Eclectic Levy tightens ties with city soul
> He calls other places home, but Memphis flair resides within
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Adam Levy was born in California and is a resident of New York City, but the guitarist/composer/ producer has found himself drawn more and more to Memphis in recent years.
He has made one album here, produced another, regularly performs with the friends he’s met here such as vocalist Susan Marshall, and on Saturday returns to showcase his latest collaboration with a show at Otherlands.
Levy’s association with the city began in 2003 when he came to Memphis to record his solo record, Get Your Glow On, a project that found the eclectic musician adopting a Southern soul stance
with a host of the city’s most celebrated players, including vocalist Marshall, drummer Steve Potts, and horn men Jim Spake and Scott Thompson.
Levy returned to Memphis last year to produce the latest record from acclaimed Memphis keyboardist and singer Charlie Wood as well as to shoot some segments for the Web-based music series “The Sun Studio Sessions” with his new collaborator, songwriter Amber Rubarth. And Levy was here again this summer to help Wood celebrate the release of his CD with a show at the Levitt Shell.
“I feel like my Memphis connections are pretty strong,” says Levy from a tour stop in Londonderry, N.H. “Some people have even asked me if I live there. I don’t, but maybe I should get a 901 area code for my phone.”
If Levy doesn’t reside here, it’s possible that a little of Memphis resides within him, giving his playing that touch of soul that has made him a much in-demand session player and sideman. Over a career that stretches back to the mid-’90s, Levy’s guitar lines have graced records by Tracy Chapman (that’s him playing the tasty lead on her 1995 hit “Give Me One Reason”) and Amos Lee as well as on jazz outings by Joey Baron and Leni Stern.
He is probably best known, however, for playing guitar with Norah Jones, a job he filled until the end of her last tour in 2007. (Just this week Jones announced a tour with her new, Levy-less band, a run that includes a May 8 performance at the Orpheum.)
Levy says the split with Jones after more than seven years was amicable and, given his own restless musical temperament, inevitable.
“She wanted to go in a different direction with her music and I wanted to spend more time making my own,” he says. “The only downside of a job like that is you go on tour and all of a sudden a year goes by, two years goes by and you haven’t had the time to focus on your own thing.”
What, exactly, Levy’s own thing is can be hard to hard to peg down. A jazz player at heart, he applies that music’s adventurous spirit across a wide spectrum of genres and moods. An album like 2001’s Buttermilk Channel might be a straight ahead jazz date while a show with his longtime band the Mint Imperials will have a decidedly bluesier vibe. And in the funky instrumental group he co-fronts with guitarist Jason Criger, Lakawanna, which released its first album this summer, his playing may veer from John Scofield to Sonny Sharrock to Duane Allman.
“The hardest part of my job as a musician is focus,” says Levy. “I’m interested in a lot of different things, and I can sing and play in a lot of different styles. It’s hard to build a career that way because it’s hard for me to stay focused and it’s hard for people to know what the heck I’m up to. So I try and have each individual project be a clear moment in time or have a specific artistic voice. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes you just mash things up and throw it on a plate.”
Levy’s latest project is another abrupt turnabout, an acoustic, songwriting collaboration with up -and-coming singer-songwriter Rubarth, who performs with him Saturday. The pair met four years ago in Los Angeles at the celebrated songwriter hangout the Hotel Café and began writing together. Their collaboration has produced, among other works, “Washing Day” which took first place in the International Songwriting Competition and has been featured on albums by both artists. Just this week Adam and Rubarth released their first EP together.
“The first time we sat down together and wrote we came up with ‘Washing Day.’ We didn’t really know each other but it was so easy and relaxed and it’s been that way ever since,” says Rubarth, a former chainsaw sculptor who has been writing only six years. “I remember when I first saw Adam play there was such a glow about what he was doing. There was no ego, nothing to prove, just a love that was being emitted from his winging and his playing and his songwriting.”
California-born, N.Y.C. resident Adam Levy’s latest project is an acoustic effort with Amber Rubarth.