Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart: Humor in Harmony

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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At first, über-bassist Jay Leonhart and acclaimed trombonist Wycliffe Gordon seem an unlikely pair. Visually, they look like the Anglo poet and the star linebacker; chronologically, they're at least a generation apart. But they are both immensely talented, and their personal and musical rapport transcends any other differences between them. As relaxed and amiable as the oldest of friends, they trade their superb musicianship as naturally as conversation. They also share a sense of humor that sparkles like dry champagne. Their duo combines instrumentals and vocals, originals and standards, a dash of shtick, a little patter, and some of the most entertaining and endearing scatting since Louis Armstrong. It's all collected on their first CD, This Rhythm On My Mind (Bluesback Records, 2006), where Gordon adds tuba and didgeridoo; it also includes moments of Wayne Escoffery and Harry Allen on tenor, and Jim Saporito on percussion.

AAJ caught up with the pair recently at Gordon's office in a Harlem brownstone, a cozy, comfortable space where CDs, files, Jazz at Lincoln Center posters, memorabilia, instruments, and black-and-white pictures of jazz greats stack all the way up to the antique tinned ceiling.

All About Jazz: Just checking an item on your bio, Jay. You recorded with Ozzy Osbourne?

Jay Leonhart: And the Stray Cats. I've done a lot of goofy things like that. As a studio musician in New York, one will get strange and interesting calls. It's not like I was really in the group.

Jay Leonhart
Jay Leonhart

AAJ: And Queen Latifah?

JL: Yeah, I did her jazz record. It was pretty decent, actually. I recorded with a lot of people—I don't travel with them.

AAJ: They just leave the cash on the dresser afterward?

JL: Yup: it's thanks very much, Mr. Leonhart.

AAJ: Now to this CD of yours, which—let the record show that Wycliffe is holding the CD up to the microphone.

Wycliffe Gordon: [turning it] And there's the back side...

AAJ: I was playing it on the way down in traffic, and just grinned from ear to ear.

JL: Well, we recorded it in traffic.

AAJ: To me it's pretty new, but there's actually a long tradition of music and comedy like Slim and Slam [guitarist Bulee "Slim" Galliard and bassist Slam Stewart], and that old vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean that you mention in your song "Mr. Leonhart Mr. Gordon." So tell me how this whole thing evolved.

JL: We met because we worked a lot with [pianist] Dick Hyman over at the [92nd street] Y. It seemed that every time Dick Hyman would do a concert, Wycliffe and I were both on. So we got to enjoying each other's music, and singing and stuff, and over the years, we've threatened each other with the idea of forming a duo and doing a record together. And we kept talking about it, and finally, we put our money where our mouths were, and we decided to do it. And we had some gigs, made the record, and musically and personally it was a great deal of fun. So now we've got ourselves into it, and we're promoting the record and we're working at it, and with everything else we gotta do, this damn record is hanging over our heads, and we want to make it a success.

WG: I concur.

AAJ: Are you trying to be like Gallagher and Shean, or Slim and Slam?

JL: No. [Turning to Wycliffe] Whaddayou say?

WG: I don't think we're trying to be like them, but we're in the spirit of what they do. I mean it's good, and it's fun, and we both like things that are good and fun.

JL: I was listening a lot to to MacVouty radio [the satellite, all-Slim Galliard station]. Bass and trombone is an unusual duo, but we can pull it off with all the stuff we can do in between, with all the instruments, and messing around, and Wycliffe scat singing. We had a lot of fun filling up the empty spaces, of which there are many.

AAJ: Well, Gallagher and Shean, as far as I know, was also a dancing duo.

WG: We dance on the next CD.

Actually, I love to dance. Maybe that will be the DVD. But back to the CD—it's the communication that takes place, the talking back and forth, kind of like we're in our living room—rather than a Piece of Art, a work on the wall in a museum. It's like when Fats Waller performs: sometimes he's talking to himself; sometimes he's talking to the people. We're in the spirit of those who like to communicate with the audience, to bring the audience into the performance—it's not just music for the sake of the music, it's an event.

AAJ: And it's not the first time you've sung on a CD. On your last one [Cone's Coup (Criss Cross Jazz, 2006)], you start with "Shhhhh! The Band is Trying to Play" and end with "Hush Yo' Mouf!!" telling people to have some respect for the music. How did that come about?

WG: I was playing with a group at Dizzy's [Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center] about a year ago, and the Bill Mays Trio was performing the late set that Saturday night after the performance. Folks were festive, and the room never came down for the trio, and they were playing great music. So Sunday morning I got up, and sat down to the piano. The words were really easy: "Shhhhhh! The band is trying to play!" And I repeat that. And "It's hard to hear over all the walkin' and talkin' and jiggin' and jawkin' and pitterpatter and chitterchatter what the cats are trying to say." One person thought the song would be offensive to folks, but I find the only people who are offended by the song are the offenders themselves.

AAJ: Makes sense.

WG: We never try to offend anyone, but with "Toast My Bread," I'm always wondering whether the double entendre implied in the song is going to upset anyone in the audience. The first time I recorded this was actually in another duo, with Eric Reed [We (Nagel Heyer, 2002)]. We were performing it at a church. On the same CD we had "Precious Lord" and "The Lord's Prayer." The pastor mentioned how great it was that we were singing these kinds of things, and I wondered if he got to track number eight... it's a different version from the one on this CD [holds CD to microphone again].

AAJ: You mean there's a double entendre in "Toast My Bread?" Gee, I thought it was just a bakery item.

JL: And I thought, "Oh, you mean it's about toast too? It's a terrific song. It's a great song.

WG: I have a toaster upstairs. You've seen a toaster, haven't you?

AAJ: Yes, I have some acquaintance with it.

WG: Then you know if it's not wheat bread, it turns toasty roasty golden brown, and then it pops back up.

AAJ: And all you need is that, and you fall in love? You're easy, aren't you?

WG: Yeah, pretty much. You got bread, you got me.

AAJ: Well, moving right along... OK... what label is this on? It's your own, yes?

JL: Bluesback Records. Jay came up with that... I have a song called "I Want My Blues Back," and that's how it became Bluesback Records. We didn't really want to give it to a record company.

AAJ: You wanted complete control over it?

WG: As much control as we could have. I just had some not-so-good experiences with a few record companies, and I figured, we're writing all the material, we're going to do this, we went into the studio to do that, there's a few more steps and a little more money involved, but let's do it. And now we have to get it distributed, and get people to know about it [holds the CD up to the microphone once again].

AAJ: I see that it's shrink-wrapped.

WG: This is open-friendly.

JL: It's one of the world's easiest CDs to open. Some people don't care about the music, they just want to open the CD. Once they see how easy it is, they'll give you fifteen dollars just to open the CD.

AAJ: Well, then you're already ahead of the game.

JL: The fact is it's a good CD.

AAJ: It's a wonderful CD.

JL and WG: [singing] And our voices blend together to perfection...

AAJ: Yeah, but you doubled on that line.

JL: We quintupled.

WG: Jay sang multiple harmonies.

AAJ: You mean he's got that Tibetan monk chordal thing?

Wycliffe Gordon
Wycliffe Gordon

WG: I don't know if he went all the way to Tibet.

JL: Of course we can get the trombone, Wycliffe's voice with the trombone, my bass, and my voice—we can actually do four voices at once if we are so inclined. And we often are.

WG: The song you recently did about going through customs: between the lizards and the everything else, how the hell do you remember all of that stuff?

JL: Have you heard this?

AAJ: Nope, I haven't.

JL: "Here I am in customs/inexplicably detained/I'm getting angry/I may have to be restrained/I read the regulations/what could the problem be/why oh why are you detaining me?/OK perhaps I did pick up a couple things abroad/but this kind of harassment..." it goes on and on. Wycliffe acts like I wrote it, and then remembered it. I worked so hard on this one to remember it.

WG: There's a lot of stuff to remember.

JL: "I've got some alligators from the hot Brazilian swamps/a testy little chimpanzee that/screeches bites and stomps/an otter from the Maldives, a goat from Katmandu/a cockroach from a hut in Timbuktu/a little baby llama from the mountains of Tibet/six or seven ostrich eggs that have not hatched quite yet/mosquitoes from Botswana, a parrot from Peru/and you won't let me through?!"

WG: That's not on the CD, but we do have the first song he wrote, about little Henry.

JL: That's the first real serious song I ever wrote, when I got into songwriting 34 years ago. I was 32 at the time. I'd been writing poetry before that, but never turned one into a song—never memorized one, just wrote it and let it go.

AAJ: So what happened?

JL: I just had children, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that hey, this might be fun. I wrote a song about picking up my weekly ration of gasoline from a big machine during the first gasoline crisis in 1976, and it became a mini-hit on a few minor radio stations around the country, and I thought, this was fun. It was like the first rap. If you listen to my songs, they had so damn many words—they still do, unfortunately—but then George Burns was my favorite singer.

AAJ: I was thinking about something. The humor that is on this CD is not slap-your-knee, it's more sly. It's very sly and delicious. I was wondering whether it had anything to do with being fretless. You're both fretless: you don't fret.

JL: That's right.
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