Jazz vocalist and composer Carolyn Leonhart has always been surrounded by gifted artists. Her father Jay Leonhart is a highly respected acoustic double bass player, her mother was a talented singer, who left a promising professional career to focus on raising her family, and her husband Wayne Escoffery, besides being a very talented tenor saxophonist, is considered to be one of jazz music’s most insightful composers and arrangers. In addition, a few months ago Leonhart came off of an extensive tour with Steely Dan, whom she first joined straight out of high school. In some ways all of those experiences have, as one would expect, contributed to who the singer is today, however Leonhart has served notice with her new CD If Dreams Come True, that she is establishing a significant legacy of her own.
In the early months since the album’s release, during live performances, the songs from If Dreams Come True have gone over well with her audiences. "There are certain songs that I am always surprised go over so well. I am surprised, because when you write a song, and you are performing them alongside of incredible standards, you have less confidence. The originals, "Free To Love," which is a ballad, and then "Nothing Left To Say," (are songs) people seem to love, and that’s always nice, because they are a part of me. "Nothing Left To Say," was written by Wayne and myself, so I really like it when people get the song, and get what we are doing with it," comments Leonhart.
"I also like my other CDs a lot, but the reason that I am so proud of this CD, is it (represents) the beginning for me being on the path that I want to be on, which is using my voice in a lot of different ways, incorporating a lot of different kinds of music, being much more involved on every level musically and production wise, but also being in the moment. (I want) to be a bigger part of the band than just a lead singer. I have started singing some instrumentals, of which two appear on the CD. Since we recorded them, I have started improvising, and soloing off of them a bit more. I wouldn’t call it scatting, because that is not what I do. I know everybody wants a term for what it is, but I just call it improvising. I guess, at times it is more linear than harmonic," says Leonhart.
Continuing to discuss her desire to be considered as more than a singer fronting a band, she says, "I have grown up around musicians, and I love what five men get to do. They get to be a part of me in every way, and I feel a little limited as a singer, if I can’t be more a part of the group. It has taken me a long time to realize that I can do whatever I want. In the last year or year and one half, I have started to see if there is a way that I can express myself more during songs, and improvise more, but without falling into certain places that I don’t particularly want to go. I don’t want to scat, so I have been trying to find a way through that, and a way to express myself the way that I want to, and the way that I want it to be heard. I did some of that at the CD release held at the Jazz Standard. You never know how something like that is going to go over, whether it will mean anything to people, or if the more sophisticated listeners are going to go ‘eggghh, why would she do that?’ I did happen to get some phenomenal feedback, from people who came to the CD release party, and from one of my favorite artists, who not only liked what I did, but was blown away by the concept of what we were doing, including the instrumentals. It is one thing for Wayne and I to talk about our ideas and goals, while we are alone, but for other people to actually see us in the moment, having fun with the music, and having them pick up on the idea of what we are trying to do, while loving it, can be really meaningful."
If Dreams Come True, is comprised of reworked standards, classic jazz standards and original Leonhart / Escoffery songs. There are some relaxing and mellow ballads as well as an environmentally conscious missive titled "Earth Calling." Leonhart feels that she achieved a stronger instrumental element to the album than may normally be associated with a CD featuring a vocalist. She says that she and Escoffery wanted to have a loud and vibrant album.
That element of loud, vibrant and fun extends to the live performances of the songs found on If Dreams Come True, as Leonhart notes, "I think that the band really has fun on the instrumental, "Nothing Left To Say." It is really open, there is so much room to play, and there are so many levels. To be able to play on "Nothing Left To Say," and have fun with it as well, you have to be in the form of the song, because the song switches back and forth between five and seven, time signature wise. I feel like incredible things always happen during that song."
"I kept the songs open, and there is usually one solo per song. So much happens in the moment. I love the band that I have right now. Everyone is so amazing, in the way that they work together, and I just love being on stage with them," says Leonhart, in giving credit to her pianist Toru Dodo, bassist Hans Glaswischnig, and drummer Jason Brown, as well as hubby Escoffery on saxophone. On the album If Dreams Come True, the drumming was shared between Brown and Carl Allen.
Working together, for any couple, regardless of their chosen careers can be challenging, and the results can be fabulous or a complete disaster, which creates stress in both the professional and personal relationships. So how do two superbly talented and creative people like Leonhart and Escoffery manage to not only coexist professionally, but also maintain a happy marriage? To answer that question Leonhart takes us back to when they first met.
"We randomly met at a jazz club, and neither of us was necessarily looking to be with musicians socially. Even when we started dating, and got serious, we really respected what the other person was doing. We thought we would try and support each other, but not to make it more complicated by trying to combine everything on all levels. That was our first plan. I began going through some musical changes, and was having difficulty expressing myself, so when Wayne saw how frustrated I was, he wanted to help me. Not only did he help me, but he helped me to start going exactly where I wanted to go. I thought, ‘I’m getting very lucky here, hold onto that musically.’ I incorporated him into my group, which is not always an easy thing to do. We are both incredibly emotional people, and it is very hard when you are involved with someone, with whom you start working, and they have a vested interest in helping you. It can be very intense at times. It took us awhile to figure out how we could do this, and not want to kill each other (she laughs)," she says.
Leonhart says that a significant turning point in their professional relationship occurred, while performing a gig together, in a small town. "There wasn’t any pressure, and none of the issues were there that might have existed if it (the gig) was in a larger city. We started improvising. It was beautiful, the way that the horns sounded, and the notes that we were randomly picking. We just walked into something that was so magical. Then we thought, ‘How did we do that? Let’s do it again.’ That’s when it (occurred to us), that there is a reason why all of this was happening. That is when I started figuring out, this is why I do what I do, for all these incredible moments. We started co-writing together, but always with the idea, let’s keep it easy, let’s play around, and if we catch one of those magical moments, let’s go with it. That really became the music that is on If Dreams Come True, and the concept of the band."
Leonhart says that when she and Escoffery perform together their relationship shifts, from the one they have during their collaborative songwriting. "Wayne is an artist, the musical director and driving the car on stage. We have to be in a different place (emotionally), when we perform. There is quality time after the gig, but we are still working together, which is a different dynamic than our normal relationship. At the end of the day, if we can be together at home or in a hotel room, it is always better. I would always rather be with him, while touring than to be without him. You get those moments (while touring), when you may look out a window and say, ‘Portugal is gorgeous,’ and you want to say, ‘Look honey, look."
In her musical formative years, Leonhart found herself in a lot of different situations rhythmically. Combined with the experience she gained performing with her father, Jay, who would often switch time signatures on her, just to keep her on her toes, she says, that she learned a valuable lesson, "If nobody else can play, and you are the only one, go for it."
Carolyn Leonhart has gone for it, she is stepping out of the shadows of all the tremendously gifted artists with whom she has been associated over the years, and she is beginning to receive the recognition that she deserves. There could be no more apt title for her current CD than, If Dreams Come True, because certainly, Carolyn Leonhart would be the first to admit, that her dreams are indeed coming true.