John Leighton: Dramatic Life (2011)
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John Leighton's debut is a collection of poetic, pop-laced jazz that often downplays the pianist's own performance skills in favor of Anna Stott's easy-on-the-ears vocals and saxophonist Michael Buckley's engaging saxophone work. While Leighton's name rests high atop the cover of the album, he chooses to use his piano to serve the songs instead of himself, while allowing the songs themselves to serve as an indication of his talent.
Born and based in Ireland, Leighton has assembled a cast of well regarded up-and-comers on the Irish and British jazz scenes to help bring his musical vision to life, but Stott serves as the focal point of the music. Her ability to shift from a marked sense of insouciance to urgent passion, sometimes within a single song, is her greatest gift. In addition, she manages to covertly pepper some pieces with a touch of soul and a sense of utter joy that paints a positive picture, regardless of the subject matter.
While Buckley has three horns on hand for the album, his soprano work has the greatest impact. He weaves warmth and comfort into the fabric of the music when his small horn is in hand on "Ameltie," but he provides the fuel for some musical fires when he switches to tenor. He ups the soul quotient with his solo on the lively "Precious Life," and blends well with the searing, Kurt Rosenwinkel-like sound that guitarist Mark McKnight adopts for "Whin Bush." While McKnight gets some well-deserved space to solo here, he's often relegated to the same supportive status as Leighton, and that's a shame. Both men clearly have impeccable skills and personal voices and, though concision should applauded, this sub-35-minute album might have benefited from hearing both men unwind a bit more.
While Leighton doesn't reach his full potential as a solo voice here, he manages to hit a homerun as a songwriter by working poetry, pop and jazz elements into a cohesive package. The famed English poet John Keats ("For Keats" and "A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever"), sing-song, odd-metered fare that shape-shift in good-natured fashion ("Ameltie"), faux-soca grooves ("Precious Life"), take-me-as-I-am song craft ("Nothing To Gain"), and music with a bit more bite ("Whin Bush") all have their place here and, surprisingly enough, the variety is what makes the album so attractive.
Dramatic Life, with little solo piano meat to sink the teeth into, won't establish Leighton as a pianist to be reckoned with, but it does shine a light on his impressive skills as a songwriter, while bringing some attention to the oft-overlooked Irish jazz scene.
Track Listing: Married The Messenger; Ameltie; Precious Life; For Keats; The Dress; Nothing To Gain; Whin Bush; A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever.
Personnel: John Leighton: piano; Anna Stott: vocal; Michael Buckley: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Mark McNight: guitar; Michael Janisch: bass; David Lyttle: drums.
Record Label: Lyte Records