Leron Thomas: Zen-Mode Humor
The extent of Thomas' involvement in the studio doesn't just stop at projects outside of jazz; he is also just as active in the booth when working on his straight-ahead albums. Thomas worked directly with an engineer to mix Whatever, telling the engineer what to bring up and down.
For all the control that Thomas exercises with designing the sound and overall tone of his records, as a leader Thomas gives leeway to his sidemen when making choices about how to interpret and play his music. Joining Thomas on Whatever is Taylor Eigsti on piano. "I like Taylor's choices," comments Leron Thomas. "We don't talk. A lot of people in ensemblesthey talk everything out, but sometimes you just have to let the artist figure out what they're going to do. If they don't feel like doing that shit, there's probably a reason behind it and I trust their musical judgment." The song "As Sheep" serves as an example of the level of trust that Eigsti and Thomas have forged. The song opens with a line for the pianist to play with his left hand, originally Thomas had written it up higher on the piano, but Eigsti made the decision to play the figure in a lower register. When that melody is picked up by guitarist Michael Valeanu, the pianist was then instructed to play a staccato like figure on the higher register of the piano to mimic a horn, but instead Eigsti takes it to a middle register where the piano sounds warmer and gives it a more dramatic feel.
"I listen to what Miles says man," Leron Thomas shares. "I'm paraphrasing but he said something like 'You give a good musician something, they make it greater.' And that's what everyone on this record did for me."
Also joining Leron Thomas on Whatever is the great Eric Harland on drums who Thomas started playing with at 14. Prior to Thomas' freshman year at PVA, he had won the Sammy Davis Jr. Award and was asked to be a guest performer at the esteemed performing arts high school whose alumni boasts a host of acclaimed jazz musicians like Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott, Jamire Williams, Walter Smith III, Mike Moreno, Alan Hampton, and many more. The young Leron Thomas didn't know how to put together a jazz band at 14, so he asked the help of legendary drum teacher Craig Green who has taught all the great Houston based drummers like Chris Dave, Jamire Williams, Kendrick Scott, and Eric Harland, whom Thomas would contact to play for him for his performance. "[Harland] was also on my first record, Dirty Draws Vol. 1. It's weird, it's like I've been knowing [these] cats since I was 14," recalls Thomas.
Don't be fooled in thinking that Leron Thomas is pulling favors from an old high school friend. It doesn't matter who you know and who you went to school with, jazz is a meritocracy and you have to earn your stripes. "It's not easy, you have to pull your own weight," Thomas confesses. "New School definitely taught me some things, but I got a lot of my education from the street. I'm not going to lie, I got most of it from hanging around at Smalls and I didn't like Smalls as far as the be-bop thing being such a big deal. I didn't like it, but I went through it. I didn't really get gigs and stuff like that, but I was there nightly playing the late night [jams], and I wasn't getting paid. But people like Billy Kaye were there, Frank Hewitt, and people like Tommy Turrentine. [Turrentine] died before I got here, but his legacy was still there."
In-demand musicians like bassist Harish Raghavan, guitarists Matthew Stevens and Michael Valeanu, and 2012 Thelonious Monk Competition finalist Justin Brown, all of whom also contribute to Whatever, aren't just going to lend their time to play with anyone if the music isn't downright killing.
"It meant a lot to me that Eric, who plays with everybody, can come and play with me, because he knows the music is going to be killing," admits Thomas. "He knows that I spend a lot of time writing and that I'm not going give him something that isn't going to show off certain things that he does. I told [Eric] that, 'We've all been a part of cutting edge music. But when they hear you swinging... Man, that's going to be the shit.'"
"I was so happy to catch that element in it. He's been known to swing on other people's albumsdon't get me wrongbut I'm glad we caught that moment, that was killing. The fact that they knew I was independent, even better."