In the Pocket with Yishay Levin

by Ron Oshima

Yishay Levin started playing electric bass in middle school when a jazz combo needed a bassist, and he quickly jumped at the opportunity. He didn’t play the instrument and didn’t have a private teacher when he started. Through sheer determination, he pulled off a concert only a month later and hasn’t looked back!

Yishay plays electric (5-string) and upright bass in MYSO’s Jazz Studies and is a senior at Nicolet High School.

Yishay’s body moves through the notes when he plays. “Yeah, I do like to move a lot on the electric bass,” he says. “I move when I am comfortable in the music that I’m playing…when I am playing in the pocket. When the drummer and the bass are in the pocket [on the beat], the rest of the band can sound very good off that solid foundation.”

Can you talk to me about what it means to listen while playing in a jazz combo?
The first year I played bass, I just focused on my part because I needed to get it down. And I thought, well, if my part is perfect, then it should be fine. But that’s not how it works. You have to get your part down, but at the same time, listen to everybody else, because that’s what jazz is…ideas being bounced off of each other, and then reactions to those ideas. When the whole group is listening, the entire group sounds like one unit. All the Jazz Studies mentors talk about listening to each other and reacting to what others are doing.

Tell me about the times when you’re in a position to make someone else or the whole group sound better.
I love bass because it’s an instrument that can sound good on its own but at the same time, supports others. And that’s its primary function. The bass guitar is there to lay a foundation for the group and hold everybody up. If someone is lost in the piece, I can adjust by playing a bit simpler to allow them to listen and realize where we’re at in the music.

When did you fall in love with jazz?
It was probably my freshman year when I got really into it. I started to listen to many of the classic jazz records. Joining MYSO has been the best jazz education for me because it’s where I met my bass teacher, John Simons. He’s incredible and knows so much about music. Jeno (Somlai), Neil (Davis), and the other guys are also great. They give me different ideas of how to play simple things like a 2-5-1 progression, one of the most famous jazz chord progressions. There are endless possibilities to play over the 2-5-1. They opened my eyes.

I heard you’re playing your own composition tonight. Do they teach composition in Jazz Studies?
In Bronzeville Jazz Ensemble, yes. Jeno asked us to bring our own arrangements of a tune or an original composition. I decided on a composition. In jazz, you’re always composing. As a jazz bassist, whenever you’re playing you’re composing, because the notes are not written down. Only the chord changes are written. You decide what notes to play.

Yishay says jazz is his favorite genre of music to play. The more he learns, the more he realizes there is to learn. He compares it to climbing a tree. You climb up the first branch, and then there’s another branch, and it goes on. There’s so much to learn. May he keep on climbing and finding new branches of discovery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo: Ron Oshima

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