Isla (Left Coast Clave Records)

Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge

Released March 25, 2003

Grammy Nominee for Best Latin Jazz Album 2004




It’s said that there are no winners or losers at the Grammy Awards. In most cases, nominees in the respective categories are on equal footing, backed by big record labels. Every now and then, though, one of the little guys gets in.

That’s the case with Bay Area jazz pianist and educator Mark Levine, who was nominated for a Grammy this year for best Latin jazz album. “Isla” (Island) is the title of the honored CD and the third with Levine’s group Latin Tinge. Levine’s Left Coast Clave Records was the only independent label on the ticket. At the awards, the category was won by Michel Camilo with Charles Flores and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez for his “Live at the Blue Note” on Telarc Records, a company with a large staff, resources and distribution.

Levine was virtually alone in promoting and distributing his album from his living room.

“I feel very lucky and blessed by this Grammy nomination,” Levine said at his San Francisco residence a few days before the event. “I still don’t know how I got it. It came as a big surprise to me.”

On Wednesday Levine and his newly reorganized Latin Tinge will host a post-Grammy party with two shows at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The 65-year-old East Coast transplant is still basking in Grammy’s glow, acknowledgement for a jazz career approaching 50 years.

Born in Concord, N.H., Levine started playing jazz as a teenager in Dayton, Fla. He studied music at Boston University and privately with greats Jaki Byard, Hall Overton and Herb Pomeroy. For many years he doubled as a valve trombonist and pianist but put aside the horn a few years ago.

In 1960 Levine graduated and split for New York City, where he worked with Houston Person and Mongo Santamaria. It was with Santamaria, the renowned conga drummer-bandleader, that Levine got indoctrinated into Afro-Cuban music.

“I was musical director for Mongo, a very important position that paid an extra $50 a week,” Levine says. “It consisted of being responsible for three things: counting off the tunes, carrying the band’s book and keeping Mongo supplied with Band-Aids, which he changed after every set, one for each finger. When I was unable to find Johnson & Johnson and be forced to buy a lesser brand, it would piss Mongo off.”

From 1969 to 1970, Levine toured but didn’t do a lot of recording time with Santamaria. One significant session was produced in 1969 by David Rubinson for Columbia Records. “Afro-American Latin” was released for the first time in 2000 and shows the development of Levine’s compositional personality. His tune “Sheila,” which was renamed “Linda Chicana” by trumpeter Luis Gasca, was made into a hit by Pete Escovedo with his daughter Sheila E. on their “Solo Two” album for Fantasy. Vibraphonist Cal Tjader included it on his 1980 Grammy-winning “La Onda Va Bien,” and now it’s a recognized jazz standard.

Levine came into Tjader’s band in 1979 when Carl Jefferson, the Concord car dealer and record company president, signed him to his fledging jazz label, Concord Records. Levine brought a style and harmonic sound that complemented Tjader’s vibes and challenged him as an improviser.

The association opened many doors for Levine. “Concord Records and its founder, Carl Jefferson, were really good to me,” he recalls. “I did an album with Carmen McRae. Jefferson bought my production of ‘Smiley and Me,’ with drummer Smiley Winters, and he produced ‘Concepts,’ my trombone album.”

By the mid-1980s Levine had achieved notoriety, having worked with Tjader, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Blue Mitchell and Harold Land, Gabor Szabo, Ray Pizzi and Moacir Santos. His relocation to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and to the Bay Area a few years later had put him at a new creative level.

Into the 1990s Levine played with his piano trios and taught salsa workshops and jazz in community colleges. He wrote the book “Jazz Theory” (Sher Publishing), now considered a bible for jazz educators across the country. And in 1996-97, Levine’s composition “Shoshana” was included as part of the all-star production “Nuyorican Soul” (Blue Thumb). Produced by Little Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, the tracks featured guests like George Benson, India, Jocelyn Brown, Roy Ayers and Tito Puente. Little did Levine know how big the album would be.

“The most money I ever made off one of my compositions was from ‘Nuyorican Soul’s’ cover of ‘Shoshana,’ ” he says. “The record went platinum. Somebody involved in the project really dug the tune. I remember getting a call from Little Louie Vega saying he wanted to record it. I said ‘sure.’ They sent me the papers and that’s the last I heard about it. Then I got my first royalty check and it had zeroes behind it and I said: Holy s — !”

Levine now dances to his own tune, from his straight-ahead jazz gigs at such San Francisco nightspots as Bacar, Shanghai 1930 and Savannah Jazz to his festival outings, tastefully balancing jazz and Latin sounds with Latin Tinge (Michael Spiro, percussion; Paul Van Wageningen, trap set; Steve Senft-Herrera, acoustic bass; reed man Melecio Magdaluyo).

The cast on the Grammy-nominated “Isla” included Spiro, Van Wageningen and Peter Barshay (bass) with special guest Harvey Wainapel (reeds). Bay Area jazz recording guru Bud Spangler was part of the co-production with Levine and Spiro and created an aesthetic that let the virtuosity of the instrumentalists breathe and tell their melodic stories.

“Isla” is a gumbo of tunes by Cedar Walton (“Black”) and Kenny Garrett (“Ain’t Nothing But the Blues”); classic Cuban and Puerto Rican songs (“Corta Ese Bonche” and “Seis Pa’ Chuito”); and cross-cultural Tin Pan Alley numbers like “Te Para Dos” (Tea for Two).

Despite the Grammy nod, Levine is a realist who doubts he will record Latin Tinge anytime soon. “I can’t afford to produce another record,” he says. “The only chance of Latin Tinge recording again is if I could have won and maybe caused a record company to get interested. But now those two words — Grammy nominee — will follow me around like I’ve been knighted by the queen. “

Chuy Varela (SFGATE)

Track Listing:

1. Black (Cedar Walton) 4:37

2. Ain’t Nothing But the Blues (Kenny Garrett) 5:29

3. Corta Ese Bonche (Alberto Ruíz) 6:18

4. A Free Man 5:00

5. Seis Pa’ Chuito 5:30

6. Hindsight (Cedar Walton) 6:04

7. Con Alma/Don’t You Go Away, My Friend (Introduction and Interlude) (Dizzy Gillespie / Traditional) 7:10

8. Te Para Dos (Tea for Two) (Irving Caesar / Vincent Youmans) 4:31

9. You Don’t Know What Love Is (Gene DePaul / Don Raye) 3:37

10. You Know I Care (Duke Pearson) 5:03

11. Isla (John Abercrombie / Ernán López-Nussa) 6:09


Mark Levine: piano

Peter Barshay: bass, acoustic

Paul van Wageningen: drums

Harvey Wainapel: woodwinds

Sheila Smith: vocals

Recorded in 2002, at Bay Recording Studios, Berkeley, California.

Producers: Bud Spangler, Michael Spiro, Mark Levine

Photographers: Peter Barshay; David Belove

Arranger: Mark Levine & the Latin Tinge


Pianist/educator Mark Levine is a master of straight-ahead Latin jazz. The members of his Latin Tinge quartet all share his orientation towards modern bop, enhanced by a remarkable ability to lay down a pretty mean clave beat. On Isla , the group tackles compositions by Cedar Walton and Kenny Garrett as well as standards of both the Latin and popular songbook variety.

On Garrett’s “Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” the tempo is relaxed and the mood keeps cool. Levine’s playing here is sweet and soulful, while the percussion duo of Michael Spiro and Paul van Wageningen erects a sturdy rhythmic structure. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” is bracketed by excerpts from a traditional Vietnamese tune. And the group effectively transforms “Tea For Two,” that oldest of chestnuts, into a vehicle for Levine’s smoothly gliding lines. These tunes are typical of this outing, which overall is less aggressive than Levine’s previous release, Serengeti.

The only real burner on the disc is Walton’s “Black.” This is also one of the most engaging cuts, as it offers large tracts of space to the hot percussion as well as Levine’s rich chords and dizzying flights of fancy.

The group receives some additional support from Harvey Wainapel, who contributes a moody clarinet line to “Isla” and a lyrically reflective soprano saxophone to “Seis Pa’Chuito.” These help to break things up, but also expose the disc’s missing element. A little more variety would make the disc better suited to intensive listening. For most real-world listening situations, however, Isla is a finely produced album that should have broad appeal.

Forrest Dylan Bryant (All About Jazz)