Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Alonzo Levister - Manhattan Monodrama

Alonzo Levister (1925-2016) was a conservatory-trained composer and pianist whose music represented, in his words, "equal love for Blues, Bartok, Bach and Baptist shouting." In the 1950s, he became something of a music director (although he probably didn't officially hold any such title) for the Debut record label, which was owned by Charles Mingus and Max Roach; Levister wrote arrangements and conducted for several Debut sessions. Later, he arranged for the Motown and Verve labels, wrote commercial jingles, and arranged Broadway shows. Only once was Levister given free rein to produce an album of his own music on his own terms. The result was Manhattan Monodrama, recorded for Debut in 1956.

Manhattan Monodrama is "third stream" music - that is, music which combines the techniques and attitudes of jazz and classical music. Third stream music is often accused of being pretentious, but there is none of that here. Levister's music is natural and personal-sounding. The small ensemble includes jazz musicians such as trumpeter Louis Mucci and vibist Teddy Charles, classical musicians like cellist Lorin Bernsohn and percussionist Morris Lang (both longtime members of the New York Philharmonic), and, on alto sax and clarinet, John LaPorta, who like Levister himself, was equally comfortable in the jazz and classical worlds. I prefer the five short pieces on side one to the 15-minute ballet score (which gives the album its name) on side two. Apparently John Coltrane like the music on side one as well; he recorded Levister's "Slow Dance" on one of his Prestige albums.

Levister's Debut album has remained obscure - I can't imagine that it sold many copies back in the day, and only one track has ever been reissued. But I'm grateful to have found a slightly battered copy in a Savannah junk store 20 or so years ago. I listened again last night, and enjoyed the music more than ever. Here's "Slow Dance" from Levister's album, but be warned that it's a really bad transfer, in terms of sound quality.

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