The very ‘idea’ that anyone could even attempt these pieces, not to mention with the original core-instrumentation, (except drum-kit instead of drumitar), was always just amazing to all of the players involved in this project. Hank Smith, Blu-Bop banjoist and bandleader, lured each of us with the same come-on line, “Don’t you want to find out if you can actually play this stuff?”
The thing that always impressed me about The Flecktones was that, in the midst of an extraordinarily complex musical concept, each individual component of the band was in the process of literally re-imagining the possibilities of their component instrument. Of course, as a harmonica player that wanted to be able to play music other than the usual folk, blues, or campfire that harmonica was welcome to play, the blazing innovator Howard Levy was the undeniable beacon of that possibility.
My connection to the original Flecktones was, of course because Howard Levy played harmonica in a way that had never been played or imagined before. In my opinion, Howard Levy is the greatest musician that has ever played the harmonica … Nicknamed The Man with Two Brains, with his lifelong training on the keyboard, he is able to (seemingly) effortlessly translate complex keyboard ideas to the heretofore-humble little ten hole Mississippi Saxophone. Of course, the ‘effortless’ part is not true at all … In the two and a half decades I’ve known him, I’ve witnessed countless occasions where Howard relentlessly attacked whatever limitation and issue he came across, until he could play through it and make musical decisions that worked.
I first met Howard Levy in 1990.
I had heard the first Flecktones cd, and long before the first song ended, I thought to myself, “Damn, this guy has done it.” What I meant, in my mind’s musing, was that this Howard Levy guy had figured out how to play harmonica like a saxophone … and I wanted to know how … It so happened that The Flecktones were playing in the city I lived in at the time, Baltimore, so I went down early to Max’s On Broadway in Fells Point, and looked for the freaky, towering-geeky-looking guy that I saw pictured on the CD …
Then, there he was … I called out, “Howard Levy,” and he swung around a full 180 degrees like a slow-mo Bugs-Bunny-cartoon, and turned to face me. “How do you do that,” I said.
For some reason, he decided to talk to me, pulled out the Ab Hohner Golden Melody harmonica he kept in his pocket, and started telling me what he was doing. After a while, he invited me on to The Flecktones bus, and we kept talking … probably for a couple of hours. As time approached for the show, he finally said to me, “You know, you’re pretty good. You should come to this week-long workshop I’m doing in West Virginia next Summer.” And I did …
That week long workshop in West Virginia in the summer of 1991 morphed into my sponsoring the 1998 Harmonica Summit gathering in Chapel Hill, NC that brought together the best of the harp players of that generation that were interested in expanded technique, and more far-flung musical ideas and contexts involving the harmonica … That week, which included a sold-out 4 hour long concert, also produced a combination teaching/documentary film I was involved in producing … It is an historic film … If interested, check it out (in Four Parts) at these links: