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Leron Thomas: Zen-Mode Humor


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The chances of four people conducting a Google search on Leron Thomas that result in all four of them to make the same conclusion about the trumpeter is low. While certain facts—like his time at High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) in Houston and The New School in New York—will remain true, arguments might arise about the genre he plays and what his role as an artist is. A listen to "Silly Ass," the first track on his SoundCloud and his upcoming album Whatever (Self Produced, 2013), could leave a listener to conclude that he is a jazz trumpeter cut from the same cloth as Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, and Lee Morgan, but a scroll down to the song "Chinese Monica Cow," might leave the same listener to conclude that Leron Thomas is also a rock star. Another person could bypass his SoundCloud all together and stumble upon his YouTube account and find that the trumpeter is also a video editor.

The die-hard jazz aficionado, who might overlook all of Leron's extraneous activities, will note the command that Leron Thomas possesses on his horn and his fluency in jazz and its idiom. To the straight ahead jazz fan, Leron Thomas is the trumpet player who has performed with masters like Billy Harper, Charles Tolliver, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Strickland, Eric Harland, Bilal, and Jason Moran as a member of the Fats Waller Dance Party.

Since 2005, Leron Thomas has released a steady influx of albums starting with Dirty Draws Vol. 1 (Self Produced, 2005). Since his debut, Thomas has issued two additional volumes of the Dirty Draws saga, a jazz record Around You (Self Produced, 2010), Juxtaposed (Self Produced, 2010), and has two releases as a leader this year with Whatever and Take It, which is set to be re-released on vinyl through Belgium's On-Point Records.

Throughout his career, Thomas has cradled between jazz trumpeter, rock star, video editor, composer, and producer. While the old adage reads "Jack of all trades, master of none," there can be no denying Thomas' mastery of his horn and his compositional prowess. The forays into other genres of music serve as a sabbatical from swing. "The hardest thing to do is swing. It's such a Zen," Thomas confesses. "You get certain people that talk about swing, and they seem like the pioneers or the purists and stuff, but even their swing sounds like a Bugs Bunny commercial. But that real deep swing—like Miles Davis' "So What." That real deep Zen and phrasing takes a lot of focus. I always set my stuff up where I knew I needed to bounce off everything that I needed to like, drum and bass, rock, hip-hop, all this stuff. I just needed to do all of this and keep circling back to swing and mature. I have to bounce off everything to make everything work."

Making it work—even through the most difficult situations—has been Thomas' modus operandi since the beginning. While recording Dirty Draws Vol. 1, the trumpeter was in the process of being evicted from his apartment and would walk 29 blocks from his apartment at 158th Street down to 129th and Lennox to record at an apartment where saxophonist Stacy Dillard lived. "Jazz costs money to make," Thomas reveals. "You really have to be an artist and be really witty on how you're going to do your shit. Sometimes you have to go to somebody's closet and just do some home studio stuff. If you have the opportunity to move it to a real studio or something like that, do that. But if you don't have enough to make a project, it's still your life experience."

This DIY approach gave Thomas' early albums a defined tone that might not have been achieved if he had record label money to splurge on an album. The strip- down approach of the Dirty Draws volumes is what differentiates them from his other projects. "The volumes had to do with closet studio stuff mixed with a live element," recalls Thomas. "It's not so much the content because Juxtaposed is pretty random too. It's about the process of it all." A process that includes leaving certain midi sounds in tact instead of using real instruments, getting away from too much mixing and over production, and simply getting down to the nitty- gritty core of the music.

Having self-produced his early works and literally working out of a closet has helped Leron Thomas define the overall sound of his projects. Even when the trumpeter can afford a studio, Thomas still likes his stripped-down aesthetic of leaving the music down to its core. In Take It, Thomas notes how it was a project where he was "Literally tweaking the shit out of sounds, to the point where [he's] putting extra overheads." The result of extra overhead microphones usually lead to a muddy drum sound that doesn't punch through the speakers as much, but it's just the way Thomas likes it.

"I hate when people are mixing [and] don't put too many highs because it's going to mud up the drums," Thomas shares. "I'm like 'Let that happen. Mud that shit up.' It sounds real- -it sounds noisy."

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 ensembles—they 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 albums—don't get me wrong—but I'm glad we caught that moment, that was killing. The fact that they knew I was independent, even better."

Thomas and gang start swinging from the get go of Whatever on "Silly Ass," which features solos from Thomas, Eigsti, Stevens, and Harland. During "Silly Ass," there is a calmness and control about Leron Thomas' playing, and the man-child whose first instinct is to make you laugh gets right to the point when he takes the first solo. Thomas exhibits a sense of motific development —which no doubt he copped by listening to a lot of Hindemith, a composer that the trumpeter admires—and space a la Miles Davis so that the rhythm section under him can fully participate. More importantly, Thomas' forays into other genres of music seem to be paying off. There is a sense of maturity that Thomas inhibits and a Zen-like mode that possesses him throughout the "Silly Ass" and the rest of the album. While the PVA and New School bred musician has always been an astute trumpeter, there is a refined clarity and focus in his playing that can be attributed from bouncing around. "It made swing feel so fresh to me," recalls Thomas. "You feel more mature and you don't feel like you have to force the phrasing, it's just in there."

Thomas isn't the only one on Whatever who can be heard offering an inspired performance, the rest of the band is right along with their leader, playing unforgettable and jaw-dropping performances. When asked about how Thomas felt about how his sidemen performed about the record, he just gave a devilish look and laughed. The talkative trumpeter who has dozens to say about any topic fell silent and just smiled when he attempted to talk about Taylor Eigsti's playing.

"The playing?" Thomas states as a half-question. "I mean Taylor's solos man. Michael's solos and the maturity of Matthew's solos?" "Sometimes you hear guitarist riff off but [Stevens] is so patient— like a horn player. Matthew Steven's solo on 'Silly Ass,' was amazing," commented Thomas with a smile on his face.

Whatever isn't just another jazz record where audiences can marvel at the technical facility and virtuosity of each musician featured. "Whatever," the title track of the album, has a very special meaning to Thomas and defines him during this stage of his evolution. "I wrote that ballad when I was getting evicted some years ago and that was around the time I was doing Dirty Draws Vol 1," Thomas remembers. "I got tired of feeling like I needed to define myself and so I said 'Whatever.' I got tired of it man."

"The audiences in New York that listen to jazz—some of them are not cool. The students are looking for that alley-oop—it's like a basketball game—you set them up with an alley- oop and the crowd goes 'Ooh, killing man!' So you feel like you have to play certain kind of etiquette solos to get that 'Whoo!' You gotta play that bad lick."

The nature of jazz concerts is a give and take between the audience and the performer. Those on the bandstand play some crazy poly- rhythmic thing, and then the audience goes "Whoo!" That feeling of needing to play that bad lick is nothing new in jazz and it's the feeling that every jazz musician has felt, feels, and will feel. Art Tatum didn't get to be "God" without playing a few bad licks during cutting competitions, and the sense of showmanship and trying to please the audience is good for the music. But when playing the new hip lick or trying to please the audience becomes a preeminent reason to play over expression, it becomes a problem for the artist.

"I've seen a lot of people's careers and they look [like] they're on top but they get into that slippery slope because they get into that mentality of giving people what they want and not giving the [audience] them," Thomas reveals. "That's why I try not to define myself too much man—I don't know who the fuck I am as an artist," Thomas admits. "Some days I feel like a jazz musician, some days I feel like a rock star, I don't fucking know. And I think that's fine."

A trait that Thomas is well aware of is his humor. The videos on his YouTube account including one of Bill Cosby playing tennis to his song "Blush" and the overall tune of his Dirty Draws Volumes can suggest that Thomas is our jazz jester. But there is a method to the madness in the music of Leron Thomas. "All the best artists were comical---Miles Davis was comical. How the hell are you going to do an album with all these badass songs in it then 'Nothing Like You,' on Sorcerer?" Thomas asks. "How the hell are you going to do that? At the same time, Charlie Parker! Charlie Parker would make these funny jokes. He would do Bach out of nowhere, or impose a standard over the changes of another song. There is nobody I know that was an amazing composer that wasn't funny."

Thomas compares himself to serial killers on the popular Showtime series Dexter. "I'm dead serious in everything I do—even down to the humor—I'm dead serious. It's like watching Dexter, you know how some serial killers are methodical but they're kind of comical? That kind of thing."

The trumpeter is even serious about his title tracks even to the most literal sense. "Waiting On Justin," is a song that features Harish Raghavan, Thomas, and Taylor Eigsti on piano. The song came about because they were all literally waiting on Justin Brown. "We had a studio date and he slept through it," Thomas says with a chuckle in his voice. "I think he got his days mixed up. He's a busy dude because he just got the Thundercat call. We were waiting around the studio and played the changes to 'Pent-up House.'" At the end, Justin Brown's absence turned out to be a good thing for Thomas who decided to include "Juini's Redemption," a bass and trumpet duo that he performed once for his senior recital while he was graduating from The New School. "I had 'Juini's Redemption' and thought that it was a good opportunity to [record] it while Justin Brown wasn't there," reveals Thomas.

Even a whimsical title like "Silly Ass," is dead serious for Thomas and not just a reflection of his character. "A lot of things are happening in the world right now and we just need to laugh at ourselves. Look at Miley Cyrus, she's a silly ass," Thomas notes. "We think each other is [sic] dumb and pull silly pranks on each other. There's all sorts of conspiracy theories out there, fake wars, and all kinds of shit. So we're a bunch of silly asses."

The song "As Sheep," is Thomas' commentary on the mob mentality and the lack of individual thinking while its antithesis is the song "Amidst The Wolves," a song about the current state affairs within the music industry. "I think there are people that capitalize on how dumb people are getting," Thomas explains concerning the meaning behind "Amidst The Wolves."

"I think there a lot of people that make records that are name heavy because they feel like people are stupid and they'll buy it. The product itself might not be good but the title and the status of everything looks good," continues Leron Thomas. Though it sounds hypocritical to call out current trends of musicians using big names to promote the album since he uses heavy hitters on his record, Leron Thomas is adamant about that Whatever is purely about the music.

"I think that jazz artists—there's an awakening where we're not about labels, we're about the music," shares Thomas. "We're willing to go out there independently and support each other. The fact that they knew I was independent, even better."

"Taylor Eigsti asked me what I was going to do with the album and I told him that [about] a couple of labels were hollering at me and I said, "I might put it on that label and that label," and he just kind of looked at me and said, 'Just put that shit out.'"

"I'm proud of this record. The way it flows and the way it moves taught me a lot of things and if I do want to do any kind of music I've learned from this what to do. Just like how I've learned from Take It and Dirty Draws Vol. 3 what to do with Whatever."

The charm of Leron Thomas' new record comes from its creator's ability to push through circumstances and release a project that stands alone and defiantly states, "Whatever." Whether he is in the midst of being evicted from an apartment, arguing with jaded engineers on how to record his projects, being written off as bizarre by critics, or simply just waiting around for his drummer to show up, Thomas fights all these situations with the same Zen and focus he uses to navigate through chord changes in order to swing.

Sentiments that relate jazz—or any form of art—to life sound platitudinous, but it is a view shared throughout history by artists from every field. Oscar Wilde once famously wrote in The Decay Of Lying that, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." Similarly our dead-serious jazz jester brilliantly states that, "It is important to see what's going on in the jazz scene because it almost foretells what's going on in mankind because the music is so strong from the 20th century going into the 21st that it spun-off all the art forms now. I feel like the jazz musician has the responsibility to encompass this understanding not for gimmicks, but for the sake of art."

Selected Discography

Leron Thomas, Whatever (Self Produced, 2013)

Leron Thomas, Take It (Self Produced, 2013)

Leron Thomas, Dirty Draws Vol. 3 (Self Produced, 2011)

Leron Thomas, Juxtaposed (Self Produced, 2010)

Leron Thomas, Around You (Self Produced, 2010)

Leron Thomas, Improvsensation (Self Produced, 2009)

Bobby Watson, From The Heart (Palmetto, 2008)

88 Keys, The Death Of Adam (Decon, 2008)

Leron Thomas, Dirty Draws Vol. 2 (Self Produced, 2006)

Leron Thomas, Dirty Draws Vol. 1 (Self Produced, 2005)

Tiombe Lockhart, Mr. Johnnie Walker (Giant Steps Records, 2005)

Soulive, Doin' Something (Remix) (Velour Recordings, 2003)

Bilal, 1st Born Second (Interscope, 2001).

Photo Credit

Courtesy of smokingscreensmedia

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