Gina Leishman: This New York Life

Michael Blake By

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On the late summer afternoon I visited composer Gina Leishman, we couldn't meet in her apartment because it was under repair. A pipe had burst so a friend was loaning her apartment to Gina for a few days; one of those little studio apartments that New Yorkers manage to transform into what seems like a sprawling flat. Nestled on a similarly charming tree lined street, it had the same cozy feel as her old apartment in the West Village, only a stone's throw from the historic landmarks and cultural establishments that Greenwich Village has to offer.

She left me perfect instructions on how to use the intercom but after several unsuccessful attempts I gave up and called her. I apologized for being a nuisance but Gina couldn't have cared less. I was received with a big hug and then we ascended the stairwell, briefly catching up on each other's lives.

Gina's albums are incredibly varied. The jazzier compositions are characteristic of someone enamored with the songs of Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn and Hoagy Carmichael. Although she clearly has a foot in the roots of jazz, it is not so much as a player but as a composer that this influence is most evident. Although her piano parts often utilize circular intervallic lines, similar to Thelonious Monk's piece "Mysterioso," the songs don't rely on virtuosic crescendoing solos. They're most often calm, measured tone poems that exist comfortably in their own skin. It's a high wire act so Gina calls on some on her old friends or similarly inclined musicians in New York City to pull it off. Many of her lyrics are stories in song that reveal portraits of poignantly sweet innocence and youth marred with heartache. But there's a biting wit to them as well. The song "New York Wild Life" from Geography (2017) is riddled with such lines:

This New York life is for the birds
they have more fun than me
I see them in the tree
outside my window
A parliament of crows
is what I need to tell my woes to
or should that be murder

Her arrangements are reminiscent of French composers like Satie and Debussy. But there is a particularly British sensibility about them as well. This becomes perfectly clear when she sings her arrangement of "Merry Month of May" and the folk song "The Golden Vanity." Some of the pieces on her 2010 album Bassless Rumors remind me of Brahms' "Trio in A minor for Piano, Clarinet and Cello." Her melodies could be described as haunting because they are memorable and moody but that's an oversimplification. Gina's music is also imbued with subtle rhythmic syncopations that toss her harmonies about. The effect is like when one is at the laundromat, whiling away time, eyes front, hypnotized in spin cycle.

Gina is co-founder of the Kamikaze Ground Crew, a group that evolved from a ragtag marching band into a renowned chamber ensemble, comprising an enclave of some of the best composers, arrangers and instrumentalists in the field of creative music. "If I had known that name would still be around forty years later I might have thought twice. It's not exactly a prestigious kind of name," Gina remarks. "At the time it was perfect for what we were doing because it was fun but when you look at what we've gone on to do, the name has nothing to with how we make music anymore."

There have been several combinations of the Kamikazes but the main faction includes fellow co-founder Doug Wieselman on reeds, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, tubist Marcus Rojas, trombonist Art Baron and percussionist Kenny Wollesen. The first time I heard this version of the band in concert I was moved by their opening piece "Morning in Bhutan" which unfolded like a magic carpet being rolled out, the flap of its fringe delivering glimmering notes akin to precious stones to my ears. This was the real thing: the Kamikaze's attempt at capturing a mystical experience in sound, to take us on a journey, revealing musicians who are devoted to creating deeply refined music.

Let's go back a decade or more ago to her old apartment in the West Village. It was at one of her winter solstice soirées. Upon entering the living room I noticed a rack of wine glasses, tiered on a platform as if they were meant for a carnival stall bean bag toss. The glasses weren't for drinking, they were instruments for music making, purposefully designed for a shimmering sonata of some kind. I yearned to hear them sing in that warm and friendly room, resonating in perfect pitch with the seasonal scent of mulled wine.

Tiered glasses are just one of the many instruments Gina plays. Piano is her first instrument and she's comfortable on accordion, alto and baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, bandoneon, harmonium, and mandola. When singing she often accompanies herself on the baritone ukulele. Her list of accolades and accomplishments is as remarkable as her multi-instrumental talents. She has scored original compositions for theater, opera, dance, film, TV and the concert stage.

Gina was born in London, the youngest of two daughters. Her father, a distinguished British diplomat, was a fan of traditional jazz and both of her parents were music lovers. Her American mother was employed with the OSS which predates the CIA but she chose to give that up when her husband was stationed in Washington DC. I'm guessing that this would have been in the 1950s so it's impossible for me not to imagine it as anything but charming. And in fact she has fond memories of this time. During the week her parents were always socializing, downing martinis, partying, basically living the diplomat's lifestyle to the fullest. But on Sundays they organized "sing-songs" at which Gina and her sister would perform plays and sing along with the other kids and many of the adults, the latter continuing the alcoholic intake. Her parents' closest friends included a couple from New Zealand. The husband, Pete Jeffrey, was a fantastic pianist who could play anything. Gina recalls sitting at the top of the stairwell listening to him play the piano, cigarette and whisky teetering at the edge of the keyboard, and thinking "that's the life for me." Another friend of the family was Soozi Prentice, folk singer and guitarist who hailed from the American south and after swallowing a few martinis would say in a husky southern drawl, "I feel much more like I do now than I did when I came in."

Gina got her degree in early music at Edinburgh University, and wasn't long before she landed a job at EMI to be the liaison to David Munrow, an early music pioneer in the 1970s.
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