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Bass instincts

Former Eastman student and King Crimson member Tony Levin returns to his roots


Tony Levin has played bass at some pretty impressive events. He performed with Paul Simon at Jimmy Carter's inauguration. He played with Peter Gabriel at the concert at Wembley Arena celebrating Nelson Mandela's release from prison. He's toured Africa, Asia, and South America. He just returned from a week in Moscow, where he played Russian folk songs with a Russian singer.

All of those shows were memorable for Levin. However, a concert doesn't have to attract huge numbers of people or hold some symbolic importance for it to have special meaning for him.

"On any night a concert has the potential to strike that special chord, for both audience and performer, when you know what is happening will resonate beyond a way you can describe it, and you'll always remember it," Levin says in an e-mail interview with City in advance of his performance in Rochester this week. "We musicians treasure those nights as much as audiences do."

That's not to say Levin hasn't cherished sharing the same stage or recording studio with legends like Simon, Gabriel, John Lennon, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson. He definitely has. And such work with so many music giants has made him one of the most respected and in-demand session bassists in the world. But Levin has also carved out a niche as a unique solo artist in his own right, and continues doing so through his current spot on the Narada Records roster.

His latest CD, Resonator, represents both a return to the familiar and a pushing of musical boundaries: the album has echoes of prog-rock titans like Gabriel and Crimson, but it also features Levin's first foray into lead vocals. The album features guitar work from celebs like Crimson mate Adrian Belew and Toto's Steve Lukather, as well as a supporting cast that includes other top-notch session musicians like drummer Jerry Marotta and keyboardist Larry Fast, both of whom have also played with Gabriel.

"This album is a departure for me from the instrumental albums I usually do," Levin says. "It's got a lot to say, in my opinion, and the message is accompanied by excellent musicianship. The songs range in subject, but most are looks at our complex life in this new 21st century, and some of the conflicts --- like between science and religion --- that I find both humor and depth in."

When Levin performs at Milestones on April 15, the show will mark a sort of homecoming for the bassist: he spent six years in the 1960s studying at the Eastman School of Music and playing in the Rochester Philharmonic, experiences that impacted him greatly

"The music I learned wasn't literally useful later on in the rock world, but the more important things --- attitudes about music and about professionalism --- were ingrained in me there and have helped me adapt to a lot of varied musical situations," he says. "The players I met were excellent, and I learned from making music with them."

At Eastman Levin cultivated his love for classical composers like Bach and Mozart, figures he says were huge early influences on him, but he also was influenced by Rochester musicians like Chuck and Gap Mangione and Steve Gadd. As far as the rock world goes, Levin says he was greatly impacted by his time in King Crimson, where he learned volumes from guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford.

Levin says he continues to learn about music, and himself, every time he picks up his bass even though he himself has influenced countless young bassists. However, he eschews praise that ranks him as one of the best bassists in rock history.

"I don't like the label 'best' about music," he says. "There is so much great music being made by a lot of people, bassists included, and even the slightly less great --- the very good stuff --- has a lot of value. I prefer to try to be moved, and maybe be inspired, by any great music or art."

The Tony Levin Band plays Saturday, April 15, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, 325-6490 at 7 p.m. $20. 325-6490.