On paper, Howard Levy and Joe Craven seem like mismatched candidates for collaboration. Levy is a formally trained musician and a founding member of Béla Fleck’s Flecktones who has spent the the last 20 years focusing on the piano and the harmonica. It’s his singularly wowing virtuosity on the latter that has made him an in-demand collaborator, but he’s also a gifted composer, winning a Grammy in 2012 for an instrumental he wrote with Fleck.
Craven is mostly self-taught and doesn’t share Levy’s sense of focus. He first came into prominence in the late ‘80s with contributions to David Grisman’s namesake quintet; Craven backs the famed progressive mandolinist with mean fiddle and creative percussion. Since then, he has indulged his wandering artistic mind, acting, teaching and pursuing visual art in addition to finding new ways to play whatever stray instruments — or objects — he can get his hands on; “violin, mandolin, tin can, bedpan, cookie tin, tenor guitar/banjo, mouth bow, canjoe, cuatro, balalaika, boot ‘n lace and double-necked whatever” are but the few listed in his online biography.
In approach, the two could hardly be more different.
“Howard’s a very formally trained musician,” Craven says. “He’s brilliant. He’s had classical training. He’s a reader. But he’s also a very vernacular artist. He has a brilliant ear. He improvises beautifully. He’s a great listener. I’m more tilted. I am not formally trained. I’m not a reader. I really am a folkie, you could say. I listen to music and respond to music through observation, imitation, mimicry, just being in the moment with things. But I’ve developed a good ear, and I think that’s where Howard and I meet.”
Levy and Craven’s paths have crossed a few times through the years. The Grisman quintet has toured fairly often with the Flecktones; both musicians contributed to the final recordings of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. But their own collaboration wasn’t kindled until three years ago when they had a chance to play together at a fundraiser in Aberdeen, N.C. The two kept in touch and eventually started playing out as a duo, indulging in a few touring dates during the past year.
“We are both mad men,” Levy wrote in an email to the Xpress, explaining their connection. “It takes one to know one. Lots of intensity and enough chops to hang with each other. And both of us are very strong solo performers with many solo concerts under our belts, so that’s a big part of it as well.”
During their performances, Levy sticks mainly to his bright, striding piano and his harmonica, which he wields with stunning capability, wrenching bold and beautiful melodies from an instrument most often used for rugged texture. Craven says he won’t bring his full bag of tricks on the duo’s three-date tilt through North Carolina, but he will continue his regular practice of playing objects he finds at each venue, confronting Levy with unexpected sounds and forcing him to adapt.
“We’re kind of an odd couple,” Craven says. “We’re not coming from the same landscape, but we meet in the middle with this mutual spirit of being in the moment and this playfulness. He’s innovative. I’m innovative. We love to play with ideas.”
who: Howard Levy and Joe Craven
where: Isis Music Hall and Restaurant, 743 Haywood Road
when: Friday, March 15 (5 p.m. doors / 9 p.m. show. $18/$22. isisasheville.com)