Chuck Levy
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Chuck Levy

Gainesville, Florida, United States | MAJOR

Gainesville, Florida, United States | MAJOR
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"Adam Hurt Reviews "Banjourneys""

Chuck Levy is a banjo player, fiddler, singer, and music organizer with whom I first became acquainted a couple of years back when I was invited to review for this magazine his previous CD, “Scratching and Clawing” (an enjoyable listen, too, I might add). Since that time, I have gotten to know Chuck a bit better through theSuwannee Banjo Camp, which he co-directs with Ken Perlman in his current home state of
Florida. I continue to be pleased and impressed not only with Chuck’s own music but also with his dedication to and enthusiasm for the music in general, and those same sentiments hold true for my experience with his latest CD, “Banjourneys.”

The title of the new album is aptly chosen, with its musical content serving as a comprehensive reflection of the global journey that Chuck has taken over the past
thirty years spent learning and playing the clawhammer banjo. Over the course of the project, the listener is taken on a trip through the Appalachian South, the Midwest, and all the way to Senegambia, Africa, with Chuck and his carefully-chosen collection of tunes from a variety of interesting and sometimes unlikely sources as the guide. Ably supporting him in this endeavor are fellow Floridian David Forbes, perhaps known to the old-time community as much for the fine banjos and violin bows he has made as for his fiddling, and Ohio fiddler Mike Eberle, who also contributed his music to Chuck’s previous CD. The project was engineered by Bob Carlin, who did his usual fine job of recording everyone.

Not only are the tune selections on “Banjourneys” nicely eclectic, fitting
Chuck’s musical background, but so too are the instruments he plays. A standard five- string banjo is actually used on only one track, while the others feature variously a five-string cello banjo, two different six- string banjos, both designed by Chuck, and something called a banjonting (a hybrid somewhere between an early banjo and the Senegalese akonting, a fascinating ancestor of the banjo of today), a lovely, earthy-sounding instrument likewise designed by Chuck but built by John Catches. The fiddling—sorry no fiddle variants to go with the album’s collection of banjo- family instruments—is shared between all three musicians. Finally, we are treated to some vocals from Chuck on seven tracks, both in English and in the West African Jola language. Musical highlights for me are numerous. The five banjo-fiddle duets Chuck plays with David Forbes are all quite strong; David drives the tunes with a fairly simple shuffling bow-lick, which could be boring in the hands of someone who does not understand the aesthetic of old-time fiddling, but his treatment is good. Chuck’s playing in these tracks smacks somewhat of the fantastic support Bob Carlin gave to several great fiddlers on his seminal Rounder album, “Banging and Sawing”—in other words, totally propulsive, just melodic enough, filled with exciting and expressive rhythmic variation, and always clearly relating to what the fiddler is doing at any given point. Of these tunes, my favorite is the relentless Sandy Boys, a common tune that is worth hearing again when played by Chuck and David. Clocking in at over four minutes, it is almost too long but its drive keeps my mind engaged and my foot tapping.

All of the African-flavored material is quite intriguing and well-rendered vocally and on the banjonting by Chuck; I wonder how long it took for him to become as comfortable singing in Jola as he seem to be. I’m not always sure how well Mike Eberle’s fiddling works on these pieces, competent playing though it is, but I appreciate the artists’ willingness to push the envelope of tradition one step farther by incorporating this European instrument into an African context. I hope that Chuck will continue to explore this part of the banjo’s heritage, and am excited to see more of this happening in the wake of the pioneering research done by Bob Carlin, Greg C. Adams, and a select few others.

The minstrel banjo-inspired selections, including an eponymous, original Walk- Around done in the manner of this type of period banjo music, are very nice as well, and an interesting complement to the African pieces. Played by Chuck on
a great-sounding Gold Tone cello banjo, they represent for me a kind of halfway point on the musical and tonal spectrum between the ancient-sounding stuff from
Senegambia and the more familiar old- time material. Frankly, I could have done with another tune or two of this type.

I have always liked the manner in which Chuck makes regular use of six-
string banjos—not guitar-banjos, but rather instruments with five full-length strings
and one short drone string like that of a standard instrument. The presence of that
additional bass string allows for low-octave arrangements of many tunes, which a
standard five-string would not have enough range to accommodate. Chuck and others who play them put this additional range to delightful use in fiddle-banjo duet settings, often mirroring the octave-switching that old-time fiddlers are wont to employ. We get to hear this sort of treatment in the duets with David Forbes, but six-string instruments also make good showings in a solo version of Rock the Cradle, Joe, replete with mostly-successful variations, as well as in the unlikely but entertaining Jagger/Richards number, No Expectations, featuring Mike Eberle on fiddle. If you haven’t realized it before track thirteen comes along, you’ll soon find out that this
is a CD of many traditions!

The CD package itself has its strengths and weaknesses. First and foremost, I am always happy to see artists making use of the eco-friendlier Digipaks; kudos to Chuck for choosing to go this route. The front cover is just terrific, a colorful,
cartoonish representation (done by artist Roz Chast of The New Yorker) of Chuck
and his comrades on this CD playing their instruments for a group of “dancers”—actually, map-style graphics of all of the pivotal places from Chuck’s musical life, each with arms, legs, and faces. A blurb just inside the package nicely explains the
significance of these places in Chuck’s journey. A few juicy details are later given
for each tune, as well as information on the various instruments played and the
recording credits. Unfortunately, beyond that wonderful front cover, the package
suffers from a very confused graphic design. The backgrounds for the other panels are photographs of vaguely African and global scenes, representing once again Chuck’s musical journey, but they prove too busy when text is placed on top of them.
Furthermore, an all-capitals font is used universally, never a very readable choice,
especially when superimposed sometimes in black and other times in white over a
distracting background. Finally, while the notes on the tunes do contain some interesting trivia, the combination of the shouting font, the cluttered background,
and the fact that all sixteen tunes’ notes are written out in one long paragraph, with only the tune titles bolded to guide the eye, renders the entire narrative almost totally unreadable and incomprehensible, even to a reviewer who possesses otherwise good eyesight. Much less is happening on the back cover, where the tunes are listed in the usual way, but the mind gets bogged down here by a confusing
numerical key indicating who plays what on each tune, information better included
inside on a tune-by-tune basis. While I would not suggest that any of Chuck’s
prose be left out, I think it would benefit from a healthy dose of reformatting, and
perhaps an additional Digipak panel to create more breathing room for the text and some simpler backgrounds behind it. I also would have appreciated details on the
tunings used, and can imagine that radio hosts may frown upon the omission of track lengths. Happily, though, for those willing to dig a bit deeper, Chuck does maintain a strong web presence at www.banjourneys.com, where copious information both educational and entertaining can be found on the tunes, the instruments, and Chuck’s musical and cultural immersion in West Africa, along with those missing tunings and track lengths.

In spite of my mostly non-musical quibbles, “Banjourneys” is a most interesting, stylistically diverse project by someone who is clearly devoted to his craft.
The artistic direction of the recording was successful to begin with, and the online
supplements fully pick up whatever slack may have been left by the questionable
package content. Chuck Levy’s musical autobiography of sorts proves to be enjoyable and engaging throughout, and has already been worthy of many repeat
listens for me. I am happy to recommend it, and look forward to hearing future musical journeys taken by this fine player.


- Banjo Newsletter, 9.10


"Chuck Levy, with a Little Help from his Friends"

CHUCK LEVY, WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS

August 23, 2010 by gainesville365

To call Chuck Levy a banjo player seems to be a bit of a disservice, akin to calling Wolfgang Puck a cook or Tim Tebow a guy who tosses a ball. Chuck Levy is an artist who has been Florida’s Old Time Banjo Champion, a Thelma Boltin awardee, and a prize fiddler; he is also a music historian and a scholar who has traveled to Africa to research the origins of banjo music. He is known for playing the Old Time music that is the forerunner to bluegrass, which he plays in clawhammer and minstrel styles. If you have no idea what this denotes, Mr. Levy will patiently explain it for you.

Mr. Levy brought friends Bill Paine and Aisha Ivey to play a Free Fridays show that was part concert and part educational symposium. Also along was clogger Diane Shaw and an astounding selection of Mr. Levy’s other friends–his instruments. These banjos, fretted and fretless, plus fiddle and mandoline-banjo were positioned on stage in such a way that they appeared to be additional guests invited to join in the half-circle trio of Mr. Levy, Mr. Paine, and Ms. Ivey.

A Chuck Levy show is an intimate exercise. Seated close together, the three musicians might have been playing in small confines and not to the four hundred or so raptly absorbed fans who spread out around the Plaza in mellow attention. Songs were treated to contemplative renditions as Mr. Levy introduced them by explaining a bit about each. This was revelatory: A piece like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” might have been unrecognizable otherwise. That much-maligned accompaniment to a barroom line dance in actuality is nearly 200 years old and is well-documented as an American folk song. As Mr. Levy performed it, visions of the stripperized Rednex version vanished and one could imagine it as the heel-toe folk dance it traditionally was. Also returning to its roots was The Rolling Stones’ ”No Expectations,” a Jagger/Richards composition written in service to the Stones’ explorations of forlorn Delta blues.

Besides Old Time Americana, Mr. Levy also tuned up some music from Africa and the British Isles. Here and there he was accompanied by the clogging (or flat-footing) of Diane Shaw, who performed on a small wooden plank that had its own microphone. Ms. Shaw provided the only percussion of the evening, often with what seemed to be an informal, improvisational style that underscored the feeling that the concert was a living-room meeting of friends who just happened to have invited four hundred other friends over to listen to some music.

The concert was so low-key that it demanded a good deal of attention. I spoke to a man who mistook the music as pure Irish folk and who expected something more along the lines of Irish Rovers. Had he been paying attention, he’d have noticed that Mr. Levy thoughtfully prefaced the music with explanations of style and origin.

As an educator, Mr. Levy co-directs the Suwannee Banjo Camp, which takes place on March 18-20, 2011. He is a preservationist working in an area that is no less vibrant for being so old. Florida folkways are strongly intertwined with banjo music, especially in the northern part of the state. Friday’s quiet concert made for an interesting counterpart to the club music playing just around the corner, whose decibels often seemed to lay waste to civilization.

Visit Chuck at www.banjourneys.com - Suzanna Mars: Fresh-Squeezed Florida 8.10


"Pete Peterson Reviews "Banjourneys""

What happens when an already good musician decides to broaden his horizons by learning more about the roots of the banjo and learns some tunes and songs from Gambia in the process? A CD as interesting and enjoyable as this one. (And how did he ever get Roz Chast of the New Yorker to draw the cover?)


Chuck Levy has played banjo and fiddle for many years. When you have played a while, you can find yourself, as you get deeper and deeper into the music, playing more and more rests, and fewer and fewer notes until you‘ve got the tune down to some Platonic essence. Levy does this with familiar old-time tunes such as “Rock the Cradle, Joe”, “Cindy” and “Chinese Breakdown”. A particular gem was “Sandy Boys,” which in my mind is a tune that is overdone and over-recorded. Not here. It is a beautiful fiddle-banjo duet. (Dave Forbes plays clear, precise fiddle on all the fiddle-banjo duets.) What’s more, Levy is playing a six-string banjo with a low A string, so that without going above the fifth fret, he can play the full tune in two octaves, going low when the fiddle goes low, and high when the fiddle is high.


On his website (www.banjourneys.com) and his interview with Bela Fleck in the last issue of the OTH (Volume 12, Number 5), Levy discusses his interest in the African roots of the banjo, his trips to Gambia, and his development of a Western version of the akonting, “banjonting” – a three string instrument of levy’s own devising. OTH readers who own the Bob Carlin/Cheick Hamala Diabate collaboration From Mali to America (reviewed in Volume 11, Number 2 may be surprised how different Levy’s African songs and tunes sound: They are sung as well as played, they use a Western-sounding diatonic scale instead of microtones, and seem rhythmically more regular. On reflection, why should this be surprising? Mali and Gambia are at least 200 miles apart. Think of the differences between Georgia and Kentucky fiddling in the 1920’s. “African akonting music” is no more a monolith than “American banjo music”.


There are four songs form Gambia on Banjourneys, each one played on the banjonting with Mike Eberle doubling on fiddle while Levy sings and plays. Each one sounds as if it has a “simple” melody with repeated words. Making it sound easy is something that good musicians know how to do; a construction project seldom looks complex once the scaffolding has been taken down.


Levy is also fascinated with the low tones of the cello-banjo—as in “Doctor Levy’s Walk-Around,” an original minstrel-style tune, and the “Walk Into the Parlor” medley also done in the style of the 1850’s. he extends his fascination with the bass notes by playing a six-string banjo with an added low bass string, allowing the melody notes to be played an octave below the banjo’s normal range. (This has already been mentioned while praising “Sandy Boys” above.) In fact, the only cut on this CD done with a “standard” five-string banjo is Ola Belle Reed’s “Boat’s Up the River”. Two nice fiddle tunes, both done with two fiddles with Mike Eberle, and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” round out this CD.


I think this CD is an opportunity to follow some of the roads taken by a fine traditional musician (in several widely different traditions) who has found his own balance between honoring tradition and creating new music. Many of these roads I would never have found myself, and I am glad Levy showed them to me. - Old-TIme Herald, July-August 2010


"Adam Hurt Reviews "Scratching and Clawing""

From Banjo Newsletter, October 2007 page 34-35.

Scratching and Clawing by Chuck Levy
Red Dog Records no.0

Review by Adam Hurt

I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with the music of Floridian Chuck Levy through his CD “Scratching and Clawing”. While Chuck and I have not met, I was already familiar with his name, if not his music. Now, upon listening to his CD, I can confidently say that his is a name which BNL that should become familiar!... Chuck’s clawhammer banjo playing is intricate and engaging, but also consistently clean and tasteful throughout, a sort of ideal combination many players seek but few achieve. He demonstrates particular facility when playing a six string fretless banjo (also built by Ken Bloom), and really makes the most of that extra low string, but his work is delicious regardless of the banjo used. The several fiddle-banjo duets are quite tight with nice interplay between the instruments…, This is an enjoyable recording that I would not hesitate to recommend. It will please anyone who likes to hear very well-played clawhammer banjo, and the interesting selection of tunes should satisfy those who are tired of hearing the same old stuff. In the liner notes Chuck says, “I hope this CD reflects the warmth of friendship I feel towards the three accomplished and generous musicians who have joined me on this project”. Even not knowing any of the players involved, I found this sense of comfortable fellowship coming across loud and clear throughout, which is the sort of personal touch that too many musicians forego in favor of a more impersonal, sterile sound. This is good music played by friends who are clearly enjoying themselves and making the most of each other’s presence and input, and it is well worth hearing.
- Banjo Newsletter


Discography

Scratching and Clawing: Chuck Levy with David Forbes, Mike Eberle, and Bill Dudley: Red Dog Records #0, 2007

Banjourneys: Chuck Levy with Mike Eberle and David Forbes. Red Dog Records 001, 2009

The Best of Across the Prarie, Volume 2. WUFT Alive in the Studio

Photos

Bio

“To call Chuck Levy a banjo player seems to be a bit of a disservice, akin to calling Wolfgang Puck a cook or Tim Tebow a guy who tosses a ball.” Suzanna Mars in Fresh Squeezed Florida http://gainesville365.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/chuck-levy-and-friends-and-friends/

Chuck Levy has earned the title of Florida's Old-Time Banjo Champion, as well as being a prize-winning Florida fiddler. Adam Hurt said this about his first CD, "Scratching and Clawing": “Chuck’s clawhammer banjo playing is intricate and engaging, but also consistently clean and tasteful throughout, a sort of ideal that many players seek, but few achieve. He demonstrates particular facility when playing a six-string fretless banjo and really makes the most of that extra low string, but his work is delicious regardless of the banjo used.”

Chuck’s second CD, "Banjourneys," was named as one of the best recordings of 2009 by Donald Nitchie in Banjo Newsletter. In a review of Banjourneys in the September 2010 issue of Banjo Newsletter, Adam Hurt says: “Banjourneys is a most interesting, stylistically diverse project by someone who is clearly devoted to his craft….Chuck Levy’s musical autobiography of sorts proves to be enjoyable and engaging throughout, and has already been worthy of many repeat listens for me. I am happy to recommend it, and look forward to hearing future musical journeys taken by this fine player”. Banjourneys was reviewed by Pete Peterson in the July-August 2010 edition of the Old-Time Herald, where he wrote: “What happens when an already good musician decides to broaden his horizons by learning more about the roots of the banjo and learns some tunes and songs from Gambia in the process? A CD as interesting and enjoyable as this one…I think this CD is an opportunity to follow some of the roads taken by a fine traditional musician (in several widely different traditions) who has found his own balance between honoring tradition and creating new music. Many of these roads I would never have found myself, and I am glad Levy showed them to me.”

About Banjourneys, Tony Trischka says: “Banjourneys is wonderful blend of banjo and fiddle voices drawing from old-time and West-African traditions, with a shade of cowboy music and the Rolling Stones too. The amazing thing is how well it all fits together; at turns haunting, lyrical, and loads of fun, neatly wrapped up in a Roz Chast cover.” 3.2010 Mac Benford put it this way: "Chuck displays an impressive range of
appropriate styles in his 'Banjourney', from the banjo's early African origins,
through its minstrel hall and mountain hoedown heydays, right up to the present
day and beyond. An exciting and enjoyable journey indeed." 4.2010. African banjo scholar Daniel LaemouAhuma Jatta says "Banjourneys is a great collection of music, a kind of roadmap of the territory connecting Jola music of Senegambia to old-time music in the US. The banjo and fiddle music is grand, but what I was really impressed with was the Jola songs. Chuck’s vocals are good, his akonting is strong and vibrant, and Mike Eberle’s fiddle fits perfectly. Perhaps this is what it sounded like at the beginning when Africans and Europeans first shared music. I highly recommend Banjourneys"5.10.10

Chuck is equally at home on 5 and 6 string banjos (five strings plus a short string), whether fretted or fretless, playing clawhammer and minstrel styles. Chuck also plays the 10-string banjo and the banjola. Chuck is also a respected banjo scholar who has visited Senegal and Gambia to investigate the African roots of the banjo. He learned to play the akonting (ekonting), a 3-string banjo ancestor, with Jola master musicians Remi Diatta, and Ekona Diatta. Chuck’s mastery has been recognized by Gold Tone, which has developed a 6 string banjo, the OT-6, to Chuck’s specifications (http://www.goldtone.com/products/details/w/instrument/373/OT-6) . Chuck is a past president of both the Florida Banjo Society and the Florida State Fiddlers Association, and co-directs the Suwannee Banjo Camp with Ken Perlman, and the Suwanne Old-Time weekend with Jim Strickland. Chuck is also active with the Center for Arts in Healthcare, Research And Education at the University of Florida as Chair of the Board of Directors. In 2009, Chuck was honored to receive the Thelma Boltin Award at the Florida Old-Time Music Championships. This annual award is given to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to traditional music in Florida. Chuck leads the string bands "Physical Medicine," "Fear No Weevil,” and “the Ferrets of the Mall” and teaches fiddle and banjo in Gainesville, Florida, and directs the Suwannee Old-Time Music Weekend and the Suwannee Banjo Camp www.suwanneebanjocamp.com .

Competitions:
• 2010: Florida State Fiddle Contest: 2nd Place
• 2008: Longleaf String Band contest: 1st place: Florida State Fiddle Contest: 2nd Place
• 2007: Florida State Fiddlers Convention String Band