Howard Levy, Eugene Friesen and Glen Velez have been performing in the genre-smashing group Trio Globo since the early 1990s. Don’t let the name fool you. This isn’t world music. Or, rather, it’s not just world music. It’s the kind of music you’d expect if you didn’t have expectations about what would happen when three singular talents gather in a room and challenge each other to play at the edge of their talents.
Levy, a classically trained pianist, is also an innovator on the harmonica with a gift for improvisation. That’s a passion he shares with cellist Friesen, who wrote the book Improvisation for Classical Musicians, and Velez, a prodigious talent whose recorded output includes extensive work with Paul Winter and on landmark releases such as Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians.
Impressive CVs in and of themselves don’t make great music, but the players at the heart of Trio Globo certainly do. Levy joined Friesen and Velez when a previous pianist moved onto to a different gig. The first time they played together was in a Connecticut recording studio and, according to Levy, they immediately were able to recognize the special combination they’d stumbled upon.
“Getting us together in a studio was a really good idea,” he says. “The cool thing is that we’re all composers, we all love each other’s tunes, so it’s not like there’s a single bandleader.”
“I always feel very challenged when I play with Howard and Glen,” Friesen says. “I have to step up my game.”
The confluence of their interests and abilities led to Trio Globo’s not-quite world, not-quite jazz style.
“We all have a real interest in roots music from many different cultures,” Levy says. “Deep roots. We love music from India, Eastern Europe, Africa as well as having that love of jazz.”
“We’ve each focused very deeply on different traditions and styles. When we come together there’s this stimulation and influences that one could never predict,” Friesen says. “So, I’ve learned, when I bring one of my compositions to the trio, to not be too specific in what I’m asking from them because I know that they’re experiences and innovative genius will bring something completely unexpected. That’s what we want.
“Sometimes a single note on an instrument will imply a tradition. When you hear a note on the cello you think a symphony orchestra, you think profound. When you hear a harmonica, you think blues and when you hear something Glen might be playing you think of the Middle East or North Africa. I think it can be fascinating to hear these new textures in a unique juxtaposition to each other.”
Jazz and blues were particularly strong areas of interest to Levy. After years of playing the piano, he became enamored of blues harmonica, though he was soon frustrated by the instrument’s limitations.
“I started to realize that it didn’t have all the notes. I thought every instrument had all the notes,” he says. “I figured out how to play the chromatic scale on the diatonic harmonica when I was 18. I was the first do that.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Levy continues to work in challenging musical settings to this day, including with Trio Globo. “Sometimes we write pieces that are like an answer to a problem, like a mathematical problem,” he says. He points to the group’s rendition of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” on the album Steering By The Stars.
Released in 1960, the song is notable for its rapid chord changes and complex structure. It is a perfect composition for a musician who loves a challenge. “If you play that song you’re setting yourself up against a very high standard because John Coltrane played it better than anyone,” Levy says. “He worked out a series of mathematical formulas to be able to do so. We played it in 10/8, 5/4, 7/8 and 9/8 because Glen can play any kind of rhythmic feel. I was able to play piano on it better than I had ever had before because those guys are great. There’s something very special when we play together. It’s a very focused energy.”
Trio Globo performs at WoodFest in the Flint Hills on Saturday evening. That performance will bring Friesen, Levy and Velez together with the Woodfest Symphonia. “Susan Mayo has put together a great group of unusually talented musicians in the new classical mode,” Friesen says. “People who are accomplished classical musicians but many of whom can stand up and play a very convincing fiddle solo or blues solo. We’ve worked hard to craft something completely original.”
WoodFest, is presented in conjunction with Symphony in the Flint Hills. In addition to Friesen’s performance with Trio Globo on Saturday, he will also perform at WoodFest Sunrise the following morning as the closing act for the weekend.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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