Travelin' Man: Adam Levy's Musical Journey

“I’ve made a lot of jazzy instrumental records, but I realize that style is not for everybody,” says Adam Levy, solo artist, session musician, and former guitarist for Norah Jones and Tracy Chapman.
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“I’ve made a lot of jazzy instrumental records, but I realize that style is not for everybody,” says Adam Levy, solo artist, session musician, and former guitarist for Norah Jones and Tracy Chapman. “So I wanted to have some fun with this record—you know, a little less arty, a little more party.”

To party down on his new album, Levy put together a studio trio with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Matt Chamberlain, listened to instrumental recordings by Booker T & the M.G.’s, Ernest Ranglin, and Mickey Baker for inspiration, and, in the process, was reminded that some of his favorite vocal music didn’t actually have vocals.

But there was one more component needed—an album concept.

“I happened to bump into Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin at an airport, and we had this long conversation about tunes about cities,” says Levy. “I thought that was a cool, old-fashioned idea—like those ’60s instrumental theme albums about hot rods or girls or whatever. The next thing I know, Steve sent me, like, 50 songs about cities to listen to. It was an amazing mix tape. So cities became the theme, and I carved out the album kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, doing the edges first and then filling stuff in, until I had enough cover songs and original compositions to make a record.”

The result is Town & Country [Lost Wax Records], a collection that found Levy mining songs from writers and bands as diverse as Cole Porter and the Grateful Dead to pay musical homage to some of his favorite locales. The Levy-Goldings-Chamberlain trio recorded Town & Country totally live-in-the-studio at Fairfax Recordings in Van Nuys, California (“No funny stuff,” states Levy on his website). Aware that studio trickery wouldn’t be an option during the live recording, Levy’s gear choices had to ensure his “naked” guitar could stand in for the vocals on notable songs such as “Memphis, Tennessee” (Chuck Berry), “Streets of Baltimore” (Tompall Glaser/Harlan Howard), “I Love Paris” (Cole Porter), and “West L.A. Fadeaway” (Grateful Dead).

“Except for ‘Dayton, Ohio’—which I played on a 1932 National Resophonic Style O with just Larry on organ, because it seemed like a nice mix of colors—the album is cut with a 1964 Gibson ES-335 and a 1963, non-reverb brown Fender Deluxe,” he says. “While I feel like the 335 is a guitar that sounds close to a human voice��� there’s always this creamy and warm cushion around the notes—I actually needed to change my strings to D’Addario Chromes flatwounds, because typical round-wound strings are just too bright. There’s a bit of friction where the string meets your finger that often produces a distracting, zipper-like sound. I found that flatwounds brought me a lot closer to the vocal sound I was looking for. After all, singers don’t have nickel windings in their larynxes [laughs].”

Despite his fun-filled wish that Town & Country would be more “party,” the album retains some of Levy’s exuberant artiness, and, in fact, his jazz leanings did prompt some savvy rearrangements of the classic covers. Levy’s version of “Memphis, Tennessee,” for example, swings as roug-hand- tumble as something you might hear blaring from the bandstand of a southern juke joint in the early ’50s.

“That groove came from a song called ‘Somethin’ Else’ by Eddie Cochran,” he says. “Earl Palmer played drums on it, and he was the secret weapon on a lot of early rock and roll songs. Matt had never heard that song, so we were listening to it super loud in the control room, and I said, ‘I want to take this Chuck Berry song, put it over this Earl Palmer groove, and remind people that rock and roll can swing.’ Which is, by the way, much how it was in 1959 when Chuck Berry recorded it. Somewhere along the way, the ‘Chuck Berry Groove’ has been interpreted as this ‘eighth notes on the hi-hat’ thing, which is completely wrong. That early rock stuff swung.”

Levy also found a kind of sideways-upside-down inspiration when he approached the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway.”

“I am not a Grateful Dead fan,” he admits, “but a few years ago, Los Lobos recorded a cover version of that song, and David Hidalgo’s singing and playing blew my mind. So when I chose to do my version of ‘West L.A. Fadeaway,’ I wasn’t thinking about the Dead or Jerry Garcia, I was thinking about David Hidalgo. But a funny thing happened in the studio after I dialed up this kind of raunchy tone on my ES-335. Suddenly, I couldn’t stop thinking about John Scofield, as well. So my approach became something like John Scofield jamming with Los Lobos on a Grateful Dead song.”

To illustrate the vibes he wanted Goldings and Chamberlain to capture in the studio, Levy played a few reference songs, but kept the listening sessions to approximately 30 seconds each, before going in to record right away.

“I just wanted them to hear enough to go, ‘Okay, I get where that is,’” he explains. “I didn’t want anybody over-thinking anything. I wanted that magic when everything happens in the moment.”