Harmonica and keyboard virtuoso Howard Levy is perhaps best known for his role in Bela Fleck’s Flecktones and, while he has contributed mightily to that group’s ensemble sound, a show where he is the headliner is the best way to experience his multiple talents. Currently on a low profile tour with acoustic guitarist Chris Siebold, Levy pulled out all of the stops for his Monday night stop at Kuumbwa. Levy opened unaccompanied playing a harmonica medley of Brahms’ Lullaby and Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Starting out with the relatively unadorned melodies of these two timeless pieces, he quickly started conjuring up more and more fanciful variations without doing too much violence to the tempo or melody of either piece. Midway, he switched from the harmonica to acoustic grand piano without missing a beat, something that might be a parlor trick for a less talented musician but simply afforded Levy the opportunity to continue the same musical conversation with a very different melodic arsenal.
Although Siebold basically sat out the opener, he quickly demonstrated his skills both at comping chords on his respohonic guitar and playing melodic leads that compared favorably with Levy’s when called upon to do so. The rest of the duo’s show was a journey through a variety of styles, including an extravagant, flamenco tinged Levy original, Spanish Serenade,” a romping 12 bar workout on his “Tri-State Boogie,” and another Levy original, “Lips and Fingertips” that called for him to solo simultaneously on harmonica held in his right hand while he played piano filigrees with his left. Other highlights included a sultry rendition of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” that gave Siebold plenty of space to solo and an exquisite balladic arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” For the last number, the duo broke from their otherwise all-instrumental format for Siebold to demonstrate his prowness as a blues shouter on Little Richard’s “Directly From My Heart To You.”
Both Kuumbwa’s Executive Director Tim Jackson and Levy thought that Levy had played there previously, but neither seemed sure when or in what ensemble. In any event, this was clearly his first time appearing there as the headliner. Nonetheless, he and Siebold quickly won over the audience, who rewarded them with a few well deserved standing ovations. Hopefully Levy and Siebold will make Santa Cruz a regular stop in the future.