The Alex Levine Quartet in Motion Throughout Their New Album The World of Real Things

by delarue

by Aakash Mittal

While listening to guitarist Alex Levine’s latest album, The World of Real Things (streaming at Bandcamp), I was struck by how the interpersonal dynamic of the band is evident in their sound. Half of the tracks are inspired by the relationships Levine has with the other artists on and off the bandstand. The other half of the recording draws from specific influences and experiences in Levine’s life.

In the album notes, Levine offers a nod to composers Geri Allen and Henry Threadgill, both of whom are cited as inspiration for individual tracks here. The recording seems to amplify the intersection of relationships, influences, and life events through a shared periodicity that can be found across the compositions, the improvisations, and the larger arc of this nine-part suite. Rather than providing a track-by-track summary, this article explores several broader questions that surfaced as I listened to the album. How do these young artists move together?

How does that movement involve both the physical playing of instruments and the conceptual movements of the band’s improvisations? What imagined universe does Levine construct for us in this latest offering?

Levine and his collaborators – tenor saxophonist Marcus Elliott, bassist Ben Rolston and drummer Stephen Boegehlod – have generated a sonic world that may be experienced as three levels of motion. The first level is the individual musician. Throughout the recording, each artist frequently contributes a sonic gesture followed by a brief silence, as they improvise through the score. As these phrases interlock at the silences, they create the effect of overlapping cadences across the ensemble. This shared approach to rhythm distinguishes the quartet’s sound and establishes a feel that tends to be more grounded than ethereal.

The second level of motion exists across the structure of each composition. Levine utilizes moments of communal movement through collective rhythmic phrases and harmonic gravity. These follow an aesthetic similar to the individual level. Brief ebbs in the forward momentum of the composite rhythm follow the transitions in and out of rhythmic and harmonic unisons. The time span of these periods in the second level of motion is considerably longer than the individual gestures they contain.

The individual phrasing of level one, combined with the structure of each composition, forges densities that increase and decrease over the span of the entire nine-movement work. In this third level, we are offered a gradient experience as each section transitions to the next. The entwined phrases and silences of the first and second levels of motion culminate in pockets of swirling activity and moments of sparse melodic improvisation.

When experiencing all three levels of motion together, it becomes evident that The World of Real Things contributes to a number of musical continuums. The quartet’s improvisational aesthetic expresses the Detroit and New York City jazz communities they create with(in). Levine’s relationship to bassist Henry Grimes and guitarist Miles Okazaki is embedded in the rhythmic vocabulary and form of each composition. Impressively, Levine has synthesized these influences into a distinct sound world and, throughout the album, his artistic voice is his own. This work is a unique portrait of Levine’s journey with the members of his quartet, the guidance of his mentors, the communities he inhabits, and how these elements move when brought together. The sonic universe that emerges is rich territory for any curious listener to explore.

Hailed as “A fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer” by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Aakash Mittal is sculpting a dynamic voice that mines the intersection of improvisation, composition, sonified movement, and noise. The colorful dissonances, meditative silences, and angular rhythms that emerge invite the listener to enter a sonic landscape. Mittal’s work explores universal designs while being rooted in both South Asian and American musical traditions. His latest project is a series of nocturnes written for his Awaz Trio that abstract and deconstruct five Hindustani evening and night ragas. Mittal is a recipient of the Chamber Music America Award for Adventurous Programming, the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award, and the American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Performing and Creative Arts Fellowship.