My first ever introduction to Big Band music was when I was around eleven years of age. My mom had a copy of Sinatra at the Sands featuring Frank and the Count Basie Band under the direction of Quincy Jones. At that point in my life I had no clue who – or what – I was listening to, but I do remember that the excitement, energy and power completely grabbed me and I have been a Big Band fan ever since! So when I heard that New York Jazz Guitarist/Composer/Arranger Peter Leitch was releasing a two CD set of mostly original tunes in a Big Band setting, I had high hopes that once again I’d be captivated by the sounds and textures connected with that particular format! Well I am happy to report that Leitch did not disappoint in the least.
The Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra – so named for a couple of reasons that you can read about here – features fifteen top shelf players that give Leitch’ musical voice a whole-new dimension, a re-branding if you will.
Primarily known as an eminent world-class Jazz Guitarist, composer and staunch torch bearer of the American Song-Book, Leitch has had to shift his priorities somewhat from the guitar fret-board to the pen and paper mechanics of music making. Which he has done with nary a change in professional stature, at least to my ears.
New Life, the two CD set, features fifteen original Leitch tunes, one Jed Levy tune (“The Ministers Son”), the Rogers and Hart standard “Spring Is Here” and a stirring rendition of Thelonius Monk’ “Round Midnight”). Sonically and “vibe-wise” I would place Peter Leitch’ music closer to the more contemporary, cerebral sounds of Maria Schneider than the bombastic – but no less wonderful – arrangements of Big Band groups like Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson or the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. This is not to say that The Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra doesn’t have that explosive swing associated with the aforementioned bands, because it does, but in a more subtle fashion. In fact, Leitch himself states that “…I was looking for something that sounded like a bigger band but had the freedom and losseness of a small group, and a way of seamlessly combining the written and the improvised.”*
This is indeed a formula that seems to work nicely for Leitch and the fellas as they bring exhilarating musical life to the written charts while enthusiastically lending their own unique flair to the improvised sections. This musical direction allows for a most satisfying balance of individual voices and compositional intent that is not lost on the listener.
Case in point is Leitch’ use of UK Jazz Guitarist Phil Robson who brings a huge talent and a warm, yet commanding tone to the music, playing what is needed without going overboard, which he could easily do given his formidable technique. His delicate use of a volume pedal, especially on “Portrait of Sylvia”, shows a sensitivity to tonal coloring without exaggeration and is the listeners first introduction to Robson. His wonderful solo during that tune is also a superb preface of what’s to come and it quickly becomes apparent why Robson was chosen for the guitar chair. Just listen to his intro and outro solo on “Round Midnight” for a mini class on dynamics, tone and taste.
In contrast, his brooding, evocative and somewhat dissonant bluesy acoustic playing on “Tutwiler 2001” features another side of Robson that once again has him playing just what is needed, nothing more and nothing less. Great stuff!!
There is another guitarist on this CD set that needs to be mentioned as well, New York Jazz Guitarist Chad Coe. Coe and Leitch had recorded together before as a duo (Chad Coe & Peter Leitch: Sympatico) so it is no surprise to find him swinging and comping where needed (four tunes). His acoustic style fits in nicely and adds a breadth of sound, rhythm and texture that brings to mind both Freddy Green and John Pisano. “Spring Is Here”, “Portrait of Sylvia” and the four to the bar swing of “The Long Walk Home” is evidence of Coe’s aptitude for both feel and dynamics and an essential addition to the roster of musicians involved.
And speaking of the players involved, Leitch has truly chosen an A-List of New York musicians who apparently have no trouble playing through the charts and arrangements. Cats like trumpeter Duane Eubanks, Saxopnist/Flutist Jed Levy, Bass Trombonist Max Siegel and Arco Bassist Dennis James to name but a few bring their A-Game to the session with an enthusiasm and infectious hip spirit that would certainly make any band leader smile in approval!
This is no less evident with the rhythm section as Pianist Peter Zak, Bassist Yoshi Waki and Drummer Joe Strasser, along with Robson and Coe, swing their behinds off – whether as accompanists or improvisers – providing the stalwart support needed to bring the whole thing together. A job well done by all concerned!
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the first-rate quality of Peter Leitch’ writing and his choice of some interesting and not often used instrumentation like Bass Clarinet, Alto Flute, and Bass Trombone. His tunes – much like his recent experiences – are uniquely his own. There are of course certain familiarities that can’t be avoided when the Blues comes into play, like the Basie sounding “The Long Walk Home”. I think Leitch describes it best:
“The title ‘New Life’ refers not only to my own personal odyssey, but also to the music itself – to the act of breathing new life into the ‘raw materials,’ the blues forms and song forms that have been the structural basis of Black American music, and be extension and osmosis, all of American music.”Peter Leitch – CD Liner Notes
On the one hand, I lament the fact that Peter Leitch has lost the ability to play guitar, yet on the other hand, I love how he has turned lemons into lemonade and I for one am very appreciative of the music he has gifted us. Thank you Peter and a healthy and happy New Life to you for many years to come!
*Taken from the CD liner notes by Peter Leitch.
Please consider spreading the word about Peter and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this review amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We would love to hear from you! 🙂