Getting jazzy with Oren Levine

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Photo courtesy of Oren Levine

Pianist and composer Oren Levine has been immersed in the Washington metropolitan area jazz scene for a decade. But when the District resident is asked about jazz’s Jewish roots, he hesitates.

“That’s a good question. I was anticipating that question,” he says. “There have always been Jewish jazz musicians. It could be that jazz attracts everybody, and that could include Jews. [It’s also] a part of the immigrant experience. And then there are theories about [musicians] who come out of klezmer playing jazz, because klezmer is improvisational music” like jazz.

It’s no surprise that Levine devotes most of his time away from his position as director of innovation at the International Center for Journalists at local jazz jam sessions or in his studio rehearsing the jazz repertoire and composing his own jazz compositions. He grew up in a household where jazz was the music of choice.

“My father was a music lover. He was also an engineer and an urban planner,” Levine, 57, says. “He grew up in Boston and was a jazz fan at a very young age, so he hung out with all the cadre of Jewish jazz musicians in Boston in the 1940s and ’50s.”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Levine started classical piano lessons at an early age then switched to jazz as a teen — because he thought would be easier. “It’s not,” Levine admits. “It’s just challenging in an entirely different way. I got into jazz piano when I was in high school.”

He played a bit in college bands while he studied engineering at MIT, then moved to Israel and spent six years there before returning to the United States. In Israel, he studied with a few Soviet-era jazz musicians. About a decade ago, when he returned to Washington, where he grew up, Levine began to explore the District’s vibrant jazz scene.

“The jazz scene in D.C. is exceptionally good,” he says. “We have both lots of really, really talented players, including a lot of young players —and I see more young people starting all the time. We also have quite a lot of venues where people are playing.

“Jazz players always complain that there aren’t enough places to get gigs, but there seem to be an awful lot of venues in the area — even with the closing of Bohemian Caverns. You can find some sort of live jazz going on almost
every night of the week year ‘round.”

He advises those who want to connect to the jazz scene to start attending open jam sessions. “It’s where musicians come and play and meet each other. There are at least five or six a week in different parts of D.C.”

In recent years, Levine has been composing his own songs. “I just learned by osmosis,” he says. “I grew up mostly hearing a lot of the Great American Songbook stuff.”

While his first song was an ode to a vegetable — rhubarb, no less — Levine comes up with old-fashioned-sounding 32-bar songs. “I try experimenting with different styles and harmonic patterns and play with different melodies and words. My first songs tended to be more humorous and lighter. Over time they’ve been getting a little deeper. I’ve gained some courage to open up more and write more about subjects like love and feelings and relationships instead of, you know, vegetables.”

He released his first album, “Making Up for Lost Time” — the title referring to his late entry into music as a profession — in late 2018. Among his songs, “All I Ever Lost” is about a painful breakup and a TV, while “Alternative Facts,” an instrumental, sounds like it was ripped from the headlines.

Although he’s fluent in Hebrew, Levine won’t be penning any Hebrew jazz songs. “One of my Russian-Israeli jazz instructors told me that the rhythm of jazz is based on American English. It’s not the Russian language and not the Hebrew language. I really took that to heart. There really is a connection to the way the rhythm of jazz relates to the English language.”

For information on Oren Levine’s music, visit ohljazz.com.

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