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By Dave Lisik  |  SkyDeck Music

Published August 29, 2023

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Twenty-year-old trombonist and composer, Levi Temple is entering his junior year as a music education major at the University of Northern Iowa. As a trombone student with heavy performance responsibilities: music education courses, symphony orchestra, and a strong interest in jazz performance and composition, including UNI Jazz Band One’s lead trombone chair, Levi has a lot on his plate. But in spite of his young age and heavy college workload, having completed only half of his undergraduate degree at this point, Levi has just composed, recorded, and released his debut jazz album, WHAT ONCE WAS, and it’s quite an accomplishment.


Levi is from Monticello, Iowa, a town of about four thousand people, halfway between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque on U.S. route 151,  that Levi describes as “super small.” Monticello is just under ninety minutes by car from Cedar Falls, Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa School of Music, where I lived and went to school for a couple of years in the middle of the 1990s. A few things have changed since then. One of them is a functioning recording studio in the School of Music building which, I’m sure, not only helps facilitate recording projects like Levi’s, but likely demystifies the old sense of the recording studio some of us may have had. There were days, not too long ago, when the finances of recording were out of reach for the typical student and the technology was too expensive to own any of the equipment yourself. What is still the case is that, based on the quality performances and compositions on this recording, the UNI jazz program is still one of the best places in America for young people to study jazz.


As Levi brings his first recording project to an audience and prepares to start his junior year of college, we met online to discuss some of the specifics.

SkyDeck: Congratulations on getting to the finish line with your first recording project, Levi. What led you to be confident enough to make a recording of what you were playing and writing by the end of your second year? It’s an impressive release.

Levi: Thanks. I just had the idea for an album and had become familiar with all of these great UNI musicians in the first year and a half of university. Musically, the first thing I had to think about was whether or not I could write something that I was confident with – enough to want to record it. I didn't really want to make a recording of tunes that everybody else had already played. I've always been kind of headstrong, so writing an original project just felt like something I could do and something I really wanted to have completed. I felt like I might have some things to say. 

SkyDeck: Did you have a reasonable pre-college music experience at Monticello High School? 

Levi: Yes, it was very good music-wise. I played a lot, in the band program, jazz band, and I had some experiences outside of school, playing here and there. It was something that interested me pretty early on.

SkyDeck: Was trombone your first instrument, or did you start on something before that?

Levi: Trombone was number one, yeah. I was hoping to be a percussionist because, what fifth grader doesn't want to ‘just hit a bunch of stuff,’ but I'm lucky I ended up with the trombone. I took some piano lessons during high school for a couple of years, but not before the trombone.

SkyDeck: What were your early classical music or jazz influences? What recordings got you excited about playing and eventually composing? 

Levi: I didn't really start listening to jazz until early high school but J.J. Johnson was the first guy I went to. His Savoy Sessions album is still one of my favorites. It was pretty much just J.J. for a while at first. I heard him and thought, “This is how the trombone should sound.” So it took me a while to get away from him and realize that there were other artists out there who were doing different things than J.J. was on the same instrument.

SkyDeck: What got you to the point where by the end of second year of college, you not only wanted to make a recording of your playing but you also wanted to write, record, and release an album? That’s pretty early to be able to do all of those things well. Did you have any pre-college experience with composition or writing tunes?

Levi: My senior year [in high school], I wrote a chart for big band. It was just a cheesy blues. But it was something I had envisioned doing for a while and my high school director was really helpful with it all. That was really the only thing I got finished in high school, that one chart, close to the end of the year. But then I got to UNI and I could see immediately how much student writing was really going on. Obviously, the professors, Mr. Chris [Merz] and Dr. [Michael] Conrad, you know, they’re writing all the time.

SkyDeck: Those are the names they go by at school? Chris by his first name and Mike by his last?


Levi: Yeah. You know them by other names, but I'm still their student, so I don't want to be unprofessional. It's how they introduced themselves, just how they go. So it's cool. I'll figure out what my own students will call me, eventually. 

SkyDeck: When you started writing big band music in high school…what was that like? I’m assuming  you were playing in the band?

Levi: Yes.

SkyDeck: So you didn't have the opportunity to sit in the audience and really hear it? Did you get a decent recording of it? 

Levi: My mom shot a Facebook video. 

SkyDeck: Was there a moment where it hit you that this thing that didn’t exist a short time ago, has come into being because you created it, and now musicians are turning it into something expressive?


Levi: It was cool, for sure, but then I think I didn't know at all how to describe it. I just wanted more. I just wanted to get better. After that, I was just like, “Okay, I could write things a little bit more complex than this.” But it was really nice to hear for the first time. It opened up a new level of my imagination. I started imagining doing things that were better and what it would feel like to get really good players to do it. Or even write something that I thought was maybe more original. I had experimented with some songwriting in the past and I've always felt like I wanted to have something that's my own. But I'm also a fan of sticking to tradition and playing the things that helped get music to where it is now. It will be nice now to see or hear something that was just in my head at first and is now everywhere. Just having my name attached to something, it's cool. But also with this album, it felt like it's a lot of sounds that I felt I wanted to be heard by someone. Not necessarily everyone.

SkyDeck: You needed to get them down, to document it all in some way. 

Levi: Right.

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SkyDeck: Can you take us through the track list and talk a bit about the music? What was the overall concept of the album? You mention in the liner notes about this being an album as opposed to just a collection of random tracks. So there was a clear intention to make it cohesive and have some meaning behind it?

Levi: I had just gotten out of a relationship about a month before I had the idea to do an album. This was not exactly the key inspiration and it wasn't like I needed to do this project to feel better about life or whatever. I was just thinking this was something I could connect with and reflect the kind of the place I'm at in my life right now. I did make the point in the liner notes that it's not a breakup album. I just don't want to stick that narrative onto it. There are a variety of things where we get attached to something – and maybe we get attached for the wrong reasons. It could be anything. It could be McDonald's or whatever. I just wanted to make something that I felt had a story to tell throughout. 

With the first track, I was hoping to set the stage for everything that was coming after– the whole idea of the story. And the story itself was just you find something, you grow attached to it, you pursue it, you finally get it. But then it's like the ground comes out from under you because the reason you got it was not with the best intentions. And there's the pain that follows losing that and there’s a kind of a wounded acceptance. 

And, as I mentioned in the liner notes, [instrumental music] is pretty abstract so people aren’t necessarily going to hear that connection right away, so I’d have to actually tell people. At the same time, I wasn’t really making this album for everybody.

SkyDeck: You can make a choice to communicate some intentions behind your music but it’s not necessary. It feels like just having the concepts in mind as you’re composing shapes the decisions as you go. They invariably work their way into the music. How much of that you need to communicate to the audience beyond the music is your choice. One of my most profound musical experiences was attending a performance of John Coligliano’s Symphony #1 inspired by the AIDS quilt and the numerous friends he lost to the disease. He came on stage, during the concert, as an introduction to the performance of the piece, and gave the longest description and explanation of a piece I’ve ever heard in an actual concert. I think it was 30 minutes but can’t be sure now. It was riveting and gave the piece magnitudes of depth for the audience that wouldn’t have been there on that same level. In that case, the subject matter was profound and the delivery was important but I don't think you don't have to apologize for the fact that you want your music to include a description for people to understand your intent. That’s a long-winded way of saying that. And in the first track, the narration give us a bit more of a programmatic element. 

Levi: Yeah, the first track, with the narration, is an introduction to the album and probably one that won't get listened to as much as the others. But I’m really proud of that one because it helped build my language writing chops a little bit. There's a thing I did with it that I'm sure most people wouldn't catch at first. All the sentences start with the letters that spell out “What Once Was” divided into three sections. So there's the “what” section, the “once” section and then the “was” section. It's just a little thing that just made my heart happy when I read it.

WHAT is the best place to start

ONCE upon a time i was filled with all sorts of hope and desire

WAS there something i missed?

What started as a fantasy bloomed into something so divine, so blissful, so…correct before reaching our inevitable stage of destruction

Heaven knows we were doomed from the start but i couldn’t bring myself to realize just how much turbulence we contained

As the days went by, we held on for dear life to that initial point of attraction

Time continued working against us until there was nothing left to hold on to

Once bitten, twice shy they say, and I believed it

Now I’m not so sure

Crazy enough, the pain of it all still doesn’t outweigh those little moments that remind me of what started the whole journey

Even though the scars remain, it’s a journey that I would embark on again

Was there something I could have done to prevent this or were we doomed from the beginning?

All of those reflective questions have become engrained in my brain like a new language

Seeing you around might hurt, but it’s a necessary reminder 


Levi: I also wanted to give my friend Oisin, the piano player on the album, a chance to be a little freer on this one than some other cuts on the album. He's just filled with so many great musical ideas and I've always seen him just kind of boxed in with what school was usually having him do. I gave him a few ideas, like the beginning, that little progression. Those four chords show up in various places across the album, sometimes they’re in different keys and whatnot. But mostly it was improvised and it was great. 

And the narration, that's the orchestra conductor at UNI [Dr. Erik Rohde] who did that. He was the only person I asked to do it to because I thought his voice had just the right amount of vulnerability. I thought it fit the vibe of the subject matter. I'm really happy with how that one turned out.


The second track represents that early stage where you first realize that you've got strong feelings about something. It's like introducing the main character, just daydreaming. Structurally, I didn't necessarily build the solos as much around a specific sound. There were a couple tracks where I did, but not on this one. I ended up having a couple of tunes written before I had got the full idea of what the story was. Eventually it was less about writing tunes for the album and then it became writing about writing the tunes for the story. 

For the next track, “Divine Yearning, I always heard it as kind of a pursuit. There's a lot of drive to it, but it's sweet, too. Then you have the change to the overall harmony to represent the good and bad with the chase. Some things go well, some things don't. That’s the one with a different piano player because she was actually the first person to play that tune. I had Oisin lined up to be on the recording but knew that I had to have Alayna [Ringsby] on that track because I’d always loved the way she played on it and that was part of the story too.

I did want to include as many people as possible from UNI because as much as this was about telling a story, it was also capturing a bit of the experience of being in college and I'm surrounded by all these wonderfully talented musicians. But for small group music there’s a limit to the number of players that makes sense so I couldn’t have everyone who would have done a great job.

SkyDeck: All those musicians are all UNI students currently, or they were this past year?

Levi: Yes, except for the narrator, Erik. And yes, a couple just graduated. But all UNI students.

SkyDeck: That's a pretty great situation to be in to be able to call on your peers at that level and have them do the job well. Of all the universities in America with jazz studies programs, that's not necessarily possible at the majority of them.

Levi: To have so many good players is quite a luxury, yeah. And they're all great people, too, so it was a pleasure to be able to do this. And I appreciate their patience because, at times, I’m sure I didn't sound like I entirely knew where all of this was going or I had trouble communicating some of my ideas. They were all super patient with me and I think it all turned out really great. I'm really happy with it. 

The fourth track, “Our Blissful Dance” was one of my favorite ones to write. This is where the arrangements started getting a little more detailed. This one I kind of structured like a song: chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, outro. It was supposed to be the introduction of the other character, but it's also kind of the peak. This is your state of complete happiness. You've reached your goals, you've got everything you want. The modulation  and instrument changes are the differences between the characters. They come together at the end, there's one final modulation, and then there's that overlapping section at the end. And that’s the hint at the little bit of conflict that was coming on the next track. That one was a lot of fun to write because even without a narrative, if you just read the track names, they do describe a process.


The next one ["Turbulence"] was actually the last chart that I wrote. I knew I had everything else figured out. I didn't know entirely where to take it. I knew the vibe I wanted it to have and how the story progressed through this track. I had thought about how, in most of my writing, there's little dissonance. It's all very happy. In this one, I wanted to get away from that and let everybody go at it. The intro, again, it's a thing that very few people will notice. The opening motives in the horns are material from the previous three tracks, altered into different keys and scales and creating a tense sound.


And then we get into the groove. This is where it becomes less jazz and more rock. I was hoping to have the guitar give me some abrasive sound, really shredding and going for it, making it a little ugly. 

And on this one, I didn't take a solo. It felt right to have the trumpet and soprano sax in a shouting match when they play their solos. I don't really speak “effects” very well but I asked them if they both had pedal boards and were both able to include some electronics. I thought it  really contributed to making things more intense.

And from there, the drum solo crashes back into the chord progression from the very beginning of the album, representing that moment of separation where everything's just gone.

I did want there to be variety in all of these tracks. I also wanted a ballad. I wrote this next track pretty soon after that first chord progression, those four chords. I thought it's all surrounding B minor and I figured that I liked that sound and it represented the overall sadness. The melody keeps coming back to this one note, C sharp, that appears a lot. 


There’s a feeling, a sadness, that's attached to you and every time you try to escape it, you are somehow reminded. It was also a great place for the bass to speak out front of the track.

The last chart was actually one of the first songs I ever wrote and it serves as the wounded acceptance part of the story. It also kind of feels somewhat like a bonus track. I wrote a big band version of this, before I did this album version, and we played it at a concert last November. A lot of my friends, at least, will know it. And in some respects, it's also a kind of celebration. “We were able to do this.”

But it's true that everything does move by fast. It’s crazy to think that I'm already halfway through college. When I come home I'm reminded of things that were going on when I was in high school and it feels so recent. 

SkyDeck: Obviously you're taking lessons with Anthony [Williams, trombone professor]. What has that experience been like so far?

Levi: Dr. Williams is one of the big reasons I went to UNI. There were other attractive things about it but he's a big part. I took a couple of lessons with him beforehand. I also went to UNI's Jazz Combo Camp a couple of times when I was in high school and that already gave me a general vibe of the campus and how “go go” the program would be. And I thought it was perfect.

SkyDeck: Anthony's a good model as an ideal university professor because he’s the trombone guy but he's really good at jazz. He's a great classical player and orchestral musician, well rounded to the point that everything he does is above the imaginary line of excellence. And he's learned how to be an effective teacher. And he's a good guy. I'm guessing he builds a successful rapport with the students and people respect him. He ticks all the boxes for that gig.

Levi: Yeah, Dr. Williams is wonderful. He knows how to push his students. He played a part in this project. I went to him with some advice as far as recording and that whole process. He's very open about talking about things.Talking to Chris and Dr. Conrad about some of the tunes and compositional techniques was also helpful. I can't say I did this on my own, because that's just not true in any respect.

There are a lot of student writers in the school, especially this past year. The UNI Jazz Band One album is, I think, eight tracks with six of them being student compositions or arrangements. And that wasn't even all of them that were written and performed over the past year. There are a lot of writers and I could hear the immaturity in my arranging and writing in comparison. I listened to these people who have taken the composition and arranging classes and have learned these concepts a bit more.

SkyDeck: In the actual classes, given these experiences, you'll recognize the opportunity when you're presented with certain technical and common practice elements. Like, “Oh, that's going to be really helpful.” You will already have been faced with some of the challenges or the questions that those things could have solved in previous charts. Those classes will help with the awareness that if you hadn't tried to write a big band chart before now, you'd really be starting from scratch. They’ll help you put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together for sure in a way that is a little bit more advantageous than the average student, probably. It can be pretty overwhelming because there's a lot to learn.

Levi: Yeah, I'm excited for it. I think it's going to be super valuable and I'm excited to learn more. 

SkyDeck: Tell me about a couple of these players because you’ve  got a couple of saxophone players, trumpet, trombone, a reasonable number of horns. They don't all play on all the tracks, but you've got a good number and then a couple of piano players, like you mentioned.

Levi: I wrote the album before thinking about the players. But once I was at that stage I realized there were too many players I liked to record them all. The players here have a great sense of maturity in their playing, but they're also just really fun people. Everybody on the album is, for sure. And really close friends of mine. They've been good at helping me adjust to college life and also helping me grow as a musician and a person. And they did everything I could have asked of them and more, in the process of recording. I'm happy that this all happened and I'm happy that it exists and, obviously, I want as many people to hear it as possible.

SkyDeck: I know you’ve still got a couple of years of college left, but do you have a vision for what you're thinking about professionally?

Levi: I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, and I still want to be a teacher, but things have kind of changed over the past couple of years as far as what I think and where I can see myself. But teaching is in my DNA. I want to help people learn and, with music, there’s no better way. It's just such a great subject. I do want to keep playing and recording, especially after this first one. 

I also love playing. So any chance I have to do that will be great. I think the ideal thing for me would be having a full time gig playing in a big band. But just being able to play consistently in a big band after college would be so awesome. I just love playing that music. We'll see where the wind takes me.

SkyDeck: Well, it depends how many charts you write, because then eventually you have to figure out how to get them all played. So you might be running a big band. 

Levi: Yeah, well, I don't know how people do that. There's just got to be so much that goes with all that. Maybe at some point. In the meantime, if somebody running a big band needs a trombone player, they'll know where to find me. 

SkyDeck: Well, there's a reasonably new Iowa Jazz Composers workshop orchestra run by some people you know.

Levi: Yes, that's a very cool group that I'd love to play in eventually. That'd be great when the time comes. I do want to thank you so much for all your help with all this. You've been just absolutely wonderful with helping me learn how all this works and showing me just the whole new side of making a project and whatnot. It's been a real pleasure.

SkyDeck: Thanks. It's cool to see young people making good music. What you're doing is very encouraging. I would think you'd be very proud of this record. 

Levi: My mom likes it, so I'm proud.

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