By Ken Waxman
Ripe for new experiments and contexts is New York cellist Daniel Levin as he demonstrates on these releases. Member in good standing of the city’s experimental music scene, the Burlington, Vt.-born cellist has been recording with his quartet since 2006, but is also available to be challenged by the likes of reedists Joe McPhee or Ivo Perelman in other contexts. His skills along with those Erik Friedlander and Fred Lonberg-Holm among others, have helped carve out a burgeoning role in jazz-improvised music for an instrument that until recently was treated as an oddball obsession for the few such as Fred Katz and Oscar Pettiford.
Like another echo of those earlier times, Levin’s quartet – filled out by trumpeter Nate Wooley vibraphonist Matt Moran and new member Torbjorn Zetterberg on bass, has created a provocatively swinging eight-track session that evokes vibist Teddy Charles early 1950s chamber-Jazz dates with, among others, trumpeter Shorty Rogers and bassist Curtis Counce. Comparisons only go so far though, since unlike the Charles tracks there’s no drummer present and it’s Levin who takes the role a guitarist essayed six decades ago. In contrast, melding tones from of his cello and the bass also gives the tunes a low-pitched infrastructure. The result is more akin to the foundation needed for a rugged east-coast dwelling than the spacious airiness common to what was built in California by Charles and others. Here, a tune like “Whisper” emphasizes the near-motor-driven power of eight strings sprawling across wood, while Wooley appears to be digging contorted muted notes from within his horn.
Also more cerebral than their forbearers, the Levin 4 can access the sizzle of an electric frying pan on “Particles” with a recipe that uses the trumpeter’s elongated glissandi to bond with disconnected cello sweeps and intermittent vibe resonation creating a satisfying musical meal. These feasts are well balanced and musically nutritious as well, especially when the fibre implicit in Levin’s glissandi balance Moran’s sweetened undercurrent plus Wooley’s obbligato overlaid with effervescence. The tunes can be flinty as well as fibrous though. Zetterberg’s firm strums are executed with the power needed to cut through giant redwoods, for instance on “Chol” so that it takes Levin’s saber-like sweeps to more closely focus the tune. Glacially paced, the theme doesn’t revert to toughness until each musician’s solo leans into the others.
Cellos appear unlikely to replace in popularity saxophones, trumpets, guitars or drums. But with an impressionistic session like Friction and an exploratory one like Illusion of Truth, Levin is demonstrating its adaptability.