Yosef Gutman Levitt: Guided by His Heart

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Levitt described his process for making Upside Down Mountain as “whatever flowed freely from my heart.”

(Photo: Ronen Goldman)

There is something so luminous, open-hearted and wholly unique about the music on Yosef Gutman Levitt’s self-produced trio recording Upside Down Mountain that it begs the question: Where did this guy come from? The answer to that is a long and winding road.

Raised on a remote farm in South Africa, about an hour outside Johannesburg, Levitt picked up the electric bass at age 16, inspired by Jaco Pastorius and Weather Report. Two years later, he received a partial scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied during the late 1990s alongside such budding talents as guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummers Ferenc Nemeth, Ziv Ravitz and Kendrick Scott, and saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Walter Smith III. After moving to New York in the early 2000s, Levitt began gigging on the scene with the likes of Loueke, Ben Monder and Robert Stillman at places like Smalls and Zinc Bar. But by 2007, he had become disillusioned.

“The New York jazz scene was hard for me,” he said. “I was feeling a little lost. I thought that to succeed I needed to be a hard-swinging upright player or a bass guitar pocket player. At that point, the world didn’t need an impatient student version of either. So I said goodbye to jazz, farewell to my bass guitar.”

Teaching himself how to code, Levitt founded a technology startup. Then, in 2009, he moved to Jerusalem, where here he lives today with his wife and eight children. He sold his thriving business to GoDaddy in 2014 and continued in the technology sector until 2018. He returned to music full-time in 2019 with the release of his debut recording, Chabad Al Hazam, a collection of nigunim (Hassidic melodies). “Those 10 years of not touching the bass were powerful years for me,” he said, “because they helped me un-learn music, detach from the common musical traps that ensnare and get in touch with who I really am, without being shy of feeling inadequate about playing my music, with all its vulnerability.”

On Upside Down Mountain, his seventh recording as a leader, Levitt is joined by pianist Omri More and drummer Ofri Nehemya on 12 tunes the bassist wrote in a single sitting. Levitt described his process as “whatever flowed freely from my heart.”

He added, “Channeling for me in the studio is sort of like a person in a garden where everything grows really quickly and your job is to get rid of weeds and prune, trim, move stones away and make sure plants don’t overtake one another. The music that happens is analogous to the plants that grow. Their beauty doesn’t quite belong to me, nor is it something I can control. But what I can do is try to clear away obstacles.”

While pianist Mor provides radiant accompaniment and Nehemya supplies hypersensitive instincts on the kit, alternately playing with brushes, sticks and hands, the prominent voice throughout is Levitt’s high-register five-string acoustic bass lines. “I’ve been searching for my sound for a long time, 20 years or so,” he said. “Most of my musical life I had owned only one instrument and every day I went to war with it, to try and squeeze out of it what I’d describe as an acoustic, articulate and shimmery timbre. It didn’t quite work for me on the electric bass guitar, although it came close. I chose to upgrade to something properly acoustic and noticed one of my favorite musicians, Steve Swallow, playing an acoustic instrument. That led me to make contact with Harvey Citron, the New York-based luthier who helped me design the bass guitar I currently play, based on the instruments he built for Swallow over the years.

“I don’t play a lot of notes,” he continued, “and I don’t think I have superb technical ability, certainly not speed. That’s something I’ve always struggled with, maybe because I’m left-handed, and I play the bass right-handed. I compensate by investing myself emotionally in every pluck of the strings, trying my best to encourage the character of each note to shine.”

One other tune from the new album, “Family (Folk Vibe),” was inspired by Levitt’s mentor, Mozambican bassist Gito Baloi. “He was a gentle soul who I loved watching when he performed in South Africa,” he recalled. “I approached him when I was about 17, a year or two before I came to Berklee. When you take lessons in Africa with a mentor, you don’t just show up once a week for an hour and go home; you become a full-time apprentice — going with him to gigs, schlepping equipment, picking up strange people from strange places at strange hours of the night on their behalf. My apprenticeship with Gito was bright and sunny, kind and full of warmth. He gave me direction and introduced me experientially to South African jazz. And he taught me about playing in the high register and using the bass guitar as an orchestra — taking advantage of low and high register playing at the same time.”

While tender, uplifting, heartlandish melodies like “The Great River,” “Twelve Stones” and the Moroccan-flavored “Early Before The Journey” may be slightly reminiscent of early Pat Metheny (circa Watercolors) or even Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, pieces like the joyful “Wedding Song” and “Hodu Lashem” — or the understated simplicity of “Time With Abba,” written for one of his daughters — are all the highly personal expressions of a very unique talent who has found his voice and is guided by his heart. DB




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March 2023
Delfeayo Marsalis
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