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Jay Leonhart: Rodgers and Leonhart

Jay Leonhart’s latest, a leisurely stroll through Mister Rodgers’ classy neighborhood, is as cozy and comfortable as a Fred MacMurray cardigan. Ah, but don’t let the relaxed atmosphere fool you. Leonhart is the Fred Astaire of jazz-a craftsman so seamlessly smooth that casual observers often fail to grasp the immensity of his talent.

As a bass player, Leonhart’s in the same exalted league as his mentor, teacher and musical hero, Ray Brown. As a vocalist, he remains, much like Astaire, significantly underappreciated. They share the same reedy ability to compensate for a limited range with masterful phrasing and impeccable timing.

Devoting equal time to Rodgers’ partnerships with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, Leonhart sticks exclusively to familiar favorites. Yet there’s a cunning twist: The homespun confections that defined so much of Rodgers’ success with Hammerstein have been spiced with a subtle dash of urbanity. Conversely, selections from the decidedly more sophisticated Rodgers and Hart songbook are injected with ebullient warmth, softening their jaded edges. Consider, for instance, the bouncy, bucolic “It Might as Well Be Spring,” here accented with a whispered hint of John Barry’s bold, brassy James Bond theme, or a playful “You Took Advantage of Me” that simmers with ebullient naivete.

Much like Rodgers’ The Sound of Music (here represented by the title track and the seldom covered “Edelweiss”), Rodgers & Leonhart is a family affair: Leonhart’s wife, Donna, contributes a nicely subdued “Little Girl Blue”; daughter Carolyn takes over the vocal reins for a treatment of “This Nearly Was Mine” that is, refreshingly, more wistful than angry; and multitasking son Michael, an accomplished arranger-composer-trumpeter who grows increasingly confident with each project, unites with trombonist Jim Pugh and saxophonist Andy Parsons to shape a vibrant brass section.

Originally Published