Tony Levin on Stick
This past weekend I went to see a concert in Minneapolis, in a small, intimate club, of some of my favorite musicians on the planet. Stickmen, featuring Tony Levin, opened for the Adrian Belew Power Trio, and both groups joined forces for a third set of long and often brilliant covers of King Crimson songs. Which is only appropriate, since three of the people onstage were past and/or present members of King Crimson.
This the first major progressive rock concert I've been to in a few years—the last one was King Crimson, in St. Paul—and while I know I keep saying lately that since my surgery everything is new and for the first time, again i saw and heard things at this concert that sorted out my thinking as if for the first time.
I've seen Tony Levin play Chapman Stick many times before, live and via video, and each time I watch him play I learn something. It's like getting a lesson. There are so many ways he plays both Stick and bass that I find directly influential. This concert was no different. At the same time, it was validating and affirming as never before, for me, as a Stickist. I'll get to that a bit later. But first, a sidebar.
Within the Stick players' community, there's sometimes a strong pressure felt to be a solo artist: to play all the parts on your singular instrument. That's entirely possible, and there are great players who do just that. The seminars I've attended, along with many solo concerts, I've been quite impressed with some players, and musically uplifted by others.
But I like playing in a band, with other musicians. I like the give and take of live improvisation with others. I like playing bass in a band, and I like playing Stick to play the bassist role. I also like playing a "guitar solo" on Stick, which I did more often in an improvising prog rock band called ƒUSE I was involved with when living in California a few years ago. Doing a "guitar solo" on Stick makes you think in ways, and produce lines, that a guitarist might not.
The afternoon before the concert, I spent some hours with my musician partner in the duo Wind, Sand & Stars, Eddie Estrin, laying down tracks and elements and musical ideas. We hadn't played together for awhile, but the session was inspirational, and we've agreed to make music together more often again, starting soon. (Several previous WS&S sample tracks can be found on my website's Music page.) After jamming for awhile, we had a light meal, then went to see the concert together, along with another musician friend. At the show, I might add, we met several other musicians we knew.
One cardinal virtue of the Stick is that you are able, like on piano, to play all parts at the same time: melody, bass, and chords. The Stick is played with two-handed tapping technique, a technique pioneered by the Stick's inventor, Emmett Chapman. The technique came first, when Emmett was playing guitar; he invented the Stick in order to have an instrument with which to maximize the possibilities of his two-handed tapping technique. The Stick is set up for tapping, not strumming and plucking. It's not a guitar, and it's not really like a guitar. (So stop thinking like it is one.) Emmett is not a musician who performs, or lives, in a rut. He is one of the most original thinkers I've ever met, and enjoyed conversing with. I've said more than once that Emmett doesn't "think outside the box," for him it's more like, "There's a box?"
We all get into ruts sometimes. It's good to break out of ruts. But at root most ruts are conceptual, not actual.
One does meet Stickists who have a hard time getting out of their conceptual and motor-skills source or background boxes. It actually seems easier, based on observation, for a pianist to take up Stick than it is for a guitarist: the tapping technique is very pianistic (also very similar to how one plays small frame drums) in terms of motor skills. The fretboard theory required—in other words, learning where the notes are—is straightforward and logical, unlike the guitar's historical and idiosyncratic standard tuning (descended from oud, lute, and flamenco practice).
I never liked guitar precisely because I never liked its tuning, which on one level was designed to be easy and natural for chording but on another level requires contortions of the hand to get away from any music not tonal or chordal in nature. The players who tend to push that envelope are often players who use alternative tunings, including open tunings. At this point in life, learning guitar for me would be like learning to build a bridge: a long learning curve at the end of which I would only be competent at a skill in which others are demonstrably brilliant. Why invest the time in learning a skill that only makes you ordinary? I'd rather invest my study time in ways that find for me a voice unique and different, and notably my own.
I recognize and acknowledge there are great players on all instruments, and they are often inspirational to me as both a listener and musician. I've learned a lot about melodic form and improvisation from players on instruments other than my own. Honestly, I've learned less from my fellow Stick players than I have from two or three radical and brilliant guitarists (Julian Bream, Robert Fripp, Sonny Sharrock, to name a few guitarists in my very small pantheon), a few equally radical and brilliant bassists (Dave Allen, Charlie Haden, Bill Laswell, again to name only a few), and even from trumpet and trombone and saxophone players. Jazz phrasing isn't limited to voice or instrument: it's about feel, about timing, and the way you end a note or phrase that brings it life and dramatic intensity. It all begins and ends with the breath; even string players know to breath with their phrases. Breath is life.
And this leads me back, after a long sidebar, to my impressions of Tony Levin playing Stick at the concert the other night. What I mostly was reminded of is how powerfully he plays, the way he chooses his notes, the style of playing he does on Stick. A lot of two-handed bass playing. He's not trying to play the instrument as a soloist, and as a result in a band setting he does not overplay, he plays just the right amount of notes. When he plays a melodic solo, he often stays on the bass side of the instrument, using the upper ranges; this has a distinctly different tone color than simply moving over to the strings on the treble side of the instrument, and makes it sound more like a hyper-bass solo.
I watched and listened and—returning to my own everything is new perspective mentioned above—realized anew how strongly Tony Levin has influenced me as a Stick player. I play a lot more like Tony than I do any of the solo Stickists. I realized all over again how strongly he influenced me. After all, my route to this music was: first, I discovered the Stick; then I discovered Tony Levin; then I listened to the bands he was playing with, notably King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. That was my route to listening to King Crimson in a nutshell: because I was interested in Tony Levin.
So I feel pleased and validated and reassured that my Stick playing is just fine. It's in the Tony Levin vein, which is a very valid, mostly band-oriented rather than soloistic vein. That encourages me and affirms my commitment to playing Stick the way I want to play it. I have attended more than one Stick seminar where I left feeling like I was being told I lacked something, since I wasn't playing Stick like everyone else was, or wasn't playing enough solo stuff, or wasn't playing things inside the box. Where I didn't feel encouraged to play Stick the way I wanted to play it. Watching and listening to Tony play live again, and in a small club, close up, where I could see everything close up, was a validation that I'm doing just fine, thank you very much. I'm going my own direction with my music, and not playing like a lot of other guys play—which is another reason I like Stick, for its endless possibilities. While that's nothing new, sometimes you feel a little ostracized for being different.
I left the gig feeling very inspired and full of ideas. Days later, I still feel that way. I have ideas in my inner ear for a whole new set of Stick pieces. I've been wanting to start up the recording work again, maybe begin work on a new album, now that I've recovered enough from illness and surgery, and this concert inspires me to get busy right away. I've already laid down a couple of test tracks, one for an almost-Steve-Reichian piece, made using just Stick and delays. I hear a potential bass line mixing in; I can hear Tony playing it in my inner ear; the musical territory between Steve Reich and King Crimson is potentially convergent, after all. I'll see where I can go with these ideas soon.
But that's how I play Stick. Thanks to one of the greatest living bassists and Stickists I have ever seen and listened to: Tony Levin. My sincere gratitude.