by Owen McNally - The Hartford Courant
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 match-ups 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.
By Kevin T. McEneaney -
The Millbrook Independent
Handler & Levesque: Two Swallows Soaring
Sunday, October 6, 2019
Last Saturday afternoon Smithfield Church in Amenia hosted Judy Handler and Mark Levesque under the Bang Family umbrella with a program titled “Rhythms of the World.” While this sounded good to me—in literature and religion I am a comparativist all the way—yet I was not sure what to expect. As is traditional in folk music, there was no program and I did not take notes. After the concert, Mark offered me the playlist, yet the playlist had more than twice as many suggestions than what was played because Judy and Mark improvise the program on the spot.
They opened with “Antara,” a gypsy song from The Netherlands; they followed it up with “Honeysuckle Rose” a 1929 song composed by Fats Waller with lyrics by Ethiopian American Andy Razaf who also wrote for Irving Berlin.... I was in awe of Judy’s fingering (string picking) on guitar.
Switching to Spanish romance, they played “Alma Corazón y Vida;” the duo galvanized in such unity that they played as if their two instruments were a single instrument...
Turlough O'Carolan’s tune “Fanny Power” followed. The blind Irish harpist O’Carolan, an admirer of Corelli who popularized the concerto, inspired William Butler Yeats to write tragic-love dialogue lyrics to this tune, which The Chieftans once played at a concert but never recorded.
They then played “Oh, My Beloved Father,” which is known as a popular folk song with lyrics by Archie Pitt, yet the tune was adapted from “O Mio Babbino Caro,” written by Giacomo Puccini, who had resurrected it from an eighteenth-century mandolin folk tune. The Italian “Calace Tarantella” had my blood racing (as it is designed to do).
Moving to Taiwan, Mark illustrated the difference of the European scale in D major to the Chinese scale in D major. “Spring Breeze” described a 17-year-old young woman’s wish to be married, yet freighted the melancholy wistful mood that her wish may not be fulfilled. The higher register of the mandolin supplied poignant emotional thrust, evoking the high-pitched Chinese pipa.
Switching to Middle Eastern music, Mark explained how notes were flattened to give a higher plangent signature. “Los Bilbilicos” and “Meron Nigh” were examples.
For finale, Mark joined Judy on her guitar and standing over her in embrace, they together played a Hungarian czardas, “Swallows Flying”.
What made this eclectic concert so wonderful was the incredible unity of their two instruments, which to the ear sounded as a single instrument. They are not academic players—they have played in venues around the globe, performing over 2,000 concerts together throughout the United States & Europe.
They are founding members of the New American Mandolin Ensemble, and Judy is Co-Founder of the Connecticut Guitar Society. Their CDs Passion, Acoustic Blend, and Two Guitars Live! have received critical acclaim and are available in dozens of countries throughout the world. Their alternate playlist included Greek, Bulgarian, and much South American music.
They are so accomplished that if you hear them once, you will want to hear them again. But even once in a single performance their precision blend echoes in one’s memory.
By Marilyn Mair - Mandolin Journal
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 guitars 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. "Le 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 Patrick Ragains - Minor 7th CD Reviews
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 Elizabeth Watson - GBFA Review
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 improvisation tools.
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.
"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, IL
"The music is great and very agreeable. I like it very, very much."
Stefano Santangelo, Associazione Musicale/Mideando String Quartet, Padova, Italy
"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, www.mandolincafe.com
"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, OH
by Eric Elias - Just Jazz Guitar
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 rubato 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 Edward F. Nesta - Luxury Experience Magazine
The first two releases are from a husband and wife duo, Judy Handler and Mark Levesque, who I first heard backing up the French Singer 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 their website.
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.
“From the opening melodic lines of R. Charlton’s “Dances With The Mandolin And The Moon” I was immediately drawn to the intimacy of this group and its subtle textures and tones. Dynamically they have the sound of a much larger ensemble...
The CD contains a number of pieces I had not heard before including “Urban Sketches” by O.Hartford....played here with energy and precision I have seldom heard from a mandolin ensemble. Other works include Homeward Bound – Macadam-Somer, Philoxenia – Kellaris, Song of Japanese Autumn – Kuwahara, & Yutuma – Acquavella all expertly played. However,... highlights go to “Dreamtime” by A. Kruisbrink, "The City Awakens" by E. Stöpler and "Song For My Father" by Clarice Assad). The final track is "Tema De Soto" written by Mark Davis (N.A.M.E’s musical director).
I can highly recommend this CD to anyone interested in music...It is mandolin ensemble playing at its best and most enjoyable.”
Werner Ruecker, Plucked Strings Newsletter
(Dec 01, 2017)
“NAME’s “Contemporary Works for Plucked Strings”: A Review ......I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the compositions themselves, the beauty of NAME’s interpretation and flawless execution, and the excellent quality of the sound engineering. ... the ensemble reveals a tonal palette that is incredibly rich and varied. The musicians create sound textures and color combinations rarely achieved by plucked string ensembles. This sonic richness is perhaps most evident in Owen Hartford’s four-part tone poem “Urban Sketches.” Across the four movements, a wide range of tonal colors evoke decidedly different moods.
When you listen to a world class string quartet, it is clear – with every turn of a musical phrase – that all four musicians are completely in sync with each other. This same level of musical simpatico is in evidence throughout “Contemporary Works for Plucked Strings.”
Mark Linkins, The Mandolin Journal (Nov 01, 2018)
"...an extraordinary performance at the closing of the Festival in Sala Gonzalo de Berceo de Logroño."
Carlos Blanco Ruiz, ALZAPUA, No. 23 2017