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Leigh Pilzer: Beatin' the Odds

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Leigh Pilzer: Beatin' the Odds
Beatin' the Odds. To baritone saxophonist Leigh Pilzer, that is far more than a catchphrase: it is a grim yet ultimately happy reality. In 2017, Pilzer was diagnosed with cancer. After extensive treatments, her odds of surviving more than five years were reckoned as around thirty percent. But six years have gone by, and not only has Pilzer beaten the odds, she is cancer-free, back in the saddle and performing again.

And not only performing but writing and arranging almost every number on her second album and first as leader of Leigh Pilzer's Seven Pointed Star. The seven refers to septet, and Pilzer oversees two of them, the first (an all-female ensemble) on Tracks 1-5, the second on Tracks 6-9. The music is thematic with a purpose: the opening five numbers relate to Pilzer's battle with cancer, the others to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that arrived shortly afterward.

Setting aside the themes, what we have is a series of bright and engaging songs marvelously performed by Pilzer's dual septets (and octet on "How Much Longer," thanks to the welcome presence of percussionist Greg Holloway). "SKCC," a salute to Billy Strayhorn's classic "UMMG" (Upper Manhattan Medical Group), travels a similar melodic and harmonic path while applauding Pilzer's caregivers, the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. The smooth and mellow "Lin" refers to her surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Yen Lin, the light-hearted "Waterkress" to her oncologist, Dr. Bruce Kressel.

"The Platinum Taxi," whose uneven beats mirror a Benadryl drip precedes the only number not written by Pilzer, bassist Amy Shook's freewheeling "Beatin' the Odds." The resourceful and metronomic Shook is the only constant in both septets. The "pandemic" chapter of the program opens with "And Then It Stopped," an abrasive prelude to "Last Year, Lost Year," "How Much Longer" and "Where Will We Go?" The first refers to the end of Pilzer's gigs during the pandemic, the second to more losses, physical and psychological, in 2020-21, the third to the stresses of a drawn-out epidemic, the last to everyone's next chapter, whatever that might be.

Pilzer does not solo often ("And Then It Stopped" and "Lin" are her showcases) but she does not need to, as those duties are in the capable hands of Shook, trumpeters Ally Haney Albrecht and Kenny Rittenhouse, alto saxophonists Mercedes Beckman and Tim Green, trombonists Jen Krupa and Joe Jackson, and pianists Amy K Bormet and Allyn Johnson. Drummer Sherrie Maricle, Pilzer's former "boss" at the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, has her explosive say on "Beatin' the Odds" and at the tail end of "Platinum Taxi."

A splendid album with a truly happy ending: what more could anyone wish? Not only has Leigh Pilzer beaten the odds, but she has also celebrated her victory by recounting the journey in the best way she can, lending anyone who cares to listen close to an hour of handsomely written straight-ahead contemporary jazz, ardently performed by colleagues whose pleasure in sharing her triumph is evident in every note. Beatin' the Odds has seldom been more heartwarming.

Track Listing

SKCC; Lin; Waterkress; The Platinum Taxi; Beatin’ the Odds; And Then It Stopped; Last Year, Lost Year; How Much Longer; Where Will We Go?

Personnel

Leigh Pilzer
saxophone, baritone
Mercedes Beckman
saxophone, alto
Tim Green Saxophone
saxophone, alto
Jen Krupa
trombone
Joe Jackson
trombone
Amy K Bormet
piano and vocals
Amy Shook
bass, acoustic

Album information

Title: Beatin' the Odds | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Self Produced


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