He says it’s the only instrument the performer and the audience can’t see while it’s being played – and that fact, among others – fueled Howard Levy’s fascination with the harmonica. Levy picked up the instrument as a teenager longing to learn to play the Chicago blues and went on to co-found the band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Critics have called him “a revelation” and “the most radical single technical innovator” in the history of the instrument.
The public may hear and judge for themselves when Levy – a Grammy Award-winning instrumentalist, composer, producer and teacher – visits UMass Lowell to perform at Durgin Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28. The venue is located at 35 Wilder St. on UMass Lowell’s South Campus and offers convenient public parking. Admission is free but donations taken at the door will support scholarships for UMass Lowell music students.
Among an eclectic mix of music that traces Levy’s love of jazz, blues, world beat, rock and classical genres, the concert will feature a piano duet between Levy and Meg Ruby, who teaches piano at UMass Lowell, as well as the world premiere of “8-Bit Attitude,” a composition for digitally processed harmonica written by John Shirley, chairman of UMass Lowell’s Music Department.
“Howard is an amazing musician and highly collaborative,” Shirley said. “I am honored that he thinks so highly of my music, completely out of his normal working genres, that he’d ask me to compose something for him.”
The show will cap Levy’s four-day visit to the university, during which he will lead master classes for UMass Lowell music students. The first of these sessions – “A World of Possibilities: Patterns in Music and Improvisation” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25 in Durgin Concert Hall – will be free and open to the public.
“Having Howard Levy visit UMass Lowell speaks to the Music Department’s dedication to delivering quality educational experiences to our students. I am ecstatic to have high-caliber musicians come into Durgin Hall and interact with them; there is a certain educational experience in music that only comes with this face-to-face instruction that is not quite attainable through other means,” said Michael Testa, visiting professor of sound recording technology.
Levy’s journey has taken him all over the musical map. An accomplished piano player, he brought his knowledge of that instrument to his developing skill on the harmonica during his formative years in New York. Called “the man with two brains” for his uncanny ability to play two vastly different parts with each hand on the piano – or to play both piano and harmonica simultaneously – in the 1970s, he mastered a breathing technique that revolutionized the way the diatonic harmonica is performed. Although the harmonica is not physically designed to sound sharps and flats on the chromatic scale, he is able to hit these notes because of his performance style. In 2011, Levy released a CD of classical music that includes his “Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra,” the first concerto ever written for the instrument.
He co-founded Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in 1988 and although he left the group in 1993, he went on to win Grammys for his collaborations with the band. The first came in 1997 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for a live recording of the Flecktones’ “Sinister Mister.” Rejoining the band in 2010, he received his second Grammy in 2012 for Best Instrumental Composition for “Life in Eleven,” which he co-wrote with Fleck.
Levy has performed on more than 250 albums and film soundtracks and has recorded and toured with performers from many musical genres, including Kenny Loggins, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Bobby McFerrin, Dolly Parton and Dennis DeYoung of Styx. A frequent guest on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” Levy is the musical director of the Latin/jazz group Chevere de Chicago and also leads the band Acoustic Express. Harmonica students may find his tutorials at his online school, www.howardharmonica.com.