Fast Forward to the Past

Free jazz has become an increasingly fringe art form, but Ike Levin is a lifer.

Like any avid jazz listener, Ike Levin can identify a tune just by listening to a couple of bars up top — or the sax solo, if it’s a Bird or ‘Trane recording. He’s two for three at the Peet’s across from the Claremont Hotel on a recent Tuesday afternoon. What’s probably an iPod mix of standards ripples from the store speakers, and you can see the cogs working behind his sunglasses. The ‘Trane cut was a cinch, as was Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” He fumbles a bit on the third. “Dexter Gordon,” Levin says at first, then corrects himself. “No, Art Blakey. Late-’50s recording with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter.” The title eluded him.

Levin came up in Chicago and studied tenor sax under Fred Anderson, a cofounder of the nonprofit free-jazz collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Anderson taught Levin how to think of music in terms of isolated phrases, rather than chord changes. “Phrasing being when you go bup diddley dup,” Levin explains. “Then there’s a pause. The dup is the last note, then the next note picks up off that note and creates another phrase.”

Having grown up playing “preconceived” tunes like “Lush Life” or “All of Me” or a B-flat blues, Levin quickly gravitated to the freer form. “When I discovered the opportunity to not have that preconceived structure — to create in the moment what that structure is — that really caught my attention,” he said in a separate phone interview. “And when I started to play that way, I dug it.”

Now 57, Levin plays with some of the nation’s most established free-jazz musicians. His trio features pianist Joel Futterman and drummer Alvin Fielder, who used to collaborate with Sun Ra. He’s lived in the Bay Area for nearly three decades, and now resides in Walnut Creek.

Levin initially dug the Bay for its temperate climate and bohemian sensibility — in the ’80s, San Francisco had two 24-hour jazz stations, plus several hip venues like Kimball’s and the old Yoshi’s on Claremont. He eventually hooked up with such like-minded souls as multireed instrumentalist Oluyemi Thomas — who wears a Nigerian crown and practices the Baha’i religion — and trumpeter Eddie Gale (also a former Sun Ra collaborator). In recent months, the three decided to launch their own version of the AACM to promote forward-thinking music in the Bay Area. With the Forward Music Festival at Oakland’s 21 Grand on October 6, they’re finally setting things in motion.

The show, which the players hope to make an annual event, will feature free jazz that edges toward psychedelia. Levin, who honed his chops transcribing Charlie Parker solos — he’d listen to recordings of “Confirmation” and “Billie’s Bounce,” replicate the sax licks on his horn, then write them down — now favors hardbop squawks and choppy, chromatic runs that uncoil forever in one direction.

Futterman, meanwhile, bludgeons his piano. Thomas performs alongside his wife, spoken-word poet Ijeoma, in the “creatively prayerful” group Positive Knowledge. Their 2005 release First Ones — which features Levin on tenor sax and bass clarinet — kicks off with Ijeoma ululating over a frenetic horn section that sounds like it’s gasping for breath. In danger of being among the woooooounded/You stuuuuumble on the spiral staircase, she drawls, slurring vowels and reshaping words to make them stretchy and luxuriant. Midway through the song — an engrossing cacophony called “Unexplainable Reality/Events at the Edge” — she starts speaking in tongues.

So far, this stuff hasn’t really caught on. These guys exist on the very edge of fashion — they were vegetarian before everyone else; they obliterated melody lines before Sonic Youth made it okay. Eddie Gale is the only name on the bill who would resonate with a wider audience — he was recently named Jazz Ambassador of San Jose and his oeuvre includes such hip collectibles as the 1968 post-bop album Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music and 1969’s Black Rhythm Happening. But most of these cats — Gale included — are up against many more stumbling blocks than their forebears. Since there’s no money to be made in free jazz, they all have “straight gigs,” too. Levin practices psychology and Thomas is trained as a mechanical engineer, although he’s spent years teaching in the Oakland public schools. Al Fielder is a semiretired pharmacist.

To make matters worse, the musicians are facing a climate that’s increasingly dismissive of free jazz. The exigencies of running a business have compelled Yoshi’s to swap its avant-garde bookings for more-accessible acts. Magazines such as Down Beat and Jazz Times have gotten a lot more square. Levin has found an occasional home in the Free Jazz Friday series at 1510 8th Street in Oakland, run by local jazz promoter Rob Woodworth. But that’ll end this month. Most improvisational musicians are finicky about where they play. They can’t bear the sound of glasses clinking or people talking in the background, and are thus relegated to the 21 Grands and Luggage Store Galleries of the world.

Still, Levin seems remarkably sanguine, sitting at Peet’s in his Hawaiian shirt and shades. As he rattles off a list of inspirations — Leroy Jenkins, Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell — a man in horn-rimmed glasses sneaks up from behind and interrupts.

“And Malachi Favors,” says the man, who’s carrying a cappuccino-to-go with two Popsicle sticks sprouting from the foam.

“I was getting to that,” Levin insists.

The intruder, New York City-raised attorney Bob Orenstein, recalls the time he saw free-jazz titan Ornette Coleman clear a room at the Fillmore in NYC: “Nineteen sixty-seven Christmas concert on the Lower East Side of New York City. Ornette walks out with a white pocket trumpet and starts playing three-chord harmonies.” At least half the audience left right then. But Orenstein was mesmerized.

The story makes Levin smile. “Hey, you should come to this show at 21 Grand,” he says. “You’d dig it.”

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