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He even sounds like himself: Levinson.

photo:Andrzej Pilarczyck

A Very Good Year
By B.A. Nilsson

Dan Levinson and His Summa Cum Laude Orchestra

The Whisper Dome, Sept. 30

By the time the band got to “Fidgety Feet,” they were in such a swinging groove that each solo topped the one that came before, topped it in inventiveness, intensity and that looseness of rhythm that would give any metronome a nervous breakdown.

Dan Levinson is a Manhattan-based clarinet and sax player with a passion for vintage jazz and the chops to play any of it in any style. At Friday night’s performance as part of Schenectady’s “A Place for Jazz” series, he sounded like Goodman, he sounded like Pee Wee Russell, he even, during his solo in “Satanic Blues,” aped the style of Sidney Bechet without the nervous vibrato. And that was just on clarinet.

Protean though his playing can be, he also sounds like Levinson, a player who has assimilated those classic styles and sees them through a post-bop lens. He can reharmonize a solo in a surprising way (although it’s arguable that Bix Beiderbecke already was doing that in 1924). As a leader, he assembled a septet of some of the finest players from his neighborhood and ours and led them through a series of tight, tricky arrangements paying tribute to a group who performed and recorded together for one year only, in 1939.

They were led by Bud Freeman, a tenor sax player who’d been with the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman but sought independence; invited to front the house band at a Greenwich Village club called Nick’s, he put together a lineup of trumpeter Max Kaminsky, Russell on clarinet, Brad Gowans on trombone, and a rhythm section that included guitarist Eddie Condon.

This is the lineup Levinson reproduced. It’s a fascinating perspective, because we’re listening to living players who no doubt discovered this music 20 years ago, while the music itself hails from more than 60 years ago, and even then Freeman & Co. were themselves celebrating music from 15 years earlier, in particular Beiderbecke’s ensembles and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Routining of the numbers followed a familiar form, with an ensemble intro, typically with trumpet lead, and then solos from the front line and the piano before an ensemble rideout, often trading eights or fours into the finish. It’s like haiku: a restrictive form with no end of room in which to move around.

Pianist Mike Bank, who looks like a young Ed Harris, had been playing some monster stride up until “Fidgety Feet,” but during that number something else seemed to break loose. He didn’t seem to be doing anything different, but this time it came out and bit you. If he trilled a few chords, he’d sound amazingly like Jess Stacy, another Goodman veteran.

Then Levinson took a clarinet solo, exploring the instrument’s throaty chalumeau register; in the next chorus, he soared ever higher. Trumpeter Randy Reinhart took a hot chorus before trading fours with trombonist Harvey Tibbs, and that sent Tibbs off into a chorus of his own. Even drummer Kevin Dorn got a solo workout in this one, an opportunity generally reserved for end-of-the-set numbers (which this wasn’t).

The incredible drive of the group was propelled by two locally based players: Don Young on the four-string guitar (à la Condon), and Don Dworkin both fiery and completely at home on string bass. (Levinson, who worked in one of Dworkin’s bands in Saratoga during the summer, paid him high tribute by noting that, as a bandleader himself, Dworkin is also an excellent sideman).

If Bernadette Peters had come up through the big bands of the ’30s, she’d sound like Molly Ryan, who joined the group for several songs, vintage items like “Wherever There’s Love,” the Gershwins’ “Lorelei,” and one of my favorites, Harold Arlen’s “Let’s Fall in Love.”

In general, the instrumental numbers dated from the ’teens and ’20s, classics like “China Boy,” “Copenhagen,” “Sensation Rag,” “ I Found a New Baby” and the Freeman classic “Prince of Wails.”

And if there was any doubt that Levinson could hold his own toe-to-toe with the master, it was dispelled by the virtuoso agitation of Freeman’s “The Eel,” superbly re-created into a modern classic.


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