The church and music have always gone hand-in-hand. It is the place where artists like modern rock’s Bono of U2 and R&B/jazz savant Lizz Wright began by singing in the choir, pop music’s Whitney Houston and hip hop’s Kanye West first touched audiences, and country music’s Dolly Parton and bluegrass’ Alison Krauss were first embraced. The church and music have a great deal in common. They both encourage communal gatherings and participation, and they also both transcend any delineations that people have put up to seperate one another.
Jay Leach’s guitar playing reflects the church’s mission to find an inner peace, harmony and spirituality with the world. His smooth jazz and contemporary styling isn’t pre-meditated to sound religious as he reveals, but he plays as a disciple of peace and love and hopes that his music inspires people to feel what he does for God. His first solo albums were Christmas albums, Christmas Guitar and A Night Like No Other. His subsequent albums have taken an inspirational tone in the smooth jazz emporium with records like Infinite Horizon, Unto Him, Wondrous Love, and Beyond Words which were all released during the ‘90s.
His recent disc Cleared For Takeover features saxophonist Kirk Whalum, bassist Abe Laboriel, percussionist Alex Acuna, and keyboardist Bill Cantos. Maintaining an inspirational voicing, Leach plays the dobra, banjo, and pedal steel along with the electric guitar which course grassroots textures into smooth jazz’s vial. The result is a blissful mix that is warm and touches peoples sense of peace.
Jay Leach first witnessed the power that music has on people as a teenager in the ‘70s, when he played in a music trio growing up in Wichita, Kansas. By 1977, he had relocated to Los Angeles, California and through word of mouth within the recording industry, he was playing for such recording artists as the late Roy Orbison and John Denver, Barry Manilow, Gladys Knight, Kirk Whalum, Barry McGuire, and Joni Eareckson. He has also worked as a sessions guitarist in LA recording theme songs for TV shows like Touched by an Angel, Matlock, In The Heat of The Night, Murder She Wrote, Jake and the Fatman, cartoon episodes of Lilo & Stich, Hey Arnold, and the Disney Channel's Dumbo's Flying Circus. He has also recorded guitar parts for many TV and radio commercials including for IBM, Budweiser, Denny's, McDonald's, Nike, Black Angus Steak House, and Mercedes as well as for movie soundtracks like Mars Attacks, Trip to Bountiful, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Gone Fishin', Tough Enough, A Simple Wish, Smokey and the Bandit III, Urban Cowboy, Big Business, and Six Days and Seven Nights.
As a disciple of peace and love, his music has been a vehicle for him to inspire others to feel bliss. Throughout his profession, he has reached many highs, and yet, he continues to strive for the next plateau. It is not lust which he means to satisfy, but his need to touch people's hearts with his music and to draw them closer to feeling peace with the world, and bring them closer to God.
Jazzreview: What prompted you to make the album Cleared For Takeoff?
Jay Leach: I had the title Cleared for Takeoff in my heart for about 4 years and the opening rhythmic lick of the title song for many years as I just started playing it one time when an engineer asked me to play something to begin to get a level on the guitar in the studio. Each song on the album has quite a story but a couple of special ones are related to the songs: ‘Simple Things’ and ‘Viva Alegre.’ In the case of ‘Simple Things’ It is a gentle orchestral/acoustic piece that was born out of the experience of being one of a handful of musicians that were helping out a great jazz piano player during his last days and weeks of a losing battle with brain cancer.
Jazzreview: What was the inspiration for the song "Viva Alegre"? Who worked with you on this song and how did the melody come together?
Jay Leach: ‘Viva Alegre’ came from a little head and chorus I wrote about 6 years ago for a B-3 trio I used to have that played every Tues. night in the San Fernando Valley. I wanted to write some kind of Latin jazz stuff and that was one of the tunes. The inspiration for ‘Viva Alegre’ was this: the meaning of the title is ‘live life to it's fullest.’ Jesus said ‘I came that you may Have Life and have it more abundantly’ and so I wanted to write a Latin style tune that I felt personified that statement. I wrote the melody and chorus but Ottmoro Ruiz came up with that accordion sounding break in the intro and the release. It was my idea to restate the closing line but the ending and the line was suggested by my arranger Mark Gasbarro.
Jazzreview: How did you meet your collaborators Kirk Whalum, Alex Acuna, Abe Laboriel, and Chester Thompson?
Jay Leach: With each of these guys we have a history. I played in Kirk's band in ‘95 and first met and recorded with Chester probably 25 years ago. Alex and Abe are old friends for many years and Alex and I attend the same church and it's not an accident that Abe is considered one of the World's great bassists. The one common thread among us is our love for Jesus.
Jazzreview: What studio did you use for the recordings? What was the recording process like?
Jay Leach: The studio I used was Bernie Becker Recording in Burbank, California. He has since moved his facility to Pasadena to The Firehouse in old Pasadena, and it's beautiful. Bernie is one of a very small group of engineers that is excellent at both recording and mastering. They are two entirely different animals but Bernie is extremely experienced. Regarding the process, I got together with my arrangers to map out everything on a tune by tune basis. Once we were locked to the form, we wrote the charts and prepared for the date. Once in the studio, we'd start the day with prayer and then rock. I wanted everything to have a live feel and I think we accomplished that as no song was recorded with more than 3 takes and most of them were in 2.
Since I was both the artist and producer, and the studio was small, I tracked the guitar at the same time by just going in direct so that we had the feel of a band. After the tracks were done, I came back in and played with the tracks with new and very elaborate micing for the acoustics. I'm picky about sounds and you never want to waste valuable recording time of other cats while you experiment with things like mic placement. As far as the atmosphere, I must admit that as an artist/producer if you don’t feel a little anxiety, especially the first morning, you're probably in need of a heart transplant. The special blessing I had during the recording of this was the fact that I really knew everyone was there for me in total support and encouragement and it's a privilege that's hard to describe. I've done hundreds of projects as a sideman and in those cases we want to be the best blessing to the artist but when it's turned around it's very special.
Jazzreview: Do you think that your songs are influenced by the music you listen to or are they solely a reflection of your own personality?
Jay Leach: They are definitely a reflection of my heart and personality and the only reason I wouldn't say they are a reflection of what I listen to is because I listen to so many types of music. As a player I play so many different styles that have yet to be represented in my recorded solo work such as blues, country, bluegrass, and funk that I'm excited to see what the future may bring.
Jazzreview: What do you want to communicate to people in your songs? What are some themes in your music?
Jay Leach: The most important things I want people to feel from my music are love, joy, peace and encouragement. These are the predominant themes of almost all my music. I always hope my music might be a catalyst to help someone call on the Lord for help, or say a prayer or just rejoice in God's creation in an uplifted way.
Jazzreview: When you were composing the songs for Cleared For Takeoff, were you concerned about how you would re-create them in concert?
Jay Leach: I don't have to worry to much about that issue right now because so many of the situations I'm in allow me to play to tracks. This is especially true in playing in churches and plus I would be pretty picky on the players I would use to back me up because I would want them to really represent what was played on the tracks. The other thing about that is the enormous expense of having a band and the logistics of the travel.
Jazzreview: When did you first begin playing the guitar?
Jay Leach: Eight-years old on Steel Guitar.
Jazzreview: What kind of guitarist did you imagine yourself to be?
Jay Leach: I didn't have a clue.
Jazzreview: Did you take music lessons in school or are you self-taught on the guitar?
Jay Leach: I took private guitar lessons till I was about 12 and then began to play in bands. After I came out to Los Angeles as an adult I studied a lot with a lot of great people including Ted Green.
Jazzreview: What were your early musical experiences like?
Jay Leach: Playing with different other kids in Wichita and my first professional gig was earning $3.33 as part of a trio that played for a girls private party on a Friday night. I couldn't believe I would get money for something so fun.
Jazzreview: When did you get your first big break and who gave it to you? How did it feel?
Jay Leach: I consider my first big break to be with a producer named Jack Daughtery. He was the producer who discovered the Carpenters and was an incredible talent. He loved Jazz and big band stuff and actually made an album in ‘71 that featured Joe Pass and Larry Carlton on guitar. In ‘77, he did another album but the guitar player was unavailable for the big album debut performance in Los Angeles. He had originally called Lee Ritenour but Lee was super busy and took a different gig. A friend of mine was in the band and recommended me and Jack gave me a chance. It was such a thrill!
Jazzreview: Which do you prefer to play, the acoustic guitar or the electric one and why?
Jay Leach: It's really hard to say. I love them all and each has a different high. When you've been playing a lot of solos on electric and you get in the zone with a great band it's amazing. Sometimes with solo acoustic you can really express an intimate side of your life that nothing else could portray and the rush of playing pedal steel with a great country band in real country joint is a rush.
Jazzreview: When you play shows does it sometimes bring back memories about when you toured as a guitar player for Barry Manilow?
Jay Leach: That was then and this is now. Those memories are precious to me but I have many great memories from many, many other gigs. The one thing I will say about a player getting the first big gig, you NEVER play the same from then on. I've had this discussion with many other players and we agree. Somehow, something happens that just takes you to another level.
Jazzreview: How did you get involved in doing studio work? Did you enjoy being a session player?
Jay Leach: When you do sessions for different TV shows or movies, you really don't make songs as much as you do certain cues or little pieces of music that work with the visual image to enhance it. In some cases you will do a special song and the title is almost always some kind of a song, but it's usually just cues. As far as how you get those kinds of gigs it's always an amazing combination of 1) who you know, 2) what they know about your abilities and how they think that will work the musical needs of the project, and 3) circumstantial timing.
Jazzreview: Was the transition from being a backup player to becoming a solo artist easy for you?
Jay Leach: The difference between being a solo artist and a sideman is big. For one thing you are totally vulnerable and you are basically saying to the world that you think your artistic expression has great significance and you are believing they will agree. That being said, the turning point for me was when a church pastor friend of mine asked me if I would fill up my car with different guitars and just come and play for his congregation on a Sunday night. He gave me total creative freedom and the response from the people was so encouraging that it really was an emotional experience. I knew from that night on I wanted to play for people that were really listening, and it's worked out well.
Jazzreview: How did your religious albums Wondrous Love and Unto Him come about? What set you on this path to making solo albums for the Christian music community and what keeps you motivated to stay on this path?
Jay Leach: I never think of my albums as religious albums as much as I think of them as artistic expressions of my love and appreciation for the Lord. Wondrous Love came about because I had played on a couple of other albums for Integrity Music out here in LA and they had decided to do an instrumental series of albums called the Signature Series. The idea behind it was that they would feature different instruments on different albums and let each artist put his or her musical signature on songs published by Integrity. They did a trumpet, harp, violin, piano, and when they did the one for guitar, they chose me.
Jazzreview: What are some events you have been invited to attend for the Christian music community? How did these experiences affect you and your music?
Jay Leach: For years I have played for all kinds of conferences, retreats, Promise Keepers, church services, banquets, concerts, you name it and it's always a blessing.
Jay Leach continues to perform for the Christian community and he shows others how to use the guitar to reach a state of harmony by contributing excerpts about playing the guitar in music books like Portraits of Christmas, Master Anthology of Fingerstyle Guitar Solos, and Contemporary Christian Fingerstyle Guitar Solos. He feels that he is one cog in the wheel of life which keeps the cycle of love turning and as long as he has a breath pumping through his lungs, he will continue to do so.