CD: 12 Songs, 38:19 Minutes
Styles: Traditional and Contemporary Piano Blues, Blues Covers, Debut Album
The unsung hero of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is Konstantin Levin: an honest, down-to-earth, rural-minded nobleman who puts as much effort into cultivating himself as he does his fields. Cincinnati, Ohio’s Ben Levin, a piano prodigy of seventeen years of age, possesses this same spirit. Unlike other youngsters who take a louder, glitzier route to musical stardom (I’m talking to you, American Idol winners), Ben digs in and delves deep into his soul and ours. With every note he plays, he evokes an era far removed from today’s digital distractions: that of post-war blues, where wry ballads such as Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance” and John Lee Hooker’s “I Love You Honey” were the edgiest of cutting-edge. Not for naught does Levin’s drummer, Ricky Nye, call him a “discerning, self-motivated force of nature” in the CD liner notes. He’s telling the truth and then some. On twelve tracks – four fresh compositions, one song written for him early on in his studies, and seven covers – Ben proves he’s the next contender to storm the piano blues world before he hits twenty. Vocally, he’s more Frank Sinatra than Andrea Bocelli. On 88 keys, of course, there are no words but WOW.
On his website, Levin candidly speaks of his own musical origins and development: “People often ask me, ‘How did you get into this old music?’ I tell them I had no choice: my dad was playing Muddy Waters on the guitar to me when I was in my mom’s belly. My love for blues piano hit me when I saw the movie Ray at the age of five. I soon was introduced to more Chicago Blues and New Orleans R&B…I started playing piano when I was eight years old, and have been taking lessons with my mentor, legendary Cincinnati-based and world-renowned boogie/blues player Ricky Nye ever since. In addition to Ricky, my biggest influences are Pinetop Perkins, Big Joe Duskin, and Professor Longhair. I’ve also learned a lot from listening to the greats such as Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, and of course, Ray Charles.”
Along with Ben on lead vocals and piano are Chris Douglas on upright bass, the aforementioned Ricky Nye on drums, Ben’s father Aron Levin on guitar, and Stevie Snyder on harmonica.
The three songs below are three of five originals on Ben’s Blues, and the finest of its features.
Track 04: “Have You Lost Your Mind?” An appropriate subtitle for this ballad would be “I Worry,” because those two words will stick in listeners’ heads as much as the real title. Coupled with Stevie Snyder’s sweetly-understated harmonica, Levin’s piano is near-perfect. Reminiscent of the late, great Sean Costello with a touch of Stevie Ray Vaughan, number four is fantastic.
Track 08: “Little Girl” – You know the saying, “nice guys finish last”? Our narrator proves it, at least in the arena of his failed romantic relationship. With a melancholy jazz/ragtime intro and a lingering hangdog vibe, it’s a spot-on breakup song. Listen closely for father Aron Levin’s guitar, subtle and content to let Ben bask in all the glory of this number.
Track 12: “Ben’s Blues” – The title selection, from Ben’s earlier days in the blues, is a short and sweet, mid-tempo piece that sounds eerily familiar even though it’s completely new. It might not be too complicated in terms of rhythm or technique, but in terms of atmosphere, it’s top-notch.
Ben’s Blues, and Ben Levin, feature the earthiest and most nourishing entrees of piano blues I’ve savored this year, and it’s hardly even started!