Musicians As Audiophiles: Jed Levy

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.

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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.

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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.

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"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."

Vintage Rules
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.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
monetschemist's picture

Jed Levy, thank you Ken Micallef, for this fine article / interview. I'm listening to Weather Report's Sweetnighter while I'm reading this (I'm sorry Jed I don't think I have anything of yours - yet - and enjoying that lovely vibe I get from people who are turned on by good vintage equipment.

So fine!

tonykaz's picture

but he always had pretty good gear, all the way around. Plus, he has ears he trusts, so he doesn't have to read TAS to find out what gear he has to buy.

I've sold ( and owned personally ) much of the gear he relies on .

He lives in a nice place, he is musical with musical friends, he has a nice basement paradise. What more could anyone want?

Jed Levy won Life's Lottery !!

If you have everything Jed has, ( ProAc ) you probably don't need $58,000 loudspeakers.

Richard Gerberg rip.

Tony in transit

ps. more Schiit creeping into High Level Audio , this time Audiophile/Pro levels. I wonder if Jed's Yggy is a Loaner or did he buy it at full boat Retail. ( of course we "All" know the answer to that semi-ranty Sarcasm , don't we ? )

dalethorn's picture

I purchased a Schitt Fulla headamp once and passed it on to a friend. The stream of puns alone ("You're fulla schitt" etc.) were worth the price.

tonykaz's picture

just for say'n stuff like this

Tony in transit

ps. you do realize that you dull the edge of my attacks by silly nonsense. Schiit stuff is not to be trifled.
If you wan't to trifle, help me Trifle Chinesium gear on it's way to the Waste Management Land Fill.

dalethorn's picture

Now, now - you realize they (our friends on the other side of the world) have special exemptions...

tonykaz's picture

from what ?

Tony in transit

dalethorn's picture

Ahem! Well, erm, certain disposal regulations and stuff. Not to worry. I hear they've agreed to clean up by 2040. Or was that 2050? Well, what's another 10 years? I won't be here.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Excuse me for asking ....... Are you going back to the native planet? ........ Just kidding :-) ..........

dalethorn's picture

Perhaps this isn't what you're asking, but you do realize that there are still 2000-y.o. Roman waste dumps still leaking toxic substances.... But do check back around 2040-2050 or so, and we'll see if we can find an agreement on the matter signed by one of the emperors. Someone to blame....

ken mac's picture

...everything he has used off the intrawebs or Craigslist as stated in the story. Why assume everything is on loan ?

michaelavorgna's picture

Because some people prefer to view things through their fictional narratives than deal with reality.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Great review of the Dynaudio Focus XD active speakers .......... You (ML) may also be interested in reviewing the new B&W Formation Duo wireless, active speakers ........ They are supposed to be totally wireless, except for the power cord connections :-) .........

michaelavorgna's picture

I'd prefer it if we keep TM related communications to email. They don't belong here.

The reason I post comments here is to talk about issues raised. . .here ;-)

Cheers,
Michael

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ok ..... I apologize ....... It may help the readers to visit TM website and also, bring attention to B&W new wireless speakers :-) ........

michaelavorgna's picture

No need to apologize.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Why not have a comments section at TM website, similar to Stereophile website? ....... Readers could have an ongoing conversation about audio matters :-) .........

michaelavorgna's picture

.

ken mac's picture

on the block.

Ali's picture

upgrading 1.2 to new 1.2R2 but latest version can dramatically increase transparency as I have it. Its Wonderfull traditional BBC-school with low coloration studio monitor sound.

pcoffino's picture

Most telling quote in article: Perhaps the oddest element in Levy's chain is the power conditioner. "It's a Powervar power conditioner, made for hospital diagnostic equipment," Levy explained. "It's got a giant toroid inside, about 30 pounds of toroidal transformer. Because it's not part of the audio world It cost nothing, like 30 bucks."

So do your shopping in the real world, not in audio fantasy world.

ken mac's picture

...there's no Audio Research, ProAc, Ariston, Snell, Spendor, or Music Hall in your "real world." Awwww

Ortofan's picture

... $1K if you buy it new.
Getting one for $30 has less to do with the "real" versus "fantasy" worlds and much more to do with shopping in the secondary markets.

Metalhead's picture

Amen brother!
Imagine what the retail on that conditioner would be if put out by PS, Shunyata, or Nordost!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Cool article, cool cat, and I love reading about those with true talent and what gear they are grooving with.

Jace's picture

Jed is not only an incredible musician and audiophile gearhead, he's also an incredible human being! He once told me about the hospital grade Powervar and I snapped one up from ebay and I have to say it's probably the best purchase I made for my setup! Thanks Jed! Great setup by the way!

ken mac's picture

Jed and his lovely wife showed me much kindness and were thoroughly delightful to hang with. And Jed is a soulful cat, if you catch my drift.

Allen Fant's picture

Great article- KM.
I enjoy reading this particular series on Audiophile musicians. Give me more!

dalethorn's picture

It's good to read where Levy buys carefully and makes his purchases count, because he's budget-limited on the one hand and very conscious of fidelity on the other hand.

helomech's picture

If those Spendors "don't exactly do imaging," there's something wrong with them, or some very poor system synergy. Maybe the crossovers are due for overhaul. I've heard an old pair like those. They're capable of excellent imaging (nearly as good as some coaxial mini-monitors) in the right conditions.

foxhall's picture

Ken, these are my favorite articles published on Stereophile.

I really get a feeling for how Jed Levy approaches music and his stereo gear.

I recently borrowed a REL Strata3 and was surprised how amazing it sounded.

ken mac's picture

dead chuffed.

allmeads's picture

shit doesn't match, cables all over the place, super tall rack (which can go taller!), Craigslist refugees and it all works beautifully. high-fi nirvana if you ask me.

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