Do you remember the first time you heard Leon Redbone? I was six years old, elbows at the edge of my parents’ bed, hands propping up my chin. Saturday Night Live was an occasional family ritual. At such a simple age I was partial to Mr. Bill, Land Shark, and of course, the musical guests. I remember when they announced Leon Redbone (was it Buck Henry? Charles Grodin?). Leon had all the facets of a common cartoon character; the gag gift glasses complete with rubber nose and moustache, the zoot suit, and the lankiness. He made me laugh. And then, all by himself, he began to sing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with his acoustic guitar in hand. He had a voice, deep and slightly nasally, with tiny little lungs just behind his lips, that went right to my young heart. The following morning I rifled through my parents’ record collection, sifting through Willie Nelson records, chucking Anne Murray, Barbra Streisand and Rod Stewart aside. There was no Leon Redbone record to be found. I asked for one that I could call my own, “Perhaps for my birthday? Or maybe just because you love me?” Nevertheless, the request went unanswered. What would a six-year-old want with a Leon Redbone album anyway?
Now that I am thirty, thankfully, I can make my decisions with the wind, and I am lucky enough to be able to afford some of them. For all of the other children/grown-ups of the world, Mr. Redbone has released his eleventh record, Any Time, which happens to be his first for the Blue Thumb label, a leg of the Universal empire. Any Time is a grab bag of the sounds and songs of the past, a time with which Redbone is almost metaphysically connected. He is an icon of other days. Think of Leon Redbone and conjure up a whirlwind of images, including flappers, upright pianos in smoky bars, sunsets, sunrises, radio days, jazz nights, and vaudeville. He brings us to another place, consistently.
The music on Any Time is no exception and has quite the range. Opening with the obscure Herbert Lawson tune, "Any Time," Redbone brings us a peppy, medium tempo promise for love, complete with a snappy acoustic guitar solo from Frank Vignola. The melody is carried by piano and muted trombone. Where the trombone soars, the clarinet shines, as on the brooding "If You Knew." An important part of the Redbone formula is, aside from instrumentation, the appropriation of his soloists. If the soothing voice isn't enough, the record is peppered with fine statements from the instrumentalists. The gospel-blues treatment of Alstyne/Williams' "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" is colored by the background baritone vocals of the Persuasions. "I can hear the dull buzz of the bees/ on the blossoms as you said to me/ With a heart that's true I'll be waiting for you/ In the shade of the Old Apple Tree," Redbone promises, following a hurried excursion into the bridge, carried by a rickety banjo and the whistle of Leonard Pickett's fife.
Although he occasionally criticizes modern music production, and claims that "the art of recording, as much as it has progressed over the years, hasn't actually improved much," Redbone interestingly utilizes of a thunder sample for ambience on "Sweet Lorraine." He is drowning in nostalgia, and he captures his different foci almost too well. But he is, as always, for real. Leon Redbone is perhaps a perfect voice for the genre that he periodically revives. And then there's the humor, as on "Your Feets Too Big," which is a suitable close for a strong recording with eccentric choices of material. Perhaps it is the humor, or maybe even the faint strain of modesty that so animates Redbone's music.
Any Time was recently my almost-five-year-old son’s indoctrination to the world that changes and blooms when Leon Redbone is singing. He is already asking for more. Good boy.