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Michael Leonhart: A Fortunate Son


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For most musicians, writers and actors, making the final decision to go against the grain and pursue a paycheck-to-paycheck, month-to-month career as a performing artist is one of the harder choices in life. Yet for trumpeter Michael Leonhart, a life in jazz and art is "all in the family": his father is the noted jazz bassist, studio musician and humorist Jay Leonhart; and his sister is the sprightly, sassy, and torchy alt-rock and jazz singer Carolyn Leonhart. And after a three-decade hiatus as a wife and mom, his mother Donna resumed her career as a singer in 1999.

Born in 1974 in New York City, the youngest member of the Leonhart family started his trumpet playing at the age of 10, after stabs at keyboards, violin and drums (most of which he also still plays) starting at age seven. The trumpet prodigy was playing his first professional gigs by the time he was all of 12 and 13 years old, backing his father at The Blue Note, and by 16, he was the star pupil at New York's legendary Fiorello LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts (where the movie Fame was set), when no less than Wynton Marsalis personally invited the 16-year-old "serious swinger" to dinner to compare notes.

The following year, Leonhart became the then-youngest winner a Grammy award in his own right, for Outstanding High School Musician. That accolade made him a "Person of the Week" on ABC TV's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," and got him a personality profile in The New York Times.

That fall, Leonhart was accepted on full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, then moving on Columbia University, where he "studied anything that interested him," especially literature and filmmaking, along with music. Also and even more fatefully during his Columbia years, a young singer named Jamie Obstbaum—his future wife—first entered the picture. Before Leonhart even finished, he was signed to a contract at Sunnyside Records, where he released the avant-garde trumpet album, Aardvark Poses (1995). Then in 1996, Leonhart received the biggest break of his career when the 22-year-old was recruited to work with Steely Dan as they returned to live touring for the first time in over 20 years. The "ever enigmatic Michael Leonhart" will hopefully be returning to back Donald Fagen on tour later this year if all goes well.

Ahead of the release of his new CD on Truth and Soul Records (where he is known as the "house" trumpet player on studio recordings) with his longtime band, The Avramina 7, Seahorse and the Storyteller, Leonhart spoke with AAJ. He had just celebrated his 36th birthday May 5th with a CD release party hosted by Sean Lennon at The Mercury Lounge in Greenwich Village, and spoke about growing up in a family of artists and musicians, where he came late to the notion of becoming a professional musician.

"At one point I was really interested in neurology, like Oliver Sacks," he said. "When I read his books as a young teenager, I thought there was just something so poetic and mathematical about it, going deeper into the mind. I messed around with painting, and I always had an interest in filmmaking. But by the time I was 13, I knew how music could provide such a fantastical escape. Even when it feels bad, like a few times a year when my trumpet chops are utterly exhausted on a long gig, you don't know if you can make it but you just have to keep going... there's a rush about that. Where is fantasy and where is reality... drawing those lines..."

Leonhart has a reputation as being an athlete, something not uncommon since the trumpet is a very athletic instrument. Despite his busy schedule, he said he still plays a lot of sports.

"I think trumpet players push themselves very hard—we're almost all drawn to things that involve coordination and the machismo," he said. "My dad was always great at sports, and when I was young, I really got into sports. But by the time I was in high school and I got into music, I began to notice that the women I was interested in were infinitely more attracted to musicians than to jocks, so screw sports! But then I missed sports so I'd play on the weekends.

"Yet all it takes is spraining your finger once, and then you can't play, so I gave up on it for a while," he added. "But of course, I eventually got back into it again. Although I am only 5-foot-9, so I'm not exactly a giant on the field."

Growing up in a Jewish family in the heart of the New York arts scene, Leonhart's mother and father were both musicians and artists, and his older sister was a budding singer—almost parallel to the movie The Squid and the Whale (2005), about growing up in a novelist's home. Leonhart admits the movie "was really close to some" of his early memories and experiences.

"My mother and father are both dreamers—responsible, loving, amazing dreamers, with great heart, who had the balls and the courage to do their own thing creatively," Leonhart said. "They showed me with their lives that when you have an idea, for a movie, for a song, for a book, to just go for it, write it down. I wouldn't change it at all. Growing up in an artist's home... hearing my dad practicing bass arpeggios every morning, going to tons of shows, hearing my mother singing in the kitchen, and my sister singing her ass off by the age of 5...It definitely shaped the person who I am."

Such a family also meant the occasional encounter with other great musicians and celebrities.

"'Uncle Mel' was Mel Torme, and he was, of course, amazing....my dad had played with Paul Shaffer and David Letterman, and Letterman sent me the coolest toy truck when I was little—but I had no idea who he was until years later!" Leonhart remembers. "I remember taking walks on the beach as a six year-old with this very engaging woman who had this really interesting accent and hair—her name was Liza Minnelli. I was hanging out with Clark Terry and Ray Brown before I had heard any of their music.

"One of my biggest inspirations, though, and preparations for being a studio player and professional musician myself was seeing my dad do the unglamorous, work-work gigs he didn't want to do, putting me and my sister through school and college, supporting a family in New York," he added. "It wasn't all strawberries and cream. Truth is my dad has worked his ass off and it's not always easy. But, yes, there are moments in my mind when I'm surrounded by jazz and rock royalty. I grew up reading liner notes, and I'd be recognizing these amazing people as friends. My father has had an incredible career, but for all the Uncle Mels and the David Lettermans and the Peggy Lees, there were those times seeing my dad play at tiny jazz clubs where there were not a lot of people, sometimes maybe five people total—but some of the most incredible music you could imagine was being created.

"After my mom and dad got serious about each other, my mom decided to stop performing and focus on raising my sister and myself," Leonhart recalls. "She didn't do her first solo album until 1999-2000. It was so cool to see her finish her 'debut' album at age 60—Bein' Green on Sunnyside (in 2004) —an exquisite album. Twists, turns, a real snapshot of her. A little Blossom Dearie, Nelson Riddle, some Antonio Carlos Jobim...

"One sidebar I have: I played with Yoko Ono, and her son Sean Lennon produced her last album, and of course, I had produced my mom's album," he continued. "I'd be with Sean and Yoko in the studio, and from time to time I would see him faced with the challenge of how to escape the mother-son dynamic and instead focus on the artist-producer relationship—not an easy task. I remember saying to him, 'I think I have a little idea of what you're going through.' I'm sure the fame aspect makes it slightly more complicated, but nonetheless, it's not easy trying to produce your mother. There's a whole lotta back story there. You come into the studio trying to do setups, get sounds, do business, thinking of a hundred different things, and your mom is saying, 'You look too skinny—or too fat,' and asking about how you're dressed—and you're trying to get to the art!"

After "going mass" with Steely Dan, Leonhart soon became one of New York's hottest and studio and session players, winning over 30 international awards by the age of 23, working on over a hundred session albums and soundtracks, and playing with A- list artists from Bobby McFerrin, Mos Def, and Busta Rhymes to Perico Sambeat and the Philip Morris Superband and Sharon Jones and the Dap- Kings, to Bonnie Raitt, Bill Withers, David Byrne and even Yoko Ono, along with many others. At the end of 2002, Leonhart released Slow on Sunnyside Records, which AllAboutJazz listed as "strongly recommended," and for several years, he has played with The Avramina 7. Not a "jazz purist" to the extent of his mentor Wynton Marsalis, Leonhart is at home in Motown-style R&B, 1970s funkadelic, and Chicago/Blood, Sweat & Tears-style "jazz rock." But he has remained fiercely loyal to the straight-ahead jazz aesthetic of the kind of intimate, communicative (both verbal and nonverbal), and above all, intensely personal expression that only true freeform and lengthy improvisation can give.

Despite being in his mid-30s, early in a jazz musician's career, he's already amassed a substantial discography. Leonhart says he doesn't think too much about how his releases such as Seahorse and the Storyteller may fit the continuum of his career, especially when compared with his early days as the "prince of Gen-X arthouse jazz" in releases like Glub Glub (Sunnyside, 1998) or Aardvark Poses (Sunnyside, 1995).

"There's a Quincy Jones quote, 'Make music that gives you goosebumps first,'" he said. "I wanted to make music that gave me the thrills, the chills, and that's basically the main motivator. From an intellectual standpoint, I do believe that significant artists' discographies usually have a thread that connects the entire body of work. That said, my first album was a hardcore trumpet album, by the second and third albums I was singing, playing multiple instruments and experimenting with popular song structure, and by the time we get to Seahorse, there's a real combination of elements from the previous six albums."

Michael Leonhart with percussionist Dende

Leonhart adds his 2008 release Hotel Music (St. Ives) was done as he was on the road touring with the 2007 Steely Dan world tour. Originally a limited release of just 200 vinyl copies, with hand painted artwork, it's now available digitally on iTunes. Leonhart plans to release it on CD when the rights expire.

"It's part vintage Pink Floyd, part Animal Collective—washy, drugged-out, almost film score-like, very very soft and drenched with vocals, and it couldn't be a more polar opposite of Seahorse, except to me it feels like I'm singing and playing trumpet as I always do, just over a different backdrop," he said. "But even there, it's the lyrics and the melodies that all tie it together. On Seahorse, I brought it full-circle—the horn playing is rooted in the same angular, edgy thing that Aardvark Poses was all about, and I hear the same tendency towards minimalist funk grooves that appeared on Glub, Glub.

"I would hope that there's less cliché, a lot more unique chance-taking," Leonhart said. "I tried to shed all the clichés of modern jazz and R&B—the Miles Davis, Chet Baker, The Beatles references. If this makes sense, when you're making an album like Seahorse, you distill all of your influences down to what feels most personal and essential. It may sound arrogant, but the question is, are you trying to just mimic, or create your own sound? Don't worry though—you can dance to all of it."

He said, in a way, the recording was akin to a sculptor carving away what doesn't belong.

"For me, starting with Hotel Music, I really let myself go free into exploring all the things that might be crazy, weird, abstract," Loenhart said. "I'm not 20 anymore; I'm somewhat proven and a known quantity, I can start taking chances. When you're younger you doubt yourself. Now, there wasn't a lot of doubt. I don't have time to judge; I'm married, I'm a parent, I've got a lot more hours logged under my belt. I think I'm more natural and fluent in the language of recording. I feel more experienced with song form. I know more of the sounds I want to get right off in terms of producing and orchestrating. Now it's about having the balls to go, 'I'm going to do it this way,' and I only hope that as I get older, I get even more fearless."

Leonhart has established a strong online presence, using Twitter, MySpace and Facebook to be a more accessible musician. Unlike such performers as Miles Davis—who sometimes played with his back towards the audience— or Buddy Rich, who would kick people out of his shows that he didn't like, Leonhart is comfortable being himself in front of his fans and audience.

"I have had the luxury of working with some of the best in the business," he said. "So to me, it all boils down to the fact that I don't like artificiality. I think I have, and I want to have, a 'good bedside manner' — especially now. I spent many years in my 20s working from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. recording—single, isolated, in my own little sonic laboratory world. And I loved it.

"But now I'm grown up, I married a woman who was a great friend," he added. "In Jamie, I really found my soul mate. Then I had a child, and a dog, and now I think maybe it's good to share your life and experiences with people. Part of the thrill of being a jazz musician is you never know what's around the corner. Although I do have my lone-wolf moments. I usually feel comfortable, but recently I saw a bunch of people at the Village Vanguard, and for some odd reason, I didn't feel like hanging out with anybody. I wanted a little isolation booth. Some things are more intimidating than others, I don't know why."

Leonhart said if he hadn't become a musician he may have been a psychologist, which he said can be like being a musician.

"Being a jazz musician and producer, it's kind of like being a therapist—you can't hide your shit from people," he said. "If I'm going to connect with someone, if you wanna be heard, I say, say it directly. I spend my time and energy trying to learn what I'm thinking, rather than holding it in. If I'm working on an album, it has to be honest, it has to go for broke without shutting down. Working eight hours a day recording, I had to find a way to communicate directly with my wife and son. If I'm going to have successful relationships, both at home and in art, the goal is to be a straight shooter. The more you do it, the better you get."

Leonhart admits winning a Grammy at the age of 17 put added pressure on him, "because I was already constantly distracted by the enormous pressure I felt of trying to play the damn trumpet."

"One thing I'm proud of is that I never really stopped to think much about the Grammy, I just kept on focusing on writing, performing and creating a fantastical world of my own," he said. "I was much more interested in looking for what new things people were creating out in the real world."

Leonhart said his influences range from such composers as Henry Mancini, Ravel, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington to Frank Zappa, Hacke Bjorksten and Elvis Costello. His favorite authors and film makers are those the exploring "whole fantasy vs. reality dynamic": Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll, and directors like Fellini, Truffaut, Luis Bunuel, Hitchcock, Wes Anderson and Woody Allen. And, naturally, Oliver Sacks.

When he can find the time to enjoy such books and movies is hard to tell, though: in addition to his growing family (he and Jamie have a 9-month-old son, Milo Quincy), Leonhart has several documentaries he's been working on, could join Donald Fagen on Fagen's solo tour in August/September, will be playing with Ben Citroen in Japan's Cotton Club, and with Morocco Lee Fields and the Expressions. He's also wrapping a soundtrack project for Dominican Republic, a movie about underwater cave diving.

"They wanted a really retro-psychedelic, late 1960s/early 1970s sound," he said. I'm also working on supervising music for a potential children's TV show—it'll be kind of a cross between Fraggle Rock and Schoolhouse Rock, and that's the goal—to add the same kind of up-to-dateness and hip vibe that those shows had in the '70s, with Joe Raposo throwing jazz and funk licks into music for The Electric Company and even Sesame Street."

Selected Discography

Michael Leonhart and The Avramina 7, Seahorse and the Storyteller (Truth and Soul Records, 2010)

Sam Sadigursky, Words Project III Miniatures (New Amsterdam Records, 2010) Michael Leonhart, Hotel Music (St. Ives, 2008)

Michael Leonhart, The Battle of Milton Quigley (2006)

Michael Leonhart, The Suzy Lattimore EP (self-produced, 2005)

Steve Tyrell, This Guy's In Love (Columbia, 2003)

Michael Leonhart, Slow (Sunny Side, 2002)

Barry Wallenstein, Tony's Blues (Cadence Jazz Records, 2001)

Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (Giant Records, 2000)

Vinicius Cantuária, Tucumã (Verve, 1999)

Michael Leonhart, Glub Glub vol. 11 (Sunny Side, 1997)

Michael Leonhart, Aardvark Poses (Sunny Side, 1995)

Photo credits

Pages 1, 4: Truth and Soul Records

Pages 2, 3, featured story: Maarten Mooijman

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