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 andthrough the wallshearing 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
: This integration of different elements, different instruments, was part of an organic continuum. So it is no surprise that you have spent a considerable amount of time working in other genres. Coming from a jazz perspective what do you bring to those projects and what do you bring back to jazz after having worked on them? ML
: There's no cookie cutter answer. Depends on what artist you are working with. I agree with Björk
when she says that you should always work with people who are better than you so you can learn from them. When you're talking about that caliber of artist or musician that you're collaborating with, their talent, their skill-set, their experience will dictate what you learn.
To be honest, however, I never think of how those experiences influence me as a jazz musician, because I've had a complicated relationship with jazz. I've often felt that maybe I don't fit in with "what a true jazz musician is supposed to be." I've operated beyond that realm for a long time. But I adore jazz music. Its spirit is the same as rock to me. They both share a strong fearlessness.
So to answer your question, I don't think within that framework of "how did doing x influenced me as a jazz musician." I just never thought about it in those terms. But if I look back at certain projects, I could tell you how certain artists have influenced me.
A clear example is Sunken Condos
, the Donald Fagen
album on which I worked for so long. That experience shows itself in many different ways. Weekly if not daily. Being that close to him, observing his brilliance and the way he approaches making music, the care that he puts into each detail, has definitely shaped the way I work. Some people have called him a perfectionist. If asked about it he would say "Oh, I wish it was easier, but it's not." It's not a conscious choice. This is the only way he knows how to create. Like Matisse. He thinks in a way that reminds me of Stanley Kubrick making films. There is a beauty to it. He didn't strike me as really caring about how people perceived his work. He just goes "Let's proceed step by step. We're building a song. We're building a recording. Here's a lyric." There is a real kind of zen approach that has really influenced me. There's a certain calm and confidence that you can't fake. The label might want the project done in three weeks, three months, but he has the confidence to just say "it's going to be what it's going to be." That's powerful. AAJ
: Is this how you have approached your work with your Orchestra? ML
: Definitely. When we play live we are anywhere between 13 and 15 musicians and can go up all the way to 25 players. People in the music business have told me, "if you get it down to seven people, you could tour it a lot more," which is cool. We did a show with what was eight people in the orchestra and I enjoyed it a lot. But it also made me realize that I preferred having 13-15 people. I missed the actual weight, having more elements to conduct, the amount of physical sound that's produced in a room from three brass, two percussions, having bassoon, having strings... And while I don't want to shoot myself in the foot, there is this Fagen element in me that goes "pardon me... You know what? It's important to me to keep that number of musicians." To not fold and say, "well I'll just try and do it. I'll just make it seven people because it'll be easier to tour now." If this decision makes it a little harder to get off the ground or takes a little longer to establish, so be it. It's really what I feel in my bones. And that's to stay true to the vision, not just to be stubborn. But as I hear what we did and I see the joy of the musicians and the audience, I feel in my heart that we've done something unique. And that's what it's all about. Creating that feeling in the room. AAJ
: How did this vision evolve? How did it develop from an idea to a reality? ML
: I consider myself fortunate enough to have had many requests to arrange or play, orchestrate or produce. It keeps me busy, sometimes at the cost of not making time for my own stuff. This is a conscious choice and I can't blame anyone else. I also realize that sometimes, when faced with the internal struggles that making a project as a leader bring, it's easier to say "I'm going to produce this person's album or write songs for that other person, I'll do that film score...."
The last solo album I released was The Seahorse and the Storyteller
in 2010. It was an afrobeat funk, rather than jazz, album. And after that we did a bunch of shows and then I was doing more producing and arranging and orchestrating... Around 2012, I was finishing Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos
. While I was on the road with some group, Nels Cline
, who had become a good friend, mentioned to me this idea he had been working on for 25 years. It was about a "mood album," which was going to be entitled Lovers
. He told me that he'd love me to arrange a couple of things. I said "Sure, sounds fascinating." Then he would be on the road or I would be on the road. From time to time we started talking about it again. He would tell me how difficult it was to get it off the ground. I kept telling him that it sounded like a great project that he should pursue. After being on the road again, we'd meet up again. Over time he told me that the songs he wanted me to arrange were not two or three, but more but like six or seven. Then we'd split. When we met again he explained to me that the album would have 19 compositions on it and it would be for about for a 20 to 25 piece orchestra.
He showed me this great list of material. "The Search for Cat" by Henry Mancini was on his list. I said "What the hell is that?" He said "It's a cue." I said "I know what it is, but you're one of only three people I've ever met who knows that composition!" "The Search for Cat" is this gorgeous cue from the very end of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" that Henry Mancini wrote for when Audrey Hepburn is getting out of the cab in the rain. She is looking for the cat and she's fighting with George Peppard... It's not on any soundtracks. It was released only recently on Cherry Red Records, but it wasn't on the original LP or on the first CD releases of it. You had to search it out! I remember rewinding the movie on our VHS and play it over and over again, with my sister, because it was just so incredible! Mancini composed it adapting the melody of "Moon River." For a large part it is in an odd meter, it's got all this string counterpoint and it's kind of planing with these minor chords. It's very sophisticated. It almost sounds like something that Q-Tip would have sampled and manipulated for a Tribe Called Quest.
So here is Nels talking about this obscure cue that he wanted to do for orchestra to me. A light bulb went off for both of us and we realized that we were on the same page. And he asked again and I said "I'd love to do it. I got to transcribe that cue though. It doesn't really exist. I know Henry Mancini's daughters and his widow. I could try to chase down the manuscript if there still was one. But it would be in a vault somewhere in California. So it has to be transcribed and then we'll go from there." We started getting deeper into six or seven compositions, but seven or eight pieces became 10 or 11. And eventually I did the whole album... It was a lot of work. It was a joy working with Nels. Lin-Manuel Miranda said that he felt like a mosquito that had struck a vein for blood when he was writing the musical "Hamilton." And I was feeling the same. I was loving it. As I was working my way through all those songs it reminded me of sitting at the piano when I was younger, as I mentioned before. Ideas kept flowing...
Then we went into the studio and I conducted the orchestra. Afterwards, lots of musicians would come out to me and say "You know, it has been such a pleasure having you conducting us. When are you going to do more?" It's a lot of work to sit down and write that much material, whether composing or arranging. And then it's a lot of work to get the musicians together. I also knew that getting 50 musicians together wasn't going exactly to make money. But something had been awakened in me and at that point it didn't matter. This was something I had to do. And so after we finished recording Lovers
with Nels and we knew that the album was going to come out, even though we didn't know exactly when, tons of ideas for arrangements started coming out. I thought of a "Wu-Tang Suite" inspired by the work I'd done with the Wu-Tang Clan & El Michels Affair. I thought about arrangements of music by Milton Nascimento
, Serge Gainsbourg
, Frank Zappa
. The faucet was on and water kept pouring in. I have this book of arrangements I almost can't keep up with. Some of these arrangements come very quickly. For others I have to sit and struggle, but that struggle is still such a pleasure. AAJ
: How does your "faucet" work? What draws you towards certain compositions, especially if they were written by other composers, and makes you think they'll work for the Orchestra? ML
: On a rare occasion I'll listen to a song and know immediately that it'll work. I can hear it. I can envision how good it's going to be live. But for the most part it's a two or three step process. I have a list of songs that I keep in a note book. I may come up with a new composition to add to that list while I am walking the dog or I am out in the nature. Then I will go through those compositions in my head. I might conclude they might not work because they would fall flat or are too long. When I think the composition is going to work it's then a matter of sitting down for about a day or so and orchestrating it. When I stared working on "Big Bottom" from "Spinal Tap" I sensed that it would be cool to play it but it took a day or two of walking around and asking myself "How do I not make this cheesy?." The same happened with a Prince song we did , "Computer Blue," which was fun and ended up as a mash-up of Thelonious Monk
's "Blue" and "Computer Blue" becauseand I was surprised to find out as I started working on itthose early eighties typical Prince rhythms didn't lend themselves too well without the vocals, they were almost robotic.
I can hear a lot of things in my head. Being very comfortable with studio work I have a better sense for recording my music. As far as live performances are concerned, when I want to let the musicians breathe life into my music, I may have to guess more. In the end it's a matter of trial and error, as it should be. But that also depends on the material. For instance, my arrangement of "Miracle of the Fishes" by Milton Nascimento did not leave the band much space to adapt things, because it had taken me a while to "reverse engineer" it and transcribe it. It contains specific sections from which I didn't want to edit anything out. The Fela Kuti
stuff is difficult for another reason. As the band leader, you have to really stay on top of people to not elaborate and to not add anything to it. It's like James Brown
. It's a house of cards and if one person adds too much and starts riffing the whole thing, the balance is gone and it becomes something very different. I've been fortunate enough to have a bunch of people who have spent a lot of time playing in Antibalas
and so they speak that language, and that's all there is to it. It's like understanding the cadence, the volume... I heard this great story from a guy who spent time with Fela Kuti's drummer, Tony Allen
. He said that one of the reasons why Tony Allen played the way he played is that that band grew up playing on stages where there was very little amplification. Only the singer had a microphone, so you had to come up with this incredible groove, but if you played powerfully, the singer was going to kill you. AAJ
: While you were developing this repertoire, how did you build the Orchestra, how did you select its members? ML
: There were a couple of musicians who I just knew had to be involved. Dan Freedman
was one of them. I went to high school with Dan even though at that time we weren't super close. We have become much closer in the last five to 10 years I would say. He is a great drummer, he is both curious and ambitious. I love his childlike curiosity. I knew he would be a perfect fit. At the moment he's touring with David Byrne so he'll be missing some of the next shows... On bass I knew I wanted Joe Martin
, with whomfor more than 20 yearsI've worked every time I've been able to. He is one of those musicians that make anything he works on sound better. That's why, for instance, I asked him to play on Donald Fagen's Sunken Condo
. In addition, I knew that soloists would be important, and Donny McCaslin
was the ideal choice. We've met over two decades ago but we got to know each other better when our kids went to the same school and we discussed about the idea of working together. I asked him whether he would be interested in taking part in some recordings with the Orchestra and he said "sure!" He didn't even ask how much it pays, when and where... The first time he came he played on a couple of tunes and afterwards he said that he'd love to play live with the Orchestra whenever he could. He's spectacular and with his solos he creates a kind of momentum like very few people can. The rest of the horn section is also phenomenal. It includes Philip Dizack
, who is a fabulous trumpet player, his tone is so rich and Carter Yasutake, with whom I had worked on a project by David Byrne and St. Vincent. He has this great feeling as well as a deep understanding of afrobeat music and he's also a fun guy to work with. Jordan McLean
and Ray Mason
, with whom I had worked in Antibalas and with the Dap Tones had this kind of "edge." I had met Sarah Schoenbeck while working on Nels' album. No one plays the bassoon like her. With Jason W. Marshall
I played on a bunch of sessions for the soundtrack of "The Get Down," the Netflix's series. He was such a funny guy and had this very "Ellingtonian" sound on baritone saxophone, that I figured out he'd be great in the Orchestra. Sam Sadigursky
is just monstrous on clarinets.
I knew that I didn't want to have a piano because that takes up a lot of space. I decided to have an accordion instead. You can do amazing things with the accordion. It can play single notes with horns, it adds different textures, it can be a solo instrument... A couple people have done it, Will Holshouser
and Nathan Koci
In the end, these were all friends that I loved working with. My criterion was that I wanted people that wouldn't show up late, wouldn't cancel. I wanted to work with people that really got off on the music and are able to be "in the moment" with an almost child-like enjoyment, rather than focusing on how much the gig pays. In the end I've managed to put together an amazing crew of people. AAJ
: What are the differences between the work you have done with Nels Cline on Lovers
and the experience you have had so far with your Orchestra? ML
: The major difference is that with my Orchestra I knew that it would be very important to have enough arrangements in the book that ifthere was a show a week from tonight and we had no time to rehearsewe would be able to make it work. When I saw The Miingus Band play at the Time Cafe, I could see that Mingus was a genius composer but that he also had enough things in the book that he could just play by feel and with his eyes closed. And if you can do that, you can always put on a great show as long as you have great players. If you're a prisoner to things that need to be rehearsed because they are four or five pages long you're stuck if you don't have many rehearsals. So, initially, my mantra was to have arrangements that were only one or two pages long so that you could play them with music stands and no rehearsals.
There are exceptions, of course. At one point I was going through my list and "Miracle of the Fishes" by Milton Nascimento popped up and broke all the rules because that chart needs to be well rehearsed. If you do it in one rehearsal, it doesn't work. It cannot be just good, it has to be great. If you sense the rhythm section, counting the five measures really takes you out of the dream. So it has to be fluid but the payoff is so incredible that I love having it in the book. Another exception was the "Psycho Suite" which we played soon after the 2016 presidential elections. It was based on Bernard Herman's soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." I was amazed that the orchestra didn't need that long to rehearse it. But we certainly needed three hours because you have to really understand how the harmonies come out and what your role is in the chord. It's quite unforgiving.
Another difference with the work I did for Lovers
is that while we were rehearsing and then performing for our first shows with my Orchestra at Rockwood Music Hall, I thought that it would be really cool to have no microphones. So other than the bass amp and a microphone for the flute all other players had no microphones. We had trumpets and trombones on the venue's balcony, which is like having wide stereo. The first advantage is that you don't have to wait for sound check. In addition, you're only hearing the musicians in the room and they are "mixing themselves." Of course, if the venue requires it or if you add vocalists, we can introduce a sound system and work with it. But if it's not necessary I like to work acoustically and have the musicians balance themselves. AAJ
: Being both composer, arranger and conductor of the Orchestra how do you manage the tension between trying to stay close to the ideas on your charts and the desire to give sufficient room to the members of the Orchestra? ML
: There is not much of a tension, actually. First of all, it's just me versus 15 or 17 of them, so if there was a battle I would not be the one winning it. More importatly, I consider them like family. I face them in the same way as the audience does. There's an intimacy there as I'm looking at these people that I really care about. I just want to let them speak. It's almost like a play date with my son, Milo, and his friends. I may be in charge of it, I will try to help them stay safe and get to the finishing line, but there's no way I'm going to control all of them. So it's as an exercise, it's going to be what's going to be. There are going to be mistakes. It's not about trying to have it "movie perfect." It's about trying to corral these elements together in a way that takes it to another level. There are times when at the end of a 75 minutes set it's hard to imagine that so much time has gone by. It is like being in an altered state, just like surfing on a wave.
On top of that, these are people that I really respect and trust. Things don't always happen exactly the way I want but they are just as good because their musicianship is so strong. When something starts going in the wrong direction, someone feels it, possibly someone in the rhythm section, and they come in and rescue it. These are all musicians that either come from jazz or some sort of improvisatory music and their instincts are great. We've developed this trust and playfulness that affords us with the safety to experiment. Sometimes I can shout something to them like a football coach or a quarterback and say, "okay, now bang, boom." And they bring it back up... AAJ
: Besides writing and conducting you're also sometimes taking a trumpet solo. In your arrangements when do you give a solo spot to yourself and how is it to have to quickly shift gears from conducting to soloing? ML
: I think that for the first two concerts at Rockwood Music Hall, in September 2016, I didn't really play a lot of trumpet. That was because I was aware of the fact that I have a tendency to add too much to the pot, and get a bit too intense. With the Orchestra I wanted to go slow and try and have something less manic. That came out of a realization I had had working with Nels on Lovers
. It became clear that by conducting I could get all the boxes checked in terms of what I love and it's just me up there waving my arms, so I could try and be a little more restrained in terms of how much I'm trying.
After those shows the band felt so good that I really wanted to play something over it. There's a long heritageDizzy Gillespie
, Harry James
, Louis Prima
of band leaders that, all of a sudden, would just step up and blow their horns up front. So I said to myself "Okay, let me spend a little time figuring out what piece I should solo on." Initially it was on Fela Kuti's "Opposite People." Later on, my son had been listening to "Shamed" from Aardvark Poses
and I thought that that I could solo on that tune. I tried to mindfully figure out a way to do it seamlessly within the set without suddenly being me like monkey boy, now conducting, then playing trumpet then maybe singing a song or whatever it is that I'm doing. Now there's a certain simplicity to it but it is an evolving thing. AAJ
: Let's talk about your new album The Painted Lady Suite
. Why did you choose to use the form of a suite? ML
: I have always loved Ellington's suites. It's a brilliant and elegant way to present a body of music. 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. The question was to determine what would be within the suite. Would it be original music? Would it be arrangements of other people's compositions?
One of the things I've done in between all the projects I've been involved with has been film scoring, which I love. It involves a different way of thinking, but it still occupies the same part of my brain, especially when you get into orchestrating and using different sonic solutions, which are hard to use in pop music. If you're working with a great story and with a wonderful director, you can try some incredible things. Think about Ennio Morricone
, Nino Rota
, Quincy Jones
... They were fearless. Their soundtracks contain people playing spoons and whistling and different sounds... and you know, so I was always curious about what you could do in a soundtrack and how to apply that to an orchestra.
So over time I wrote a number of suites, like the "Wu-Tang Suite," which I mentioned earlier, and the "Chess Suite," which was inspired by both my son learning chess and the music on Chess Records, whose releases are a treasure trove of material by people like Muddy Waters
and Howlin' Wolf
. But on my list I had an idea for a suite entitled "The Painted Lady Suite." Its inception came from being on a field trip with my son for a butterfly exhibit in Central Park. My attention was drawn by the name of one of these butterflies, the painted lady, and then I saw the butterfly, which is a gorgeous looking creature. So I wrote that name down. I was also aware that the term had multiple meanings, ladies of the night, the painted lady buildings which are townhouses in San Francisco. And at some point I thought maybe I could put all that together but I felt it would be a little bit chaotic. So I decided to just focus on the butterfly. The narrative of what those creatures were doing influenced the structure of the suite.
I ended up learning a lot about these butterflies and a lot of little fascinating things. The painted lady butterflies are the longest migrating creatures butterflies on the planet, they go much further than the monarch butterfly, for instance. Scientists could not understand how they could travel along those patterns and why they could not see them until they realized the butterflies were flying so high... And I thought they also lent themselves to a symbolic and political metaphor, considering what was going on and is going on in the country about migration and immigration.
I chose to break the suite into two parts. The first four parts are inspired by the North American path, which the painted lady butterflies start off in Mexico and takes them across the United States into Canada; the following three parts of the suite are inspired by the other migration path which takes them from way up in the Arctic circle down South to Europe and northern Africa. Sights, sounds, textures and colors and all the things that those migration paths evoke just came pouring out as great sources of inspiration for the suite. AAJ
: That is a really fascinating concept, and the seven parts of the suite feel like parts of a continuum and a journey, even though they are all quite distinctive. Was there an autobiographical aspect in the choice of the travelling butterfly, continuously on the road, going from country to country and absorbing the local inputs and changing in the process... like you do as a musician constantly on tour? ML
: I haven't consciously thought of it that way. But when I hear you say it, it's in there. I'm fascinated by that. The reality of any musician, unless you work exclusively a studio musician, is a nomadic one. The interesting thing is that as a kid I used to get homesick when I went to summer camps. This was until I played music. Somehow when I started playing music, a lot of my anxieties went away. And it's funny that while it was tough for me to spend six weeks away from my parents, now I may go on the road for six or 12 weeks, and I see it in a very different way.
One of the biggest changes in this regard, and this is something I talk about a lot with my wife, has been becoming a parent and being responsible for a life other than my own. In this case, creating a life with my wife, who is my closest friend. With my son growing up so fast, there is a constant change, if not transformation, that makes you see things differently. Milo is going to turn nine soon, and through him I am constantly reminded of what I was like at eight, or nine. But I'm also looking at the way that he looks at life. At this point he loves playing soccer, and if it was up to him, he wouldn't ever stop playing soccer. I get that. On the other hand, how do you learn how to have control of your impulses? At what age do you do that? This is something that we all struggle with, but somehow as adults we've found a way to not just follow every impulse, yet have we watered down some sort of creative impulses? So it's fascinating to see what happens. We get older and our parents and our parent's friends are grandparents die and there's a cycle of life. And now I see 20 year olds that I realize taht I've known since they were babies. So it's all in there. Going back to the painted lady butterflies and the migration route they follow is that it takes them six generations from when they start in Mexico to when they arrive in Canada. It means that somehow, despite their tiny little brains, they know the path they have to follow despite the fact that the previous generation died, and that will happen five more times before they reach their destination. How does that happen? AAJ
: Let's stick with this inter-generational metaphor. As a band-leader you have your idols that you have looked up to and learned from. What would you hope that future generations of band-leaders, especially large-ensemble leaders, will remember you for? ML
: If I can give someone goosebumps, if I can make all the fatigue, anxiety and stuffy reality of the day go away and take people to a place where you're experiencing a higher-level joycall it any emotion you want, love, ecstasy, passion, fear, even angerthat's an incredible thing to see. Sometimes when I turn around and I see that the entire audience is moving because they just can't help it, that's an incredible thing. I'm looking at people and they really look "in the moment." They're not concerned about what happened earlier or what is going to happen afterwards. That's a great place to be at. Whether that's achieved through melody rhythm, harmony, dissonance, counterpoint, that's secondary. That transcendental kind of thing is what matters. I've always felt that with Ellington and the other great composers. They really, they really know how to bring you there! AAJ
: In this day and age, when people have such a short attention span, especially in how people experience music, distractedly, creating a long suite is quite radical... ML
: I don't know if a most radical thing. But I am very aware of the fact that at a time when the music business and the recorded industry are in a very tenuous place, it is most important for live music to continue. If you can get people off their phones and in a room listening to live music, that's an incredible thing that should continue. And that was one of the reasons I thought about an orchestra that blurs the lines between genres.
People are talking about the future being about pop songs that are one minute long, rather than the current three minutes. And the fact that people don't buy albums or they just buy songs. Is writing a suite a punk move, a counter-culture move? I don't know. I certainly I didn't think about it that way when I embarked in this project.
In the end I would love to try to sell some records or the equivalent of it so that we can make another album. The ultimate goal is to keep on doing it, like film-makers make movies after movie. Tell a story, try to tell a powerful story and be able to tell another one after that. It's my dream to do one album a year. One year it could be a suite, the next year a collaboration with singers, etc. The sky's the limit. If I can mix it up that'll be the dream.
Photo credit: Shervin Lame