Peter Leitch: New Life Orchestra Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“I must admit that I do miss the “in the moment” experience of playing music “live” — interacting with a good rhythm section and the exchange of energy, the action and reaction, between musicians and audience and those times when the music just takes over and makes everything worth it.”

Peter Leitch

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the great Jazz Guitarist, Composer and Arranger Peter Leitch many moons ago and a lot has changed in Peter’s life since. Not one to back down from adversity it seems, Peter has indeed created a New Life for himself and his music and in this interview he shares how he went about reinventing himself for lack of a better phrase! Enjoy! 🙂

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JGL: Hi Peter and thanks for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I’ve been listening to the two CD set of your latest musical endeavour, the New Life Orchestra Big Band and it’s a wonderful piece of work. If you could describe in one or two words what the New Life Orchestra means to you at the core of your being, what would those words be and why?

PL: Really impossible to boil it down to one or two words, especially without the “back story.” When it became physically impossible to play the guitar (due to nerve damage in my left arm from treatments for cancer) I had already considered myself retired both because of my age (It suddenly seemed that 30 years had elapsed in the blink of an eye) and the state of the music business — if one could even call it a business. However, I could not seem to rid myself of the urge to create music — all that was left was the pencil (and a good eraser). When I thought about it I realized I could conceptualize music on a much larger scale than four fingers on six strings.

JGL: Had you focused on original tunes prior to this recording?

PL: If you look back at my recorded work over the last 40 years, my albums or CDs had always contained some original music in addition to standards and blues.

JGL: Did you study – or were you interested in – orchestration prior to this?

PL:  I had always had an interest, to some degree, in arranging and orchestration but the small independent companies that I was recording for had no budget for more than a quartet or quintet (with a couple of exceptions.) I studied some texts on arranging and orchestration, and obtained a few scores by some of my favourite writers, which I studied, and started writing. The fingers on my left hand still worked, and I borrowed a good digital piano. Although I am in no way a piano player, I was able to get around the keyboard enough to work out voicings and lines.

          I must admit that I do miss the “in the moment” experience of playing music “live” — interacting with a good rhythm section and the exchange of energy, the action and reaction, between musicians and audience and those times when the music just takes over and makes everything worth it.

JGL: So why a Big Band instead of just writing for a combo or slightly larger group?

PL:  The New Life Orchestra is not really a “big band” in the traditional sense, both in the instrumentation and the use of it. I was looking for some kind of personal voice rather than what I call “formula” big band writing. I had no interest in becoming an “arranger” in the professional sense of the word. I was looking for something that sounded like a bigger band, but still had the looseness and freedom of a smaller group. I wrote a few things using an old Finale computer program, and wanted to hear what they sounded like with real instruments instead of what I was hearing from the computer. With the invaluable help of saxophonist/flautist Jed Levy, an old friend and long-time collaborator, we set up a rehearsal. When you are dealing with musicians of this calibre there is always a question of availability.

One of the great things about New York is that there are so many fantastic “A” level musicians. If someone can’t make a rehearsal or a gig there is always someone else to step in and do a great job, fitting right in at the last minute. Of course I am talking pre-pandemic here. Some of the cats I knew, and some Jed knew. You know, that shit didn’t sound too bad, and I was encouraged by the musicians to keep writing. I was learning a lot — for example things like giving the musicians not enough or too much information on the parts, or learning when to give the brass players a rest. Things like that.

        The particular instrumentation that I had chosen sometimes used combinations that weren’t always “self balancing” like standard brass and reed sections are, so dynamics were very important, especially in a live situation. These things can usually be dealt with in the recording studio. I must have been thinking about recording when I wrote some of it. I kept writing and then a surprising thing happened. A man who I had known for a long time — a real fan who used to hang out at Walker’s  — opened a jazz club (the Club 75 in lower Manhattan) and gave us a string of performances. Playing “live” in front of an audience really helped develop and tighten the sound of the band. We had a number of great soloists in the group, and it was important to leave them a lot of space, and I preferred to keep the written backgrounds simple.

JGL: What – if any – were the challenges in writing for 15 musicians with obviously very unique personalities and musical voices?

PL: Most of my experience as a leader up to this point consisted of introducing the musicians and the tunes, counting them off and playing. All of a sudden here I was an actual non-playing bandleader — using the microphone, conducting the band (I couldn’t conduct worth a damn), even trying to tell a few jokes. Whew! Fortunately the music itself and the musicians needed very little actual conducting, and several of the guys were very helpful.

After these gigs we went into the studio. We managed to record over two hours of music in two days, just before the pandemic and the big lock down hit us. My doctor told me, “No! Stay home” when I told him I had to return to the studio for post-production. It was at least 3 months before I was able to return to the studio to edit, mix and master the record. The idea behind the two CD format was to set up and sequence the music to “tell a story,” the two CDs corresponding to two sets of music, with an intermission, as they might be performed “live” in a concert or club. This accounts for the different spaces between the pieces. 

After a number of intense editing and mixing sessions, working with the great engineer David Darlington, and the CDs were mastered and released, I was completely drained and totally unable to listen to or even think about music for about 3 months.

JGL: I believe – with the exception of Monk’s “Round Midnight” – that the rest of the 17 tunes featured on the CD are originals. Were you surprised that there was enough original music in you for two CD’s worth just coming out of the gate so to speak? Were these tunes you already had in your book or were they new pieces written specifically for this project?

PL: Most of the music was new, but there were several older compositions that I developed and expanded for the band, as well as “Round Midnight,”  “Spring Is Here” and “The Minister’s Son,” a composition of Jed Levy’s which I arranged to feature him as a soloist.

JGL: You feature Jazz Guitarist Phil Robson a lot on NLO. He’s a marvelous player and I can see why you would want him to sit in the guitar chair. What was it about him originally that sparked your interest and did he have relative free rein or was there a lot of direction on your part to guide him through the charts?

PL:  I was always interested in blending or integrating the guitar into an ensemble with horns, so at first I wrote a couple of what you might call guitar features. I had a couple of well-known players in mind for these, but I didn’t think I was ready for this. Jed had met Phil Robson somewhere, and thought I would like him. Phil is British, and I don’t think he had been in N.Y. that long. I was knocked out with his playing! He is a very modern player, yet he is thoroughly grounded in the tradition and was a very good reader. So on some of the pieces he just read the parts, and on others he was sort of on his own. He had some pedals and things and I would tell him “Do something with the volume pedal here, or try some sustain there,” or whatever. I didn’t tell him what to do, but just suggest where he might try some different sounds. He instinctively knew what fit the context at any given time. Phil has since returned to the U.K., perhaps for the duration of this awful pandemic.

JGL: With titles like “Portrait of Sylvia”, “Clifford Jordan”, “Ballad for Charlie Davis”, “Exhilaration” and “Long Walk Home” to name but a few, where did these titles come from and does each one have a personal story?

PL: I think that a lot of the music that people compose is somewhat autobiographical. My titles often refer to people, places, events, or music that has deeply moved me in some way over the years. For example – “Exhilaration” refers to how I felt arriving in New York City in 1982. It was the city of my dreams. Some titles refer to colors, shades and the play of light, reflecting my interest in photography. The poetry and inflections of the blues are usually there in the music somewhere, albeit in different forms or shapes. The people named in the titles are more or less self evident: “Portrait of Sylvia” is for my wonderful wife whose love and support literally kept me alive during the most severe crises of my medical issues. “Ballad for Charles Davis” is for the late saxophonist with whom I played duets. It was like playing with the entire history of Black American music – Charles had worked with everyone, from Kenny Dorham to Lloyd Price to Spike Lee, and on and on! Clifford Jordan is another saxophonist – composer whose music has always inspired me.

JGL: Have you considered writing for other bands, be they Big Bands or smaller groups?

PL: I am really not interested in writing for other bands, be they large or small. I have so much more to learn, and I am a very slow worker; also I find the idea of any kind of deadline horrifying unless there is some real money involved. That said, I think I would enjoy writing something for a specific featured soloist with the New Life Orch., whomever that might be.

JGL: Peter – This may be too personal a question and if so I apologize and please do not feel that you need to respond to it. I just feel that it might be of great help to someone who is facing a similar outcome. As you came to the realization that you would no longer be playing guitar, was there a moment or two where you figured that your musical life was over and done with? Was there a moment or two of self-pity and if so, how did you go about coming to terms with your loss?

PL:  Those who have read my published memoir Off The Books (Vehicule Press) will be aware that I have been dealing with depression and some sort of borderline bipolar condition for most of my life. Not being able to play was just one more issue among the ups and downs. I mostly thought about staying alive, given my recent medical history. I just let the depression kind of wash through, although the combination of innate shyness and depression probably held me back in some ways. However I was able to work during the “up” phases. In the meantime the pandemic goes on and on. As I kept hearing someone say in a commercial on the radio, “Nothing is normal, and everything is weird.”

JGL: What does the future hold for Peter Leitch?

PL: Eventually I will get back to writing music, but to what purpose?  Live performances with an audience would be great, but who knows what the post-pandemic future will bring? The arts and music are always the first to go, and the last to come back, but they are also the hardest to kill!

JGL: Thank you Peter for your time and candor and nothing but the best for the future!

PL: Thank you Lyle.

Please consider spreading the word about Peter and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We would love to hear from you 🙂

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