As I sat down in All Saints’ Church last night to hear Trio Globo, I felt a bit disoriented. Looking at the printed program it was obvious I wasn’t going to be hearing any instantly recognizable music. Todd Samra, Music Director at All Saints’ Church, introduced the musicians by saying that what we were about to hear was not jazz, not classical, not fusion (whatever that is), and that it was going to be largely improvised and reflect influences from many cultures spanning six continents.
To my classically trained ear it seemed like a long road trip to terra incognita, in which I, apparently, was to be a captive stranger. That was before the musicians broke the silence and unleashed the first notes of what was to become a magical journey into a world of extraordinary sounds and bewitching rhythmic vitality. From then on it became clear that we were in the presence of three extraordinary musicians, each one a total master of his own craft.
Hearing Howard Levy play the harmonica is an experience you are not likely to forget. It turns out that he is largely self-taught, and like Paganini, refused to accept the limitations (and they are many) of his instrument. His technical mastery is dazzling, and as you hear his incredible control of dynamic shading from pianissimo to fortissimo, his chromatic scales, his glissandos, his uncanny ability to play complicated contrapuntal two and three-voice Bach works, you just marvel at the never ending work it must have taken to achieve such mastery.
Incidentally, I was wondering throughout this concert whether there is a workshop somewhere in Germany’s Black Forest where master craftsman were creating fabulously expensive, custom-made concert harmonicas for Mr. Levy. Apparently there are not, for there are no Stradivarius-type, museum-quality harmonicas being made. At the reception following the concert, Levy pulled out of his picket a humble three-inch wide Hohner “Blues Harp” harmonica, costing $35 on Amazon.com (discounted to $25 at Walmart and Target), and proceeded to play for us complicated melodies and chromatic scales. This “Blues Harp,” essentially a toy any kid would be delighted to find in his Christmas stocking, is not a chromatic harmonica with a slide that easily permits chromatics, and we learned that Levy is apparently the first musician who mastered the skill of playing chromatics on an instrument not designed for it.
Cellist Eugene Frissen, another classically trained musician like Levy spun his own brand of magic during the concert. At times he bowed his way through gorgeous melodies, and at other times he placed the cello in his lap and strummed it like a guitar. He also slapped and tickled it into producing a wide variety of sounds not associated with conventional cello playing.
The third member of the trio, percussionist Glen Velez, was another magic maker, who could make music on a wide variety of instruments and dazzled us at one point creating a totally absorbing five-minute solo on a simple tambourin. You really had to see it and hear it to believe it.
Perhaps Trio Globo ought to be renamed Quartetto Globo, because Mr. Levy is really two musicians — he is a wizard on the harmonica and he plays a mean piano. His constant switching back and forth from one instrument to the other was a delight both to the eye and the ear. His classical training in piano was revealed by the ease with which his hands sped all over the keys with the most beautiful economy of motion. He made it all look easy.
About the music heard during this concert, all of it was composed and arranged by members of the trio. Some of it was jazz and some of it was inspired by middle eastern and ancient music (one of their pieces was so middle eastern, I was all ready for the belly dancers to come out wiggling and waggling).
It was totally involving, and often surprising. During one piece we suddenly became aware that we were hearing Levy playing the melody (and the inner voices) of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” We also heard Levy play a Bourré from a Bach Suite, again with two parts and sometimes three parts somehow being produced on the humble mouth organ.
The musicians received a warm standing ovation at the end of the concert. We had an opportunity to meet them at the lavish reception in Grant Hall and learned what charming and unpretentious people these fine musicians are.