Michael Leonhart: Surfing on an Orchestral Wave

Ludovico Granvassu By

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Writing suites is a very structured way of having a containment to which I can then be rebellious. It allows me a framework within which to paint
If one were to find an answer to the age-old "nature or nurture" debate, s/he would have to look no further than The Painted Lady Suite [Sunnyside Records]. Listening to the stunning debut album by the Michael Leonhart Orchestra makes it clear that major achievements are only possible when nature and nurture are well integrated and perfectly balanced.

Take Michael Leonhart, an artist blessed by nature with a superior talent that was nurtured by a musical family. His nature, however, included not only an artistic talent but also the instinct to nurture it further, through meaningful, challenging and rewarding collaborations. It also included the drive to work hard and the generosity of those that choose to lead large ensembles, or to produce or arrange other people's music. That generosity, in turn, was nurtured by the commitment and respect of the musicians he has worked with.

His Orchestra has the ability to shred but elects to build. Going the distance because that is what nature meant it to do. As such, its course mirrors that of the painted lady, a butterfly that follows an annual migration path that spans over six generations and 9,000 miles from Mexico to the Arctic circle and down to Africa. His Orchestra moves forward unencumbered by stylistic confines, like a painted lady flying oblivious of the boundaries it crosses on its path. In the process, Michael Leonhart goes through a metamorphosis of his own, a musician turned sound-painter who then embraces his destiny as story-teller.

All of this is manifest in the grooves of The Painted Lady Suite, which sounds like a love letter to a yesteryear when elegance trumped ostentation, subtlety was more important than force, and the human factor mattered more than technology. Seen from this vantage point The Painted Lady Suite is counter-culture at its purest; a reaction and a challenge to an age prone to gimmicks and mired with a short attention span.

We met Michael Leonhart to talk about his new album, working with Nels Cline and Steely Dan, and how facing an Orchestra of friends can feel like surfing on a wave.

To listen to music from The Painted Lady Suite, as well as to excerpts of this interview, play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz [starting at 36:14].

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning. What are your memories of growing up in a musical family like yours?

Michael Leonhart: I remember very clearly waking up early in the morning and—through the walls—hearing the low frequency of my father [Jay Leonhart] playing the bass. He was always fascinated with intervals and so he practiced, often playing intervals. That sound would just go deep inside my brain. My mother, Donna, also played an important role. She has an incredible record collection and she was always playing tons of albums. She grew up in Brooklyn in a very fast and frantic household. Music was her salvation. When she was 18 or 19, she started venturing into Manhattan, and especially the jazz clubs of the Village, like the Village Gate and the Village Vanguard. She just threw herself into that world and was fascinated with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, even some of the avant-garde players. So there was always music floating around the house. And then you add into that my sister Carolyn, who's three years older than me, was always singing. By the time she was eight and I was five, we were doing commercials as we had a good ear. And when I wasn't doing that I was drawing and painting or playing sports.

AAJ: How did you get into playing the trumpet?

ML: I wasn't an extrovert in terms of singing and finding the right instrument was far from easy. One day my mom, could not find a babysitter, so she had to take me with her to my sister's piano teacher. I instantly liked the sound of the piano. So I sat down at the piano but teacher immediately said, "no, no, no, no, no, you have to use your fingers like this...." In my mind I went "Screw this. I don't want to be told what to do. Forget piano!" About a year later, when I was nine or nine and a half, I tried the violin and I was able to create a good sound. The teacher said that I had a natural talent, but I didn't want to pursue it because I didn't like having to stand while playing. And then I got interested in playing drums. There was a great drummer in our building, Bobby Shanken. Since he couldn't have a drum set in the apartment building, we had a snare pad and told me that if I liked it I could use it and learn how to do paradiddles and all these different patterns... but I wanted to play a real drum kit. I wanted to be making music, not just playing on a soft pad. Once again, my parents accepted my decision.

I don't know why, but at some point I said "I'd like to play a horn. A saxophone would be excellent but is going to be too loud. I'll play trumpet!" The logic behind that still escapes me... My mother used to listen to Miles Davis all the time. So maybe my reasoning was based on hearing Miles playing with a mute, and Miles was not particularly loud on those albums with Gil Evans.

I'm realizing this as we speak, but perhaps I thought that way because that was around 1984, when the saxophone was all over pop music playing extremely loud. So in my mind the saxophone was very loud and trumpet was like Miles. Once again my parents were supportive. They said "If you still want to play trumpet in two days, we'll get you one. Sleep on it..." Two days later I said "I still want to play trumpet."

My dad took me down to Manny's Music on 48th street. He left the car double parked outside the store. He knew everybody there. He didn't pick the most expensive trumpet. He chose a nice functioning trumpet. We tried it out and we bought it, and I still have it. We got in the car and he said "Okay, do you want to play it? I said, yeah, I want to play it. While driving back home when we had to stop at red lights, he would say, okay, now you can play. And I would go and I would play and immediately I could make a good sound on it, which happens for some people, but it was not a given. But what's interesting is that I could actually play soon thereafter. I had a pretty good range for just picking up the horn and immediately in school I got all the solos which kind of pissed off some of my fellow students.

AAJ: How were your first months playing the trumpet?

ML: As I mentioned, I could play the trumpet right off. But then six months into a year I kind of plateaued. 30 years later I can understand that much better. Even though I had a natural ability to make a sound, developing endurance and playing with a focused and proper technique were a completely different thing. Some days I could hit a high C and the next two days I couldn't. Then three days later I could hit a high D etc. There was a lot of inconsistency. Also, at the time, very large trumpet mouthpieces were in vogue, which means you have to work harder to play consistently, especially if you are a 10 and a half years old kid. So I started taking lessons.

What matters is that I wanted to be playing all day long at home. After 10 minutes of trumpet, my lips would be shaking. I just couldn't continue. It's like trying to do 100 pushups. If your body won't do it, there's nothing you can do about it. So I would go over to the piano and I would study scores and I would put on albums and I would sit and play along. I would do 10 minutes on a trumpet, 40 minutes on piano, seven minutes on trumpet, 20 minutes on piano. I would go back to the trumpet and try and do another 10, but I couldn't, so I would do an hour and a half on piano and try and figure out all these different chords I heard from Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, all the way to Stravinsky. So -already at that early age -this process set in motion the duality of being a trumpet player and also being what they call an arranger-pianist or a composer-pianist who can sit and play harmonies and counterpoint even though he doesn't have great speed and dexterity, but is very comfortable. This way I learned to visualize all the harmonies. And soon thereafter I began a composing and arranging. Even if I didn't know what arranging was, I was sort of reverse-engineering things that I was hearing.

AAJ: What was that drew you towards jazz in particular?

ML: Jazz and the American songbook were around the house the most. I grew up in a family of jazz musicians. Regardless of whether my mother was professional or not, jazz is the language that she loved. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Joe Williams... that was what she listened to. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Ellington... that's what was around. My dad loved Bach, Mozart... but strangely enough, one of his favorite non-jazz groups was Steely Dan. So he would play that music all the time. When their album Aja came out I was three or four years old, and he would play it during our car trips. He did the same with their next record, Gaucho, and with Donald Fagen's The Nightfly. I remember being fascinated by those harmonies, those extended chords that I was also hearing in Debussy and Stravinsky. My dad also loved James Brown and what I heard there was this incredible groove and the lining up of all these guitar figures, bass lines, horn riffs. That kind of funk was like aural architecture. And that also just flipped me out. As my sister and I got older, she became fascinated with Michael Jackson and hip hop and rap. She was never a big Beatles fan. She didn't love classic rock. She never got into Led Zepplin but she loved Chaka Khan, soul... So this was the music that was in the house and that's what I knew from the earliest time.

I also grew up in New York where you couldn't walk down the street without hearing nine kinds of different music. So it was all there and I never saw the difference between all those genres, especially taking into account how Stravinsky kept breaking the rules all the time, and the sam did Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn... You weren't supposed to add those kinds of clusters. And then Gil Evans. Listen to the arrangements of Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead... there's a real freedom there. I also went through a rebellious period where I was into, or discovered, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, late Coltrane, which my parents didn't really listen to even though they had lived through those years. It was fun to hear their take on that music but it was very abstract to them. So my way of rebelling was putting on Sun Ra or Jaki Byard...



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