Call it sweet and lowdown: Jazz at Levi’s on Sunday nights

The Kurtis Rivers Quartet at Levi’s Restaurant: (l-r) Melvin Graham, bass; Miki Matsuki, drums, Kurtis Rivers, alto saxaphone; Lady Kube’, M.C.; Alain Pacowski, guitar. Photo by Jennifer JohnsonThe Kurtis Rivers Quartet at Levi’s Restaurant: (l-r) Melvin Graham, bass; Miki Matsuki, drums, Kurtis Rivers, alto saxaphone; Lady Kubé, M.C.; Alain Pacowski, guitar. Photo by Jennifer Johnson

The streets of Dorchester are like gardens full of flowers and thorns. We are beset by all the problems facing urban dwellers in modern-day America, and we feel it. This can bring out the worst in us, but it also can bring out the best. Just when it seems as if the pace of life is driving us apart, the Dorchester spirit comes together in new ways and people do beautiful things.

Right beside the Revival Deliverance Temple Church and Donny’s Unisex Hair Salon on Washington Street in Four Corners is a place called Levi’s Restaurant. On Sunday nights, the clamor of city life has subsided and passersby can hear sweet melodies seeping through the doors and reaching the sidewalks near the entrance to Levi’s. Inside, The Kurtis Rivers Quartet is giving a superb performance of jazz music – all for free.

Previously called The Corteze, and before that The Sportsman Lounge, the establishment was taken over by Levi George in 1996. Originally from Trinidad, Levi raised a family in Dorchester, and now his daughter Millie and her husband Tony operate the restaurant, serving good food six days a week. On Sunday nights, they open up to host the jazz show. “Jazz music is welcoming, it comes from the heart,” one guest said to me. “This is a way for people to get together and forget about their worries for a while,” said another.

Emcee Lady Kubé first introduced the Kurtis Rivers Quartet at Levi’s last January; before that the musicians had been at the David L. Ramsey VFW Post in Mattapan for eight years. The foursome comprises Kurtis Rivers, alto sax; Alain Pacowski, guitar; Melvin Graham, bass; and, Mickey Matsuki, drums. They have been part of the Boston jazz scene for decades, first as students at the Berklee College of Music, and then as professionals who chose to stay and practice their art here after graduating.

Kurtis Rivers is a modest gentleman who speaks English with a jazz accent. In conversation, he switches his vocal cords to low gear, like he’s idling, probably because he prefers to use them more for blowing the sax than for talking. He isn’t a tall man but when he plays, he seems to rise in height, gripping the stage on tiptoe to draw up sounds that are sourced under the floorboards and deep in the soil.

Alain Pacowski supplies harmony on the guitar. A transplant from Paris who came to Boston to be close to the source, he needs to play jazz on American soil because for him, jazz is, in its purest forms, a strictly American invention. Mickey Matsuki is like a tsunami on drums. Trained as a classical pianist, she switched to the drums because her hands were too small to fit the piano keyboard. At age 19, she heard Miles Davis and was hooked; she trailed her teachers all the way to Boston to study jazz and has never looked back. Bassist Melvin Graham is from Virginia, a man whose bearing and graceful movements echo the elegant contours of his upright bass.

Mickey and Melvin are the rhythm section – “the heart of the music,” Kurtis explains. “They produce a road map to follow.” At one recent show, the duo backed up a father and son team from Uphams Corner who stood in for Alain and Kurtis. On that team, Fred Woodard Sr. plays guitar, and Fredrick Woodard Jr., 19 years old and currently attending Berklee, plays violin.

The father-son team has devised a musical call and answer routine that is phenomenal. The father calls on guitar, dishing out the notes one at a time and delivering them like a series of single raindrops striking a tin roof. The son answers on violin, repeating the tune and drawing out every nuance until the notes seem to expand and flow together like a river rushing by.

The audience is small but lively; friends out for a beer and couples out for the night. Some people dress up and like to dance, some dress down and sit back, urging on the drum solos and grooving with the bass. Of course, it’s an older crowd and everybody knows the repertoire, including golden standards by Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, ballads by Wayne Shorter, or something funky by Herbie Hancock, to list just a few from the repertoire.

“Most people under the age of 50 know nothing about jazz,” says Kurtis. But he predicts that it will be the music of the future, because when young people come to discover the history of jazz, they will be drawn forward to making a deeper connection to the origins of music and something profound that musicians call animation, the spirit that brings the music to life.

To illustrate the point, Isaiah and Monte, two young men from the neighborhood, walk in, their guitars in backpacks on their shoulders. Students at the Boston Arts Academy, they like many types of music, including jazz. They make a brief appearance on stage with the quartet and thrill the audience with a display of mastery that seems beyond their years. People respond to invention, and re-invention, and re-re-invention; that’s what jazz is all about.

On this evening, the quartet played one selection by Makanda Ken McIntyre (1931 – 2001). Born in Boston, Makanda earned an international reputation recording with a number of jazz greats (in addition to making 13 albums of his own). Best known for his saxophone, Makanda was a virtuoso who played many instruments; at his death, he left over 400 compositions. Kurtis also plays for The Makanda Project, an ensemble dedicated to sharing what they believe is something unique and special about Makanda’s music.

Boston boasts a long and rich tradition for jazz, especially in Roxbury and Dorchester, but now jazz clubs are hard to find. Today, practically everything is dubbed and many people think that jazz is old hat – until they are again touched by it personally and feel the power of a live performance of top-notch jazz musicians. The musicians you meet at Levi’s are working to keep that tradition alive.

The Kurtis Rivers Quartet and others like them aren’t waiting for permission to do what they do. The Dudley Jazz Festival, set for Sat., Aug 20, from noon to 6 p.m. at Mary Hannon Park at the corner of Dudley Street and Howard Avenue in Dorchester, is another example of taking it to the streets. In concert will be The Makanda Project, along with The Fred Woodard Collective, vocalist Eula Lawrence with The John Pierce Trio, and legendary jazz artist Stan Strickland. Here is another free show that builds community and celebrates things that we can all delight in sharing.

Levi’s Restaurant, 323 Washington Street, Dorchester, 02121. Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; free Sunday Night Jazz: 7:30 – 11 p.m. Rain location for the Dudley Street Jazz Festival: The Dudley Library, 65 Warren St, Roxbury, 11:30 – 4:30 p.m.