Tenor saxophonist, composer and hi-fi enthusiast Jed Levy is a perceptive musician and devoted music listener. Over the years, he’s upgraded his hi-fi as funds have allowed, typically preceded by intense study of equipment reviews and equally persistent ear-twisting of audiophile friends, some in the industry, some not.
But long before his hi-fi took shape, in the basement/rehearsal space of his comfortable Auburndale, New York home, Levy collaborated with a legendary recording engineer on his first date as a leader, Good People.
“This all began because I wanted my records to sound as good as possible during playback,” Levy said in his basement, moments after a band rehearsal. “My first recording as a leader, Good People, was on the Reservoir label and it was on vinyl. It was a Rudy Van Gelder session at Englewood Cliffs. He cut the lacquer. He did the whole thing. This was in ’87, right during the change from vinyl to CD. It wasn’t my decision to put it out on vinyl, it was the label’s decision, and within six months vinyl was disappearing.
“Rudy’s room is gold,” Levy continued. “Acoustically, it’s a wooden pyramid. You hear his records; it’s not just his magic, it’s that gorgeous room. And I’ve recorded subsequently there. Rudy was always very gracious with me. I’d heard stories that he could be difficult. So I had everything planned out for my session. I gave him notes, what we were going to record, placement of solos, a whole program. I said ‘Mr. Van Gelder, I want to give you this so you’ll know what we’ll be recording today.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Okay, young man.’ He was a very precise cat, and after that he was golden. But he was very competitive and very secretive about his process. After recording, he kicked us out of the control room while he cut the master disc. He had some big monitors that were probably horns, but he’d removed all the tags from the gear. From where I was standing, I could see ‘Polk’ on the back of the small monitors. Anyway, with his room and expertise about miking and mic placement, he didn’t need the latest thing, but eventually he went digital.”
As Van Gelder went digital, Levy followed, recording the albums Sleight of Hand (1996, SteepleChase), Round and Round (2002, Steeplechase), Mood Ellington (2005, SteepleChase), Gateway (2006, SteepleChase), Evans Explorations (2008, SteepleChase), One Night at The Kitano (2009, SteepleChase), Travelogue (2011, Rhythm Road /JLM), Rain (2012, SteepleChase), and The Italian Suite (2013, SteepleChase).
No stranger to recording studios and bandstands across the world, Levy has enjoyed longstanding working relationships with Jaki Byard (three recordings and countless performances), Ron McClure (two recordings), jazz-funk innovator Mike Clark (two recordings), and Hammond B3 organ masters Jack McDuff (years of road experience) and Don Patterson. Further road and recording work with Junior Mance, Eddie Henderson, Jack Walrath, The Cab Calloway Orchestra, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Don Patterson, Shirley Scott, Kevin Mahogany, Gene Bertoncini, Don Friedman, Cedar Walton, Curtis Fuller, Chico O’Farrill, Attila Zoller, Groove Holmes, and Tom Harrell secure Levy’s spot as one of the most in-demand musicians in New York City.
I played The Italian Suite on my Tascam CD-200iL CD player. The music was as good as jazz can be: joyous but not mawkish, improvisational but embracing. Most importantly, it swung like mad.
In Levy’s basement, his 99% vintage rig sounds fantastic: natural, tonally rich, with crisp highs and reasonably distinctive lows. Levy has two turntable setups: an Ariston Audio RD-11S with a Grace G-727 tonearm and Dynavector DV-10X5 MC cartridge, and a Music Hall MMF-5 with a Goldring 1042 MM cartridge. A tiny Schiit Audio Mani phono stage can be seen next to the Ariston, and a Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC cracks the digital code, allied to an Audiolab CDT 6000 Transport via an Audio Metallurgy coaxial cable.
Old school at heart, like so many jazz musicians, Levy maintains a Nakamichi DR8 cassette deck and a Philips Audio Compact Disc Recorder CDR 760. An Audio Research SP-6B Stereo Preamplifier and Yakov Aronov YM-100 amplifier can be seen in some old photos; both were replaced by a Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum integrated amplifier (also pictured). Spendor SP1 stand-mount speakers (with dedicated stands), REL Acoustics Strata III subwoofer, and ProAc 2.5 floorstanding speakers provide the rig’s voice. Nordost Blue Heaven cables (interconnects and speaker cables), a hospital-grade Powervar 12 power conditioner, and a Salamander rack round out this subterranean sound system.
Going To A Go-Go
Prepping for an upcoming European tour with co-leader and guitarist Phil Robson (as the Robson-Levy group), Levy’s rehearsal with Robson, bassist Tom DeCarlo, and drummer Jason Brown is a blast as I arrive to his home a bit early. The flowing tunes sound intimate yet dynamic in the basement’s cozy acoustics. After coffee is brewed and the musicians depart, Levy tells the story of his conversion from casual listener to serious audiophile.
“I’d collected records since I was a kid; I was way into it,” Levy noted. “I never thought much about the playback end, it was more the music. But what got me into better fidelity was the Musical Fidelity X-10D tube buffer stage. It looked like a little can. There was one vacuum tube in it, and you put it between the CD player and the amp. When CDs first came out, they sounded kind of narrow and harsh. I put this thing in there and all of a sudden the music had flesh and blood. I love the sound of tube electronics.”
Looking to upgrade, Levy scoured eBay, Craigslist and Audiogon, on the lookout for gear recommended by friends and the hi-fi press. An AMC 6d6b CD player (part of its “Home Automation Series”), AMC CVT-1030 preamplifier, Adcom GFA 545 MkII power amplifier and Snell CIII loudspeakers created his first audio sweet spot.
“I upgraded piece by piece,” Levy recalled, “and by the time I got the Spendors and a Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic DAC, I was done. I was perfectly happy for about for about 10 years. Then the DAC went out. I called my friend John Chen (National Sales Director for Grado Labs). He lived next door to my parents for years. He said, ‘Get the Schiit Audio DAC.’ I found one on Audiogon. John’s been right before; he’s a knowledgeable guy. And that kind of rekindled the whole thing. And then I thought, ‘I have such a revealing DAC, maybe I’ll get speakers that are more revealing than the Spendors. They sound wonderful, but not quite as detailed as the ProAcs. So that kind of got me back into it for better or worse.”
As with many Musicians As Audiophiles subjects, from Billy Drummond and David Smith, to Chris Lightcap and Jerome Sabbagh, Levy is a vintage gear-head. “I have some friends who are way into the hobby and they gave me good guidance, the type of people that will buy something just to see what it sounds like.” It’s testament to well-built high-end audio products that whether from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, the equipment finds further use as it passes through multiple hands, enriching many a music lover’s heart while keeping wallets flush.
Though now resigned to hi-fi heaven, Levy’s AMC CD player was the “Schiit” when purchased. Then everything went wrong.
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