Friday, September 11, 2009

Dream On

If Dreams Come True
Carolyn Leonhart / Wayne Escoffery
Nagel-Heyer Records
CD 2078


I discovered the jazz singer Carolyn Leonhart when she featured as a backup singer on Steely Dan's 2000 return-to-service CD Two Against Nature--actually on the live DVD performance of the music of that CD (which is, by the way, an awesome display of no-bullshit performance of their singular musical vision. But I digress). Ms. Leonhart was one of three singers supporting the intrepid cerebro-pop duo, joined by a host of spectacular musicians including Ms. Leonhart's brother Michael on trumpet and the late saxman Cornelius Bumpus. (I'm at a loss as to how to categorize Steely Dan: they're not rock and roll; they're too cerebral for pop; they're too scripted to be called jazz--though their harmonic palette is much more jazz than pop--and the label "fusion" is already claimed for an approach that doesn't quite fit them either. Like the Coen Brothers, I guess they're their own genre. I appear to be digressing again.)

The present 2006 recording / 2007 release is a joint effort between the breezy soprano and her English-born reedman husband, Wayne Escoffery. Based in New York, the two have had successful solo careers, but this CD seems a happy exploration of the broad overlap of their individual disciplines. Not all the tracks feature both musicians, and on those that do the duties are not always equally shared. But this gives the CD a real collaborative vibe, a sense that they each helped on the others' pet projects and managed to bottle some synergistic lightning along the way.

Carolyn Leonhart's singing reminds me in its liquid smoothness of Paul Desmond's alto playing. The music--a combination of original compositions and works of others--provides a deft showcase for her voice, and she is always poised and urbane (like Steely Dan, I can't help thinking the CD has a very New York vibe).

But for me the real discovery here is her husband. Admittedly, I don't make a steady diet of jazz so I'm not well-versed on who the young talent is in this slightly retro genre. But Mr. Escoffery plays like someone who has covered considerably more miles than his 34 years would suggest. Playing alto and tenor and soprano with equal facility, he seems to have an unlimited vocabulary, alternately soaring and scorching and crooning through the tracks, all with supreme self-assurance. The duo manage some really deft interspecies harmonizing, with Mr. Escoffery sounding quite like a second voice at times. His wife returns the favor, using her voice like a horn, especially on the lovely "Not Without You." Based on this effort, I don't know that I'm convinced her talent extends quite so far as his does. She's a skilled musician with a lovely voice and a good ear; he seems quite a ball hit out of the park altogether. I was not expecting that we were making them like him anymore.

(Unfortunately, iTunes's typical practice does not deliver any liner notes with the purchase. So I've no idea who the other musicians on the recording are. But the crew is excellent.)

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