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Former San Diegan, (he lives in Germany, now), tenor saxophonist Brian Levy has been back in town for a week or so, doing some gigging and recording a new disc at Peter Sprague's studio. Last night, he wrapped things up in a sublime duo performance with pianist Mikan Zlatkovich in The Back Room at 98 Bottles.

More than individual talent on one's respective instrument is required for the duo format to really fly: each musician must be a consummate listener, and there needs to be a substantial chemistry involved as well.

That was never a problem.

Levy sketched out the theme to "Green Dolphin Street," loosely, and the two played hide-and-seek before yielding to straight jazz time, at which point the tenorist's exuberant propulsion and boisterous fluidity took it to a new dimension. Zlatkovich seems to have the entire jazz piano history under his fingertips-- and in his brain--so it's not unusual to hear him shift from right hand bebop wizardry to locked-hand block chords in the course of one solo.

The highlight of the first set was a magical reading of "Someday My Prince Will Come." Zlatkovich improvised a beautiful introduction with an emphasis on the purely lyrical, while Levy delineated the theme with a gorgeous honey-dipped timbre. Both men reminded me of Miles Davis' classic recording of the tune: Levy's tone evoked Hank Mobley whiles his ideas reflected those of John Coltrane; the pianist seemed to mix bits of both Wynton Kelley and Bill Evans in his presentation.

All night, these two drew from the Great American Songbook to explore and expand their own personal dynamic.

"I Hear A Rhapsody," got a dense, multi-note opening cadenza from Levy, before the pianist tore it up--swinging like the front gate at the Playboy Mansion with rollicking bass-lines and wicked voice leading. "Just In Time," found the two players tossing the melody back and forth before slicing through the changes with glee.

You can tell Levy has spent countless hours working on his sound. He didn't need a microphone to fill the room--yet each detail of his voluminous tone and linear acuity were always audible. Zlatkovich played an electronic keyboard, and it speaks to his consummate artistry that its use never detracted from absorbing his cascading inventions.

Photo by Jamie Shadowlight

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