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Leron Thomas: Zen-Mode Humor

DanMichael Reyes By

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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."
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