Album Review: Ben Levin — Still Here

Postwar jump blues, swing and proto-rock ‘n’ roll is the order of the day on pianist Ben Levin’s latest release, Still Here. Informed by the rollicking New Orleans piano stylings of Fats Domino, Levin’s record is an organic, retro affair that captures the sound and essence of music of a bygone era.

Backed by a stellar trio that includes his father Aron Levin on guitar, Ben Levin explores a number of musical textures on “Still Here.” A reading of Joe Bihari and Frank Szabo’s “Love and Friendship” opens the record with echoes of Louis Prima. The slow, meditative title track digs into a more conventional blues style.

Another Levin original, “That’s the Meal” has a jaunty character and shouted, unison chorus vocals that recall Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five. Aron Levin’s tasty guitar licks punctuate the arrangement while Ben spins out a playful rhythm. The rhythm section of Chris Douglas (upright bass) and drummer Oscar Bernal provides stellar, understated yet solid support.

Levin demonstrates his good taste in his choice of covers. Joe Liggins’ “I Can’t Stop It” is loaded with verve, and well-placed guitar and piano stabs conjure mental images of couples dancing wildly. The sassy “Bad Idea” slows things down; Levin’s humorous lyrics serve up some sage advice. Bernal’s snare holds things together while the other players lean into a greasy groove.

One of three Levin co-writes with his dad, “Please Let Me Get One Word In” is a supremely authentic pastiche of late ‘40s/early ‘50s jukebox weepers. Aron Levin’s tantalizingly brief slide solo is a perfectly-placed thing of beauty.

Billy Boy Arnold’s 1957 single “Kissing at Midnight” gets a spirited, assured reading by Levin and his band. The arrangement is positively hypnotic. The Levins trade piano and guitar licks throughout “Crown Jewel,” a delightful instrumental. A keen and warm sense of humor suffuses Levin’s music: Ben Levin’s piano slyly quotes from Irving Szathmary’s “Get Smart” theme during “Crown Jewel.” As fine as Ben Levin’s vocal work is, an entire album of instrumentals would be nearly as welcome.

“Christmas Rain” finds Levin in the role of late-night piano troubadour, singing to a nearly-empty bar while the bartender upends stools and puts away newly-washed glasses. And he’s comfortable in the role, wearing it like a second skin. That fact is all the more remarkable when one realizes that the pianist is all of 21 years old, just barely enough to gain legal entry into such a place.

“Her Older Brother” underscores the fact that there’s plenty of life left in familiar melodies. And Levin saves the best for last: the delightful “Your Essential Worker” bridges old and new. The tune combines old-fashioned male boastfulness with modern-day references.

Bob Margolin counts himself as a serous fan of Ben Levin and his music; if any additional encouragement to explore this young musician’s work are needed, Margolin’s succinct liner notes included with the CD should do the trick.