After what Canadian-born guitarist Peter Leitch
has been through in the last eight years, it's little wonder he named the ensemble he now leads the New Life Jazz Orchestra. Diagnosed in 2012 with stage 4 lung cancer, Leitch faced the choice of throwing in the proverbial towel or undergoing career-ending cancer treatment. He chose the latter, reluctantly setting aside his instrument of choice and continuing his musical career as a composer, arranger and conductor of an orchestra whose library consists largely of Leitch's smooth and genial compositions. Eight years on, Leitch's decision to set aside the guitar and focus solely on writing seems more sensible and well-advised with each passing day.
So is the pen mightier than the strings? That's hard to say; what can be affirmed is that Leitch is an able tunesmith who knows how to make a big band glisten and hum. Fourteen of the seventeen numbers on this splendid two-CD set are his, and their common denominators include Leitch's keen ear for an engaging melody and his ability to enliven said melodies and adapt them to a big-band format. Having advanced that opinion, it should be noted that Leitch's tunes are for the most part long on elegance but short on exuberance. Of the fourteen, ten might best be described as mellow or even-tempered. Not that there's anything wrong with thatbut listeners shouldn't anticipate rampant fireworks on the order of, say, Count Basie
, Woody Herman
or Buddy Rich
Among the exceptions to that rule is Disc 1's brisk, sunlit opener, "Mood for Max," dedicated to Dr. Maxim Kreditor, the oncologist who Leitch says is largely responsible for saving his life. Others housed in an upbeat framework are the picturesque "Fulton Street Suite," which closes Disc 1 on a swaggering note (thanks in part to drummer Joe Strasser
's unerring guidance); Disc 2's buoyant curtain-raiser, "Exhilaration," and Leitch's scampering salute to tenor saxophonist "Clifford Jordan
," also on Disc 2. That tune features the excellent tenor saxophonist Jed Levy
who wrote that disc's "The Minister's Son," a lively homage to pianist John Hicks
on which his tenor again takes center stage before pianist Peter Zak
adds a shimmering solo. Zak introduces Leitch's delicate arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's "Spring Is Here," which precedes a trio of Leitch's luminous originalsthe slow-paced "Back Story," "Tutwiler 2001" (a sunny vehicle for guitarist Phil Robson
) and the 12-bar blues "The Long Walk Home"that close the curtain on Disc 2.
Disc 1 also includes Leitch's charming "Portrait of Sylvia" (written for his wife); the playful, mid-tempo "Kinda, Sorta" and brief "Monk's Circle," leading to Thelonious Monk
's timeless "Round Midnight"; and two more of Leitch's amiable compositions, "Penumbra" and "Brilliant Blue, Twilight Blue." While soloists aren't named, most can be deduced from the album's personnel list. Besides Levy, Robson, Strasser and Zak, there are strong statements along the way by baritone Carl Maraghi
, trombonist Matt Haviland
, flutist Tim Harrison
and saxophonists Steve Wilson
and Dave Pietro
with nimble trumpet solos courtesy of Duane Eubanks
or Bill Mobley
. The guitar may be gone, but not the inspiration. Barred from one avenue, Leitch has found another, and it's a New Life
that seems to suit his talents as well as his temperament. Thanks, Dr. Kreditor. You've helped make that new life possible and, in so doing, have given jazz enthusiasts a windfall of marvelous music on which to groove.
Disc 1—Mood for Max (for Dr. Maxim Kreditor); Portrait of Sylvia; Sorta, Kinda; Monk’s
Circle; Round Midnight; Penumbra; Brilliant Blue, Twilight Blue; Fulton Street Suite. Disc
2—Exhilaration; Elevanses; Clifford Jordan; Ballad for Charles Davis; The Minister’s Son;
Spring Is Here; Back Story; Tutwiler 2001; The Long Walk Home.