Howard Levy | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader
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HOWARD LEVY

Multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy shape-shifts at will--from Balkan folk flutist to spiky jazz pianist to the quirky fusioneer who spent the first half of this decade with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones--but he's best recognized as one of the world's most inventive harmonica players. Using a lowly Marine Band blues harp, he attacks bebop burners and Coltrane classics with a technical wizardry that transcends the simple instrument's limitations; he's played convincing solos with everyone from Dolly Parton to Tito Puente. Levy has relentlessly explored world rhythms--he used to jam at ethnic clubs, just for the fun of playing in time signatures that give most American musicians the willies--and in recent years this has fed into his work with Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil and his own music co-op, Trio Globo. Because of his high profile on the harmonica, though, the vivid, high-tension keyboard work of his 20s has receded like a middle-aged hairline--which makes this solo piano concert a kind of homecoming. Levy has an almost brittle touch, and the way his long, thin fingers dart through the octaves, firing a few quick rounds or setting off a well-placed explosion, makes me think of a little guerrilla army. He camouflages his deep harmonic knowledge by using relatively simple chords, which imply unheard chromatic layers. And his smooth, almost glassy rhythms have some of Chick Corea's cool elegance; his lines swing up in the air, rather than digging an earthy groove, like, say, Herbie Hancock's. Levy's up-tempo compositions often reflect the North African and Middle Eastern modes that have exerted such an influence on him in the 90s, but he also writes strong, tender ballads that he renders with the dark passion of one of his idols, John Coltrane. Monday, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. NEIL TESSER

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