one of those mysteries. Every reggae drummer has a different way of expressing that beat; this is true for any style, but the way the drums fit into the rhythm section, it’s what makes magic happen. And there’s such a wide range in where the beat is and where it’s felt, where the shuffle is and how straight are the straight 16th notes. That, for me, is a fascinating endeavor.

NO RECESS!: One of my questions is about playing with the echo and delay; is that part of the mixing process or is it live? And if it’s live, how do you play against it?

Levis: These days, it’s live. The main thing I’m doing is listening to the sound of the echo and the drums together; I’m trying to emulate that. How do I make that sound? What do I have to do to get that sound to happen? So that’s one layer. Another is more mathematical: quarter note, triplets, dotted eighth noted, and trying to orchestrate that into my playing. And also trying to really listen and get into how that delay sound functions in the recording in terms of the volume of the one-drop versus the volume of the echo. I try to match and blend my sound in a way to make it feel like the delay is occupying a different space. I’m still trying to get my technique together to be able to do all those things fluidly.

Different dub artists do different things with the drums. King Tubby tends to be a little messier with the drum echo, not exclusively, of course; so, to get that, there’s a certain slop that needs to go on. His quarter note triplets, for instance, tend not to be exact, so it’s about how to create that sensation without slowing down and still keep the pulse together. A lot of that is relying on the band; so when I’m doing that, I’m listening really hard for that pulse and not lose track of that feeling in my body.

NR!: My understanding is the echo and delay was done after the fact; Mad Professor sitting there in the studio for hours messing with the tapes and delay. So, the thought that you’re doing this in the studio takes so much concentration… or a blind leap off the edge in hopes that it all falls together.

Levis: What these effects are doing is taking those original sounds and transforming them, and I feel that’s a deep process on many levels. For my academic side, it’s Jamaica’s answer to [French experimental movement] Musique Concrete; [Jamaicans] weren’t thinking about that [laughs] but it was their answer anyway, a subconscious answer to: Is there way to remove a sound from its source? If I record a squeaky door, is there some way to (A) turn that into music and (B) make it feel like I’m not listening to a door? In Jamaica it was coming from another place: How can we take this solid thing and bring all these other sonic perspectives to it and break it open? That process is fundamental to my interest in sound itself. My connection to dub, especially now, is a place to explore vocabulary I developed studying classical music; it’s the intersection point of many of my musical interests.

Dub allows me to ground the abstract sounds, extend techniques — non-traditional ways of producing sound on your instrument — in a way that feels like all those textures and sounds have meaning and a place. In dub, the sonic transformations come from such a pure source. The one-drop, the trajectory of echo, delay, filters... they have a logical momentum. You could say that the brilliance of Lee “Scratch” Perry is that he is “misusing” his equipment. He got all those sounds because he wasn’t using the instruments properly according to the way they were intended [to be used]. There’s an element of that rebellion that is so fundamental to the music. ‘I do this my way, this is not about how that person over there says I need to do it; maybe that person is wrong.’

NR!: Cecil Taylor did that.

Levis: Exactly.

NR!: I’ve never seen a musician get so much shit for how they approached an instrument [as Taylor did].

Levis: [long pause] People like Cecil Taylor, the depth of who he was as an artist, his commitment to that is so immensely inspiring for me on a personal level. Here’s a person who was the most on the outside as you could get but he didn’t relent at all and stayed so committed to his vision and that’s incredible. Taylor and his commitment to his art or [jazz trumpeter] Wadada Leo Smith, [saxophonist] Henry Threadgill, [their] commitment and how they construct their music in a personal way, that’s something I aspire to.

One of the reasons Lisa and I took on the project [No Ins & Outs]… we are always looking for a way to somehow achieve the impossible; what are we going to do that is virtually impossible and how can we accomplish that? I had done a bunch of research on Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) for my qualifying exams at UC Berkeley, and one of the main things I did was map out the limited number of musical materials he’s using in those 45 minutes and how they relate to each other. He’s juggling that handful of materials throughout the piece in this wonderfully masterful way. It is fast, clear, relentless. So that was our jumping off point; she and I did a lot of listening, talking, transcribing, and rehearsing. The bass and drums are not piano and we can’t move as fast, we don’t have the same type of articulation. We can’t directly translate all those [piano] notes to the bass and the drums, so how do we accomplish this task?

One of the reasons why we wanted to do work with the Taylor piece is because it was so opposite of how we would normally improvise. Before, we would play these little gems of one single idea for three minutes and then be done. Or, take one idea and go really deep into it. So, the idea of playing with the intensity [Taylor] is playing with for 45 minutes without stopping was…

NR!: Talk about the impossible.

Levis: Yeah. We wanted to uncover the way he works with his materials. How does he do that for 45 minutes with such clarity and density?

NR!: You really get to know your instrument.

Levis: It really pushed us. Lisa, for instance, found so many new sounds and new ways of playing. Her work with the bow… Cecil never plays on the piano, so instead, he explores timbre through things like clusters; with the bass you can explore timbre, noise, density through things like bow placement. So we translated and re-imagined what we heard and how we heard it to our instruments. And this is connected to the dub stuff: What does the sound mean and how do I create that same meaning on my instrument? Recreating the function of the sounds rather than just recreating the sounds; in No Ins & Outs I needed to recreate that sense of speed and urgency on the drum set because the bass just simply doesn’t move as fast as Cecil’s fingers.

NR!: And how did you do that?

Levis: By playing really fast. [laughs] We spent a lot of time working up to playing those 45 minutes; it took conditioning. And we would play these sweat-inducing sets. When we went on tour a couple summer ago –

NR!: You toured that?!

Levis: Yeah, on the west and east coasts. It was great to play it every night. Aside from meeting and visiting people, being able to play that every night was incredible. We sunk into the music in a new way.

NR!: I found that, too: By playing continually, you get so inside the music. You think you’re going to get sick of the songs night after night, but you reach that point where you become an evangelist for your own creations. There may be two people there in my case, sometimes no people, but we’re going to do it anyway.

Levis: [laughs] I’ve had those experiences. That Cecil stuff definitely created that kind of feeling for me; I was listening to Lisa’s playing so deeply and hearing how she’s navigating through all those gestures so quickly and being right on the same page with her. When we performed [Wadada Leo Smith’s Luminous Axis] at Chapel of the Chimes, it was extreme improv. We decided we were going to play for four hours –

NR!: [calmly interrupting] That was four hours?

Levis: We played for four hours straight, we didn’t stop; which again –

NR!: [calmly interrupting again] I saw about a half-hour and thought: ‘These guys are great, when’s the set break?’ [laughs]

Levis: [laughs] We kept going. Since we had that whole wing, we decided we’d set up chairs, give people a chance to sit with us. I’ve heard from a number of people, and now you, the space was ripe for: ‘We’re just going to sit here and be with this.’ Which is different from a lot of stuff [that day] where you check stuff out for a few minutes, go somewhere else, check that out; it was as wonderful surprise to us that it worked so well.

NR!: It was perfect and I was in such a bad mood that day, too; it was one of those moments when music completely eased my head.

Levis: Oh, that’s beautiful. Okay, my job is done!

NR!: You’ve achieved the impossible! Tell me about the illustrations you and Lisa were showing each other.

Levis: It’s the graphic score by Wadada Leo Smith, the name of the piece is called Luminous Axis. It’s one part of a wider collection of works of his called Ahnkrasmation. Lisa and I were lucky enough to be at a lecture he gave in San Francisco on this piece of music and we were both floored. It was one of those moments where your musical life gets readjusted. Lisa was smart enough to email him about the scores; amazingly, he sent us those images.

There was one in particular we played a lot [and] it became part of our repertoire as we played shows. The way the scores work, according to my understating of it, there’s an order as to how [the images] are connected to each other and it becomes this meta-structure that includes all the graphic elements. From there you can take some of them and put them in relation to each other to create new sound possibilities, based on them touching each other, overlapping, that kind of stuff. Some [of the images] are very specific sounds and others… there’s this great description he has, he’s talking about these little star shapes and he says: ‘You get to the stars and what are they? Stars are really far away.’

NR!: That’s it?

Levis: That’s it.

NR!: [laughs] So simple but so not simple.

Levis: Yeah, it’s about connecting to a flow. What’s important is not playing dingy sounds because that represents stars in Disney movies, but what is a star? It’s a long way away, it takes a long time for the light to get to us and it’s a sun… where do you go for that information and how can you embrace all the potentialities of what those images mean?

NR!: [quietly] Goddamn.

Levis: He talked about people doing a lot of research before doing that; [Japanese composer] Ikue Mori apparently showed up with a stack of papers looking at color, mathematics, all these other elements, which were just about her creating relationships. Then you use all that information. And forget it all. That was the other thing: Forget it all.

NR!: Oh, right; I forgot about that part. You just spent so much time immersing yourself in it and now you wanna ditch it.

Levis: The ditching it is: ‘It’s okay, trust, let go, relax.’

NR!: Which is a huge ingredient to this improvised music.

Levis: Right, it’s not like throwing it all away. It’s loosening your grip and trusting the people you’re improvising with. That was the process: looking at the score, listening, listening to Lisa, and letting go. I think the four hours helped also because there was no reason to keep track of time; the whole thing was going to be so exhausting that, again, you just had to let go.

NR!: Breaking down boundaries is so important.

Levis: The rules are not set, especially in music. You can do whatever you want; any music can be involved in your creative output. If you can internalize it, all of it is available. It’s all sounds. As musicians, in our deepest truth, we respond to the world with sound.

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