Tony Levin (Image credit: Raphael Dias/Getty Images)
Tony Levin is nothing if not versatile. The celebrated bassist has played straight-ahead jazz and fusion, done rock and pop dates, played behind singer-songwriters and taken part in totally improvised musical outings. He's led or co-led his own eponymous band, along with Stick Men, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, and the Levin Brothers. Tony Levin can also claim membership in a dizzying number of other acts over the years: Steps Ahead, Paul Simon's band, Liquid Tension Experiment.
Of course, he's best known for two prominent gigs, holding the bass chair in Peter Gabriel's band and in the many iterations of King Crimson and its ProjeKcts. Not to forget the hundreds, if not thousands, of sessions he's done for artists as varied as Paul Simon, Al DiMeola, John Lennon, Stevie Nicks, Peter Frampton, Buddy Rich, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd - the list goes on and on.
And so does Levin. Nothing seems to slow down the 75-year-old virtuoso. He's now heading out on the road again with the seven-headed beast that is King Crimson. The band was scheduled to tour last year, as was Stick Men, but with the world shut down those activities came to a halt.
At the time, Tony Levin was just beginning a Stick Men tour of Asia with Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto, alongside special guest Gary Husband on keyboards. Before the band even started the tour, their shows in China were called off. Then the upcoming concerts in Japan followed suit. "All of them were canceled except Nagoya", Levin says. That lone date from the planned tour was recorded and then released as Owari, which translates from Japanese as "The End".
"What I love is to play good music with good players. The passion is playing live", says Levin. Which left him, like every other musician on the planet, itching to do just that during the year and a half when that wasn't possible. He concentrated on another love, photography, as well as working with his keyboard-playing brother Pete Levin, who was a longtime veteran of Gil Evans's various bands on synth and French horn. He also took part in recording a new effort with the long-dormant cooperative band Liquid Tension Experiment with Mike Portnoy, Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci.
He got his feet wet with touring when he went on the road earlier this year with his brother and their quartet for what was dubbed the Vaccinating Rhythm tour. "We only had eight shows, fairly local, on the East Coast", Levin says. "It's great to be back playing. Audiences are thrilled".
Levin is as well, with King Crimson gearing up for its return to live performance. "We're very excited about touring. A lot of work goes into assembling the team to make it work".
The current iteration of the band includes Levin, leader and guitarist Robert Fripp, woodwind player Mel Collins, guitarist and lead vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, and three, count 'em three drummers: Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey. Since Fripp revived it in 2014, the band has played music from across the band's half-century of existence, including tracks from In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands. "It's a broad base, a wide range of material. The objective is not to make it sound like it did in 1968 or 1981 or last year.
"For me, it's fun to play differently. It is a significant challenge when the original bass part wasn't me. I try to stay true to the iconic [originals], yet make it my own. We all do that", he says.
While Crimson returns to the field, Levin says he isn't sure when or even if Peter Gabriel will do the same. He first joined the one-time Genesis frontman for sessions for his first solo album back in 1976 and has since been on every album and tour excepting those in which Gabriel performed with an orchestra.
It was during those first sessions that he became acquainted with Fripp, who was also part of the proceedings. "I was called by [album producer] Bob Ezrin to do these sessions. I did not know Gabriel or Genesis. Now, how lucky am I to still be playing music with those guys?"
Fripp called on Tony Levin to contribute to his solo debut Exposure, and a new band with former King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford as well. "When he formed Discipline he asked me. I met Bill and Adrian Belew. They were wonderful players", he says. Discipline soon morphed into a new version of King Crimson, followed several years later by the so-called "double trio" with drummer Pat Mastelotto and bassist/touch guitarist Trey Gunn joining the fun.
In addition to his musical activities, Levin has released a book of his photographs, shot in the studio and on tour. A Life on the Road is 240 pages of photos in both color and black and white, images of tours with Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, King Crimson, Paul Simon, Sting, and other acts. "I spent a lot of the lockdown year on my photo book. It was great to get that out", Levin says.
He also recorded a new album with Liquid Tension Experiment. "I feel good about that", he says, though he notes that "it was very logistically tough" working during the pandemic. The book, recordings and other merchandise are all available through his website, TonyLevin.com.
For now, it's all about performing "Larks Tongues in Aspic", "Red", "Radical Action 2" and other aspects of the music that is King Crimson. That suits Levin just fine. "I realize how lucky I am", he says.
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