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Michael Leonhart: Surfing on an Orchestral Wave

Ludovico Granvassu By

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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 whom—for more than 20 years—I'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 if—there was a show a week from tonight and we had no time to rehearse—we 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 heritage—Dizzy 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.

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