Yosef Gutman Levitt
Yes, you read that correctly as Yosef Gutman Levitt’s Soul Song is the name of the inaugural album on a label of the same name he just founded. The South African born bassist who wowed us with the sound of his five-string acoustic bass guitar on Upside Down Mountain, which we covered on these pages, has formed a new quartet behind his renewed partnership with renowned guitarist Lionel Loueke, a bond first formed at Berklee College of Music that extended to their years in New York together. Levitt left the music business for a while during which time Loueke’s trajectory climbed steeply. Levitt moved to Jerusalem in 2018 and resumed his musical career, as evidenced by the aforementioned trio album. So, this album represents the reunion of two friends, backed by pianist Omri Mor and drummer Ofri Nehemya. These are primarily Levitt originals, and the composer mostly plays upright bass as he sees himself in a support role to Loueke who mostly takes the lead on the melodies. The fourteen tracks run for just over an hour, with Loueke playing a nylon seven-string acoustic, the same guitar he used on Hope, his recent duo album with Kevin Hays, and the even more recent Lean In with vocalist Gretchen Parlato, the latter of which we covered here.
Soul Song was recorded in Jerusalem in summer of 2022 and due to the location and Levitt’s spiritual foundations the album has a strong reflective, spiritual quality, eminently easy on the ears. Devoted listeners will recognize that lush, resounding sound of Levitt’s five-string bass guitar on some tracks, including the leadoff “Chai Elul” but only again on “The Tender Eyes of Leah,” “Kave El Hashem,” and the duo and trio versions of “Amud Anan.” You’ll notice though that his upright bass and his trio members beautifully support Loueke’s leads on the title track with a keen sense of both harmony and dynamics, even though Levitt is more prominent when using his five-string bass.
While the title track may be the closest to what we associate with guitar driven jazz albums, the third track, “Myriad” sounds distinctively Mid-eastern. In fact, it and several others are adaptations of nigun, mystically flowing, wordless melodies drawn from Hasidic Jewish tradition. Levitt has done these before on his albums Tsuf Harim and Tal Yasis with New York guitarist Tal Yahalom and on earlier band releases. You’ll sense a real difference between the two – the title track and “Song of the Sea” that sandwich “Myriad” and will pick up the nigunim (plural) again with “Torah Tsiva” and “Kave El Hashem.” Loueke adapts so well to this material with his gorgeous, ringing tones that it doesn’t seem at all new to him. Inherent in Levitt’s compositional process is drawing on imagery from the Torah, as heard in “Amud Anan,” which means “pillar of cloud,” i.e., the divine presence that arose to shield the Jews during their Exodus from Egypt. Arguably the best tonal features are found in tracks five through seven with Levitt playing acoustic five-sting on three of those with the nigun represented in track six, “Torah Tsiva,” which has inspired interplay between the guitarist and bassist and terrific kit work, especially on the ride cymbal by Nehemya.
Throughout one can’t help but marvel at Loueke’s colorful playing and having heard him in several contexts, this writer considers this to be one of most outstanding outings. The supporting trio supports him with rich harmonies and an astute sense of rhythm, never upstaging him and giving him the freedom to improvise around which at times are very simple melodies.
As mentioned, this is the inaugural album for Levitt’s label. Forthcoming is an album from the pianist, Omri Mor’s Melodies of Light, followed by two other premiere guitarists – Gilad Hekselman and Ralph Towner. Loueke and Levitt together have set a high bar for those three to follow.
- Jim Hynes
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