West Hartford's Allegra Levy Celebrating Sunnier Days With New CD

You only get one shot at a first album. Despite its dark-as-night aura (or maybe because of it), "Lonely City," Allegra Levy's 2014 self-produced debut, was a bright spot on the vocal-jazz landscape, a showcase for Levy's formidable musicianship and songwriting talents, most evident on songs like "Anxiety," "I Don't Want to Be in Love" and the slow-burning "I'm Not Okay."

Earlier this year, the West Hartford native released "Cities Between Us," the sunnier follow-up to "Lonely City," on SteepleChase Records. It's both a continuation and departure: an 11-song collection that beams forth decidedly more positive vibes, while retaining the overall sound and feel of its predecessor.

On June 3, Levy celebrates her new CD with an all-star quintet — tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, drummer Richie Barshay, bassist Tim Norton and pianist Carmen Staaf, Levy's longtime collaborator — at the Polish National Home in Hartford.

Levy likens her songs to pages in a diary; where "Lonely City" focused on heartbreak and a recent breakup, "Cities Between Us" explores "leaving that behind, finding new adventures and making new relationships," she says, "having more hope toward love now. It's really just a tell-all history of my life in many ways."

"Lonely City" had a long gestation period; it was already a finished product before getting picked up by SteepleChase, a Copenhagen-based label that mostly reps New York musicians.

"Cities Between Us," meanwhile, was conceived and produced in-house at SteepleChase. It was recorded in only six hours, with additional time spent on overdubs. "I only had about a month to put this record together," Levy says. "We just went in there and played it, which made it feel more 'jazz.' It was definitely not overproduced."

Levy's "Cities" band included SteepleChase labelmates Stephen Riley (tenor saxophone), Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Jay Anderson (bass) and Billy Drummond (drums). Staaf, whom Levy met several years ago in New York, is the lone holdout from the "Lonely City" sessions. "I really feel like Carmen gets me musically," Levy says. "She's an incredible person to work with."

Levy's originals are what you come for. She's funny and clever on "Cherry Blossom Tree," the bright, swing-bounce opener: "Cherry blossom does your bark recall / every time you had a scrape or fall? / Did you ever miss the branches you lost? / Did they regrow? / Could you repay the cost?" But zoom in on the details: the word-painting on the B section, for example, where a leap/step motive (on "flower") gets transposed down an octave for the end of the next phrase ("sour," naturally).

It's not all sunshine and puppies; Levy protects her heart on "I Shouldn't Tell You," a charming original with a slow, open groove: "This game of love has got me heel and toe." "Misery Makes the Music," a mid-tempo tango, finds her begging her partner to leave: maybe then, alone, she'll have fodder for new songs.

"Leaving Today," a soulful, moving ballad — this is the sunnier side of Allegra Levy? — deals with departure, distance and crossed signals. She sings what she can't say directly: "You're just sitting there in your comfy chair and watching me go / so I guess I'll be on my way."

Before the date, Levy pulled an all-nighter, printing out parts and making sure everything was perfect. Certain songs, including the title track, were thrown together at the last minute, and dusted quickly with horn parts. "Mostly it all had to be meticulously arranged before I walked in the door, because I was nervous as hell to work with those guys," Levy says.

There were no rehearsals prior to the date. "That was incredibly nerve-wracking," Levy says. She wanted the musicians to solo, "but they definitely stretched out more than I expected, which turned out so to be awesome. When I play live, I generally have that amount of soloing, if not more. I feel like that's true to the jazz tradition."

SteepleChase head Nils Winther, who helped select the musicians, encouraged Levy to leave room for improvisation. Songs on "Cities" are relaxed and unhurried, extending well past the jazz-pop comfort zone; "Leaving Today," with multiple choruses from Staaf, Knuffke and Riley, swells to nearly nine minutes.

Levy worried that too much improv would turn off listeners. "I have that debate in my mind sometimes, because I want to be accessible vocal jazz. I try to write accessible to someone who may not be that experienced in the jazz scene. It's hard sometimes."

Levy's Training Ground

Growing up in West Hartford, Levy pursued every available opportunity to sing and act: community theater at the JCC, Pops 'N Jazz shows at Hall High School, summer programs at the University of Hartford, Litchfield Jazz Camp. But she missed out on certain things, like getting involved with Hartford's Artists Collective, which was founded in the 1970s by NEA jazz master Jackie McLean.

The music program at Hall High became a safe haven. "I was always hanging out in the band room and taking in all the information," she says. Her brother, Aidan Levy (now a jazz journalist and music writer), practiced Charlie Parker bebop runs in his room for hours, and Allegra tuned in; jazz, she realized, suited her unusually low voice.

After attending the New England Conservatory in Boston, Levy was offered a temporary contract to sing at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong, and she took it. "I didn't know anyone in Hong Kong," she says. "I didn't speak any Cantonese and definitely not Mandarin either. ... It was crazy to show up and not know anyone in Asia."

On her fifth day abroad, Levy met her current boyfriend. "We started hanging out every day and became fast friends," she says. "We started dating later on. That was epic: to meet the love of your life on the other side of the world." His presence, Levy adds, is felt all over "Cities Between Us."

"A lot of the music is about living there and feeling lonely and feeling displaced in many ways, and also appreciating New York and the rest of the world and figuring out how huge it is."

Levy now runs the music program at the private United Nations International School in New York. "There are a lot of jazz musicians from the scene here who are faculty and are incredible," she says. On the heels of the "Cities" release, she's starting to return to songwriting, even in the absence of outwardly raw and painful emotions.

"It's interesting what comes out when it's not just a reaction or a cathartic thing. It's a different thing altogether."

ALLEGRA LEVY performs at the Polish National Home in Hartford on June 3 at 8 p.m., with Joel Frahm, Richie Barshay, Carmen Staaf and Tim Norton. Tickets are $20 here.

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