Jeremy Pelt has been turning heads for his noteworthy songwriting as much as for his warm, full-bodied tone and lucid, post-Motown, bop improvisations. But as a follow-up to the 26-year-old trumpeter’s two previous CDs-Profile (Fresh Sound New Talent) and Insight (Criss Cross)-which flaunted engaging originals, Pelt delivers a sumptuous love-letter to some of his favorite songwriters on his MaxJazz debut, Close to My Heart. “I wanted this album to be the end of a chapter,” he says. “This was a reflection of all of the music I grew up listening to when my mother was playing Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday records, and also songs that I grew to really enjoy working with people like Bobby Short. Any other projects I do will be all original music.”
For Close to My Heart, Pelt didn’t just lazily pluck material from the Great American Songbook; he dug deep, unearthing comparatively obscure tunes such as Pepper Adams’ “Excerent” and Friedrich Hollaender and Leo Robin’s “This Is the Moment.” There’s even a song written by pianist Eric Reed titled “Pioggia di Perugia.” And to explore the material, Pelt recruited a sterling ensemble-drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Peter Washington and pianist Mulgrew Miller, along with the Sirius String Quartet and guitarist-arranger David O’Rourke. “Some might think that since this was my first big project that there would be some sort of nervousness, but it was really easygoing. Everybody on the project felt it and put in 200 percent-that made everything just come alive,” Pelt says.
O’Rourke’s string arrangements, in particular, provide Pelt with a plush foundation, allowing the trumpeter to dig deeply into the songs’ emotional cores. Pelt hadn’t even heard O’Rourke arrange for strings before hiring him for Close to My Heart. “David was always talking about different arrangements that Frank Sinatra had,” Pelt says. “I just went out on a limb for this project by asking him to do the arrangements.”
Pelt met O’Rourke through alto saxophonist David Lee Jones, who, like the trumpeter, played with the Mingus Big Band. O’Rourke had a regular gig at the original Jazz Standard in New York, and when Jones couldn’t make it Pelt filled in. “O’Rourke is one of those people who knows an endless amount of songs,” Pelt says. “I like playing with him, because I’m always interested in learning a lot of songs. We developed a friendship through that.”
O’Rourke introduced Pelt to Nash, who was then looking for someone to replace Regina Carter in his ensemble. “One of the great things about New York is that the jazz community isn’t that big. Some people think it is, but it’s really not. I remember walking home from the Mingus band to the West 4th train stop, passed the Blue Note. I just happened to look in the window and saw O’Rourke in there. While I went in, he was raving about me to Lewis, and boom, here I show up.”
In addition to the Mingus Big Band, Nash and O’Rourke, Pelt has played with a plethora of great jazz cats, including Frank Foster, Greg Osby and Jimmy Heath, learning the ropes, firsthand, about how to be an effective bandleader. In particular he cites drummers as some of the greatest jazz leaders. “Energy is a very important thing, as is communication,” Pelt says. “Drummers such as Ralph Peterson Jr., Art Blakey, Nash, and Louis Hayes are natural bandleaders who know how to shape a band.”
Before becoming one of jazz’s new bright lights, Pelt originally set out to be a classical musician. But his high school didn’t have a classical orchestra-yet it did have a jazz band. It was then that Pelt first got wind of Miles Davis. “That was the year when Miles died,” remembers Pelt. “We played ‘So What’ in his honor. I went to the local record store to pick up anything with that song on it, which didn’t happen to be Kind of Blue but At Carnegie Hall with Gil Evans. When I heard that, it just set it off.”
After high school, Pelt attended Berklee College of Music to study film scoring, which is very evident in his cinematic writing and arranging. “I’ve always been attracted to film music, since I was in junior high school,” Pelt admits. “I remember talking to Eddie Henderson about how Miles was interested in the dramatic aspects of playing, from going from the two fifths to the straight-ahead fourth. That was the tension and release. The dramatic aspect is the biggest draw for me.”