"It's a perfect musical marriage. A rich, zesty guitar gumbo, Handler & Levesque crackle with tasty elements of classical, swing, Gypsy, Brazilian and a dizzying array of world-music flavorings." -- in a feature story by Hartford Courant music critic, Owen McNally
CD Reviews: Passion, Two Guitars Live! and Acoustic Blend
By Owen McNally
Like master chefs, the husband-and-wife duo of Judy Handler and Mark Levesque use only the finest ingredients in their classy guitar and mandolin chamber music groups that blend Brazilian, Latin American, swing, gypsy, classical and folk music elements into sassy, sophisticated servings.
On the Vernon couple's latest CD, "Passion," Handler, who plays nylon string guitar, and Levesque, who plays mandolin and both nylon and steel string guitars, live up to the disc's title track with their passionate, spirited and expressive arrangements of music from South America and Europe.
The disc is an excellent introduction to the immediately accessible, high quality music that Handler, Levesque and their bassist Genevieve Rose present Saturday, Nov. 12, at 8 p.m. at producer Dan Blow's cabaret series at his Café Eiko at Japanalia, 11 Whitney St., Hartford.
On the disc, the distinctive duo gets a little bit of help from their friends, including Rose, a versatile, New England-based freelance bassist and educator; plus fine cameo contributions from Ali Ryerson and Leo Snow on flute; Martha Kayser on violin; and Jeff Thompson on drums and percussion.
Ranging from such familiar tunes as "One Note Samba" from Brazil and the traditional "Dark Eyes" from Russia to pieces from Argentina and Spain, the various instrumental matchups resonate with a clean, resilient, perpetually pleasant sound. It's vibrantly alive with everything from the sexy spirit of samba to evocations of the legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Flowing fluently yet tightly together, the interactive Handler/Levesque collaboration swings and shimmers with gusto and romance. Its basic tonal palette of guitar, mandolin and Rose's standup bass, is enriched on the CD by Kayser's soulful violin contributions and by Ryerson, the renowned Connecticut-based flutist whose dark-timbered alto flute adds a dash of mystery to the ensemble sound. Obviously a classically trained string player, Kayser can get down with folk music and even make a gypsy violin cry as she does so well on "Dark Eyes."
For the Café Eiko performance, Handler and Levesque are joined by their colleague Genevieve Rose, forming a tight yet breezy trifecta that ought to be a perfect, stylish fit for Blow, the fashion designer/cabaret producer, and his intimate digs at Café Eiko.
Handler, who has a master of music from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, has performed with such prominent guitarists as Charlie Byrd and Oscar Ghiglia; has studied in Spain and Italy and teaches guitar at the University of Connecticut and at her private studio in Vernon.
Levesque started out on guitar at age 11, playing first with rock and blues bands before his interests expanded into a broad range of guitar styles, including jazz, classical and international. He plays an array of stringed instruments and also teaches guitar and mandolin at his studio in Vernon.
Handler and Levesque have performed more than 1,000 concerts throughout the United States, playing at festivals, arts centers, universities and museums. If anything, the duo's musical passion over the years just keeps getting warmer and brighter, while its artistic commitment and scope get even wider and deeper.
“Passion: Music from
South America and Europe”—
Judy Handler, guitar; Mark Levesque,
guitars, mandolin, bandolim; with special
guest Ali Ryerson, alto flute and flute on four
tracks (and flutist Leo Snow, who appears on two
other of the selections).© 2008. All arrangements by
Handler & Levesque.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Watson
Guitar duo Handler & Levesque bring some familiar
Brazilian and other South American tunes, as well as a few
European-based ones tastefully supported by bass, drums
and percussion in the back of the mix. Lovely, nostalgic,
most of these could have originated in the cafés of 1930s
Paris or Buenos Aires in the ‘40s. Don’t assume, though,
that this is tame stuff; there is plenty of heat here, along
with the light. “Entre dos Aguas”, a guitar-intensive
number by the great Spanish guitarist, Paco de Lucia, heats
things up considerably. This is rhythmically solid, in-thepocket
guitar music with a big, romantic heart. The
Brazilian bossa standard, “One Note Samba” begins
slowly on multiple-octave soundings of the “one note”,
and then picks up brightly, bringing in Ali Ryerson’s flute.
Mark Levesque’s mandolin solo is fun, flexible and
frolicsome. Any flute player interested in learning the
bossa nova style ought to hear her collaboration here, and
her alto flute soloing on “Berimbau”. Ryerson uses vibrato
only very sparingly and has an unerring rhythmic sense
that allows her soloing to swerve off the road, so to speak,
without dropping the beat. This is soulful, melodic playing
unconcerned with showing off the whole trick bag of
There are so many things I liked about what they do on
this recording: nimble and virtuosic guitar (and mandolin)
playing; rhythmic, danceable grooves; a joyous blending
of a variety of styles (“Brazilian, Latin American, gypsy,
swing, classical and folk” as cited in the notes
accompanying the CD). “Soul Eyes”, a classic Russian
ballad, and the CD’s closing track, “Passion”, both feature
sweet solos by violinist Martha Kayser. Always, the
ensemble’s manipulation of tempo changes is skillful,
fresh and fun. The duo is so seamless and solid in their
approach that I found it impossible to mentally separate
the two guitar parts. Who is playing “lead”? Does it
matter? No, and this is the essence of great ensemble
playing. However one tries to classify their music,
well...better not to classify it at all. These folks swing
hard, as jazz folk like to say.
By Marilyn Mair
Right from the start "Acoustic Blend" lets you know you are in for a good time. A sensuous intro leads to a lively gypsy tune, " Que Pasa?" by Jimmy Rosenberg. "What's happening," - on this CD? Well that's easy to answer - plenty of interesting music, cheerful energy and an engaging sweetness that also marks the Duo's live performances. Handler and Levesque play beautifully and craft intriguing, original arrangements for two guitar or guitar and mandolin, sometimes accompanied by bass, drums and occasionally, flute. Their performances are clean, crisp and swing with infectious good humor and a pure love for their material. Handler is a superb classical guitarist who slides into the jazzier duet repertoire featured on this CD with elan. Levesque, who specializes in jazz guitar, has lately embraced the mandolin and its Brazilian counterpart, the bandolim, with affection. The combination of their diverse backgrounds along with their musical curiosity has resulted in a CD of breadth and distinction.
The CD's repertoire includes music from French, Russian, Irish and North and South American roots, as well as an original tune, "Muriel," a gorgeous number with a jazzy Brazilian sound. Levesque plays bandolim on two Brazilian tunes: "Chiquita," by Waldir Azevedo and "Pe de Moleque," by Celso Machado, and on "La Partida," a traditional Venezuelan number. His easy style is charming, especially in harmony with the richness of Handler's guitar. He plays mandolin on two Irish tunes, "Si Bheag Si Mhor" and "Boys of Blue Hill," and on two Brazilian choros, Pernambuco's lovely "Sounds of Bells" and Zequinha Abreu's famous "Tico Tico." His sound on the Irish tunes is melodic and true, and on the Brazilian numbers, the interplay between guitar and mandolin adds a rhythmic interest. His lead on "Tico Tico," though brief, is decidedly cool.
The other nine tunes on the CD feature the Duo's guitars. "La Fenetre" is a gypsy swing tune whose lazy sensuality sparkles, and the "Lonely Accordion," a wistful waltz, begs to be set down in a candle-lit café. The moody "Lisandre," a traditional French-Canadian tune, shows the pair's impeccable ensemble and their beautiful tone. The CD ends with Fats Waller's exuberant "Honeysuckle Rose" in a swing version that Django would love. This CD is a treat for the listener and serves as a welcome introduction to a Duo whose musical insight makes the world richer for us all.
By Eric Elias
Two Guitars Live! is the second recording from husband and wife guitar duo Mark Levesque and Judy Handler. Both are accomplished players. Judy has a master's degree in classical guitar, but is able hold her own in the jazz idiom with no difficulty. Likewise, Mark is adept at many styles ranging from Brazilian to rock and jazz and contributes mandolin and nylon string guitar to this CD. Joining the duo are bassist Genevieve Rose and drummer Greg Caputo. The recording is a compilation comprised of several live shows from this last year. Overall, Two Guitars Live! has an authentic Latin flavor, but it swings too. This is not your stereotypical nylon string jazz or Brazilian CD. Pleasantly surprising twists in the arrangements make the disc unique in both jazz and Latin guitar arenas. There is a lot of trading fours and smooth transitions from rubatto to double-time are accomplished nicely. This is a disc where you will find cuts of both Malaguena and Honeysuckle Rose.
On Two Guitars Live! Mark and Judy play tasteful arrangements of songs ranging from traditional Brazilian songs to standards and swing tunes. The songs are uniquely arranged with nice harmonies between the two guitars (or mandolin and guitar). There is a lot of tasteful improvisation and interplay between all musicians (drums, bass and guitars). Chord and single note solos are sweet and plentiful for the guitarists who want to hear chops, but Mark and Judy have also put a lot of effort into the arrangements and it shows. This is a very musical CD with exceptional playing. It's clear that the entire band works well together.
The sound of the two, nylon string guitars blend beautifully with the bass and drums. Audiophiles will appreciate the quality of the live recording as well. There is a very natural ambience and the instruments are recorded cleanly with a clear mix. I was surprised at how well balanced the disc sounds for a live recording too. The energy of the live show is demonstrated nicely here. The audience is very responsive and it's evident that they are having as much fun as the band.
Mark and Judy (and co.) have continued to demonstrate that they are skilled arrangers and performers on a variety of instruments and styles. If you like Latin, swing and jazz, Two Guitars Live! is definitely worth a listen.
By Patrick Ragains
Every bit of music on this 71-minute CD is entertaining and infectious. Classical guitar master Judy Handler provides much of the harmonic and rhythmic grounding, while Mark Levesque concentrates on the top end of things, playing both nylon-string guitar and mandolin. An upright bassist and drummer accompany the duo. Latin influences are the group's strong suit. They particularly favor Brazilian choros, including Waldyr Azevedo's "Brasileirinho" and "Pedacinhos Do Ceu" and Jacob Do Bandolim's "Noites Cariocas." "Honeysuckle Rose," "Besame Mucho," "Summertime" and "The Girl From Ipanema" are among the more popular pieces on the CD. Arrangements are tight where necessary to state themes and hooks, yet each selection has a healthy dose of ad-libbing from Levesque, bassist Genevieve Rose and drummer Gregory Caputo. In addition to the group's ability to hold an audience in its collective palm, Handler and Levesque's presentation is consistently high-caliber from a musical standpoint. This CD will please musicians and more casual listeners alike. © Patrick Ragains
By Edward F. Nesta
The first two releases are from a husband and wife duo, Judy Handler and Mark Levesque, who I first heard backing up Cyntia M. at a concert. Acknowledgement of their superb musicianship at the concert lead to a discussion of their other musical outlets, and that lead to an opportunity to review their 2 releases – Acoustic Blend and Two Guitars Live!; information on both releases may be found on Judy Handler and Mark Levesque. Judy and Mark are extraordinary professionals who exude energy and musical passion on their releases, as well as their live performances. Judy plays guitar and has her roots in classical, though her talents and love of all things music take her across all the genres; Mark also plays guitar (classical, jazz archtop, 12 string, electric and gypsy guitar) and several types of mandolin. Separately they are exciting musicians; together they are a powerful force of sound, showmanship, and music. The 2 releases provide a glimpse into their talents with a cross-selection of genres as well as studio and live tracks, but if you have the time, you have to see this duo live to appreciate the essence of Judy Handler and Mark Levesque.
Their first release Acoustic Blend contains diversity from Que Pasa? (Dutch Gypsy), Stompin’ at the Savoy (American), Chiquita (Brazilian), Muriel (Original), Boys of Bluehill (Irish), La Partida (Venezuelan), Lonely Accordion (Russian), Le Fenêtre (French Gypsy) to Lisandre (French Canadian). Each track has its own unique elements of composition and diversity, which the talents and interpretation of Judy and Mark make come alive on the release. Their second release Two Guitars Live! takes the elements of guitar playing to a new level, the live performance, where their spontaneity and energy can be felt. This release also showcases their cross-genre talents as they play an assortment of international songs changing tempo, interpretation and feel from song-to-song to ensure that the feel and sound is true to the original elements, but you never lose the Judy and Mark energy. Tracks include: Brasileirinho (Brazilian), Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (German), El Choclo (South American), Bésame Mucho (Mexican), I Can’t Give You Anything But Love ( jazz), and Malagueña (Spanish) to list a few of the international flavors of this release. © Luxury Experience
Enthusiasm for Acoustic Blend
"Acoustic Blend represents …an exploration into some very sophisticated tunes. The listener will readily come to recognize an intriguing blend of jazz/folk/swing/ classical musical strategies being deployed in virtually every selection. I recommend this album for anyone who enjoys the beauty of a nylon-string guitar." -- Berhard Richter, www.minor7th.com
"This CD is a treat for the listener and serves as a welcome introduction to a Duo whose musical insight makes the world richer for us all." -- Marilynn Mair, Mandolin Quarterly
"Elegant string virtuosity that ranges from romantic to whimsical. It has become an essential part of my CD collection." -- Mike Nowak, WGN Radio/Chicago, Illinois
"The music is great and very agreeable. I like it very, very much." --
Associazione Musicale/Mideando String Quartet,
"Really beautiful music! Congratulations." -- Fernando Novaes Duarte,
Mandolin Web Site of Brazil, www.bandolim.cjb.net
"I enjoyed it so much!" -- Shirley Higa, Classical Guitar Web Site of Brazil, www.polemicos.com.br
"Love it! Beautiful playing and arrangements." -- Ellen Azorin, Director
Cantaloupe Music, Inc., New York, NY
"What a fabulous CD you two have produced. You picked a bunch of my favorite tunes as well. Congratulations on a job well done." -- Scott Tichenor, Mandolin Cafe,
"What a great CD! Wonderful selections, stylishly played. You had wonderful sidemen and the whole presentation had great ensemble. Very classy. It's very European actually." -- Clare Callahan, Founder & Chair, Guitar Department, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio