Jazz pianist and composer David Leonhardt is a highly skilled and versatile musician whose twenty-five years of professional experience has included studio recordings, television and radio, concerts and festivals, night clubs and stage shows. He has appeared throughout North and South America, Europe, the Middle and Far East. In 1996 Leonhardt appeared on and arranged David Newman’s chart topping CD ‘Under A Woodstock Moon’ while a year later he featured with flautist Herbie Mann and bassist Ron Carter on Mann’s critically acclaimed album ‘Celebration’.
JazzReview: Your new CD ‘Bach To The Blues’ is based on improvisations around classical compositions. What made you want to record it?
David Leonhardt: I’ve always played classical music since I was a kid and fiddled around with the songs. I am such an improviser it is hard for me to play a song the same way twice and so, much to the exasperation of my teachers, I would always change them. We do a concert presentation where we play classical themes from Bach or Debussy or other composers and blow on them. The audience always gets excited by it and so we finally recorded them.
JazzReview: How has the classical community responded to the interpretations?
David Leonhardt: Actually there is a long tradition of improvisation in the legit scene. Bach was a big improviser, as was Chopin. It has only been in the last hundred years or so that the classical concert world has gotten away from that. Surprisingly all the classical cats I know like the CD and tell us to go for it. I think they can hear that we are not faking it when we play the classical parts and they seem to get a kick out of where we go with the songs.
JazzReview: What about the jazz audience?
David Leonhardt: We have found that the jazzers love hearing us improvise on Bach and Beethoven. In terms of what material a jazz performance is based upon they are so open minded. I wonder why more musicians don’t look to the great composers for inspiration. I mean, really, what’s the difference if a band plays Ellington or Chopin. They were both melodic and rhythmic geniuses. I can get just as excited about Erik Satie as I can Gershwin. When the goal of a performance is to be creative in finding new approaches to a song, the better the raw material you start with then the better the end result will be.
JazzReview: You have done a number of CDs with your quintet and you made five CDs with David ‘Fathead’ Newman but, as in ‘Bach To The Blues’, you always seem to come back to the traditional trio of piano, bass, and drums. Why does that format attract you?
David Leonhardt: The trio gives an intimate setting for playing music together, especially, when the musicians are really experienced like Matthew Parrish our bassist and Alvester Garnett our drummer. These guys are fantastic musicians with ability to hear and respond instantly. When there are just three of us playing it is like a musical conversation without too many voices competing for attention. I also like the freedom of not having to worry too much about an arrangement that a larger band forces on you. As a trio we can go anywhere the musical moment takes us. The larger the band the more formulaic the music tends to get. Play the head, one chorus solo, another one chorus solo, take the head out. That can tend to make the recordings a little too predictable.
JazzReview: Was there overdubbing on this CD?
David Leonhardt: We actually did no overdubbing at all. My studio is in my basement with no booths or sound separation which is why the CD has a live feel. Everything is just as we played it. No correcting later or takes spliced together. We just recorded over four days and included all the rehearsals. A few of the cuts on the CD are first takes. We think the freshness goes away if you record too many versions. Matt Parrish, the bassist on the CD, is the engineer and has done a great job. It is an incredible luxury for a pianist to record on his own piano in a relaxed atmosphere. I feel really lucky.
JazzReview: You have a long career in jazz, more than thirty years. How did you get your start?
David Leonhardt: I have been a professional musician since I was fourteen; Forty years and counting. As a teenager I used to hang out at Jamey Aebersold’s house and jam with him and the older musicians in Louisville, KY. There used to be a huge jazz scene there. It was quite a jazz town in its day. I started working there and later moved to New York because that was what everybody did then. Now I wouldn’t recommend it to young guys. When I moved to the ‘big apple’ in 1980 there were tons of gigs and a real scene to be part of. I got a six night a week jazz gig two weeks after I moved there and kept it for two years. Then I got the gig with the jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks and went on the road for four years.
JazzReview: What was it like to work with Jon Hendricks?
David Leonhardt: The gig with Jon Hendricks was when I really learned how to be on the road as an international jazz artist and how to successfully do concerts. At the time I had a choice between music school and traveling with one of the most creative Bebop singers ever to perform at jazz clubs and festivals. So my four years with Hendricks was my university. Our first tour was in Israel for a series of concerts. Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith was the drummer and there were four singers including Jon and a bassist. The first gig we had no rehearsal and we were outside in an ancient Roman amphitheater in Northern Israel, near the border of Lebanon. This was during the war between Lebanon and Israel so there was a lot of military everywhere. Why they had a music festival at that time I will never know. We were playing opposite Airto, the Brazilian drummer, and his band from LA, and John Patitucci, on bass, so we had to sound good. I was sight reading all the arrangements and they were difficult and demanding. Really up tempo with difficult keys and a lot of blowing for the piano chair. Just as we started the first song a huge gust of wind blew all the charts across the stage so I had to play the show by ear. Nice! We were there a couple weeks and then flew back to New York, drove three days in a van to San Diego and did a concert with Dizzy Gillespie that night. We toured California and then across the U.S. We got back to New York three months later and did a week in a club there. It really changed my life. For four years after that we were on the road more than we were home and I got road tough.
JazzReview: During the past several years we have seen an unprecedented increase in self produced recordings by jazz musicians. What is the history of your own label?
David Leonhardt: I started Big Bang Records in 1991 when I moved out of New York. It was a transitional time in the recording industry. Records were out and CDs were in. I was able to be in the vanguard of the self-producers, labels by musicians who wanted to take control of their recording life. I had played on and produced a bunch of recordings in the ‘80s and really had no desire to work on any more projects that weren’t totally under my control. I needed the freedom to pick the musicians, the songs, the studio, and the musical direction or I couldn’t work. I was tired of having someone else look over my shoulder. It really was an awakening for me in terms of understanding how music can be a product and where the benefits go from that. My first two CDs, ‘Departure’ and ‘Reflections’, transformed my career from being a sideman, to a leader. I got reviews and airplay and was able to use them as a way of starting my touring life as a leader and getting recognition for having my own voice. I now have twenty four CDs under my own name and they all make money and continue to sell. They have provided me with vehicles to book concerts around. More than that, artistically, each one has accomplished something concrete.
JazzReview: You played and recorded with David ‘Fathead’ Newman, the tenor man, for over twenty years. What are your thoughts on that association?
David Leonhardt: When I played with ‘Fathead’ it was really like family. Now that he has passed I miss him a lot. I have been on the road with him; we have done jazz cruises together, stayed in European hotels together, flown together, driven together, stayed for weeks on end in apartments together, recorded together and had countless magical musical moments together. We did five CDs together that I arranged for him and I was lucky enough to record his last CD right before he died. It was an incredibly moving experience. We actually recorded the last notes he ever played.
JazzReview: David, thank for taking the time to speak with me today.
David Leonhardt: You are welcome!
David Leonhardt has produced, arranged, and performed on numerous recordings with jazz stars such as: Stan Getz, Slide Hampton, Jon Hendricks, Eddie Henderson, Robin Eubanks, Ray Drummond, and Lewis Nash. His compositions have been recorded by such jazz greats as Stanley Turrentine, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Hank Crawford, and Claudio Roditi. Leonhardt has been guest conductor and arranger for The Benny Carter Orchestra and has also written arrangements for The Art Blakey Big Band.
At present Leonhardt is leading his own band with successful appearances at the International Arts Festival of Shenzen in China, the Winnipeg Jazz Festival and the French Maison de Dance in Lyon as well as festivals and concerts throughout the United States. His all star group has been heard at the Apollo Theater, The Blue Note, Birdland and Sweet Basil. He is a well known educator, gives clinics world wide and writes for the magazine "Piano Today". Mr. Leonhardt has twice been the Artist in Residence at Lafayette College and is on the roster of The Pennsylvania Arts On Tour. His new CD ‘Bach To The Blues’ is highly recommended.