Chen Levy never planned on singing the blues. It took a while for the Eilat-raised singer to discover that jazz was just the right musical medium for her velvet-voiced contralto.
Now the budding singer, with a debut album under her own name, will perform at two upcoming jazz festivals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a somewhat delayed introduction for this sultry singer.
“What I love about jazz is singing outside the lines,” said Levy. “It’s huge, I love that freedom. There’s a lot of fear and nerves as well, it’s very complicated music, and you hope you have what you need to perform it, but it’s magical.”
Levy was raised in a home that was always filled with music, including the Middle Eastern tunes sung by her mother, and the teenage sounds of her older brother’s rock band.
She recalled that when her family first moved to Eilat, her father bought a piano before they purchased any other furniture. That same older brother, Adir Levy, a pianist with a penchant for jazzy rock, composed and played music as a teenager and Chen would often perform alongside him.
She first saw herself as a dancer and began pursuing a dance degree at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, where her brother was also studying. But the program didn’t feel right for her, and Levy was ready to head to India when her brother convinced her that she had a great voice, and should think about changing her major.
“I had no background, I hadn’t ever learned music,” said Levy. “I had to work really hard to catch up to all the budding musicians there, with backgrounds I didn’t have.”
It took another few years for Levy to emerge onstage. She earned a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music but her father had recently died, and it wasn’t the time to leave home. Levy moved instead to Tel Aviv, feeling confused again about how to move forward.
It was a friend, bass player and music producer Avri Borochov, who convinced Levy to invest the money she had saved to produce an album, what Levy says is like “a business card,” in her profession.
A debut album is the kind of thing “you write all your life, it’s just all been waiting for you,” said Levy. “I had a lot of different styles, that was part of my issue with getting it out.”
The album contains the Middle Eastern influences of her childhood, the jazz harmonies of her studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the indie-pop sounds that have always been a favorite source of music for Levy.
It took four years for Levy to produce the album, a long process of ups and downs and “many mistakes,” said Levy.
And then, she almost didn’t release it at all.
It was only while on her 2016 honeymoon in Ireland with her husband, that one of those magical moments happened when the two were sitting on a hill, singing “Sunny Side of the Street.”
“We recorded it, and we were like, ‘who cares, let’s just put it up on Facebook,'” said Levy.
On the sunny street of IRELAND:)Honeymoon rocks!!
Posted by Chen Levy on Sunday, 16 October 2016
The impromptu recording drew tens of thousands of views, and that acceptance and excitement over Levy’s voice gave her the strength and happiness she’d always sought in music.
“I realized, what does it matter if you don’t sing exactly as you should have?'” she said. “There is meaning behind all of it.”
Now, Levy says, she feels ready in ways that she hadn’t experienced previously, with a band of musicians behind her. Being a jazz artist, and a female one, at that, can be a challenge in Israel, which has an intensely active jazz scene. She’s also one of the few Israeli jazz vocalists, a position she’s well aware of, given that Levy is currently the head of the vocal jazz program at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, helping to train the few vocalists out there.
It’s a very male world of jazz that she has to contend with, and there’s a certain conception she has battled, that women don’t know enough to be real jazz artists.
“I had to go through it to know,” she said. “I wasn’t sure my music was really jazz at the beginning, but it wasn’t indy music either.”
Being married — and now five months pregnant — has also helped establish Levy’s sense of confidence, as she sees herself dedicated solely to her craft, and nothing else.
“I know what I’m doing, and I’m so excited to bring it out there,” she said.
November 28, Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, hosting Eyal Mezig and Sivan Talmor
December 12, Jerusalem Jazz Festival, with Tal Gamlieli trio
January 5, Ashan Hazman, Beersheba
February 23, Yellow Submarine, Jerusalem