Butterflies Inspire Michael Leonhart’s New Album

The Steely Dan trumpeter talks about his jazz orchestra's debut

Michael Leonhart

The compact stage at New York’s Jazz Standard comfortably accommodates half a dozen musicians at best, which posed something of a logistical hitch when the popular venue hosted the Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s two-night run in July. The MLO numbered 17 pieces, all of them essential to the reproduction of the music they’d be performing from their recent debut album The Painted Lady Suite (Sunnyside). The only solution: remove a row of tables in front of the stage and put Leonhart there, his back to the patrons, at the head of it all. There he conducted the excerpts from the album along with a handful of brilliantly arranged reworkings of music from Fela Kuti, Vince Guaraldi, and a pair of New York-centric films: The Godfather Part III and The Taking of Pelham 123.

The scene at the club was a far cry from the way Leonhart had been spending most of his nights this spring and summer, as trumpeter for Steely Dan, out on the road splitting a bill with the Doobie Brothers. Leonhart, 44, has been working with the rock giants for more than two decades, but this year’s tour was the first without the band’s co-founder Walter Becker, who passed away Sept. 3, 2017.

Becker, remembers Leonhart, was “a brilliant human being, a strong personality and”—he hesitates a few seconds—“a tough debater, a complex man.” Steely Dan sans Becker, Leonhart acknowledges, is already taking a different shape, working up material they hadn’t usually performed before. In addition to serving in the horn section, Leonhart contributes arrangements to the live show. “I stay very busy on the road,” he says. “I try not to get sucked into the tour patterns of lethargy. I have my little routine just to keep my mind fluid, because you’re kind of living in a bubble.”

Composing and recording his own music has, of course, also kept Leonhart occupied when he’s not tied up with Steely Dan. He’s released several previous solo albums and undertaken numerous freelance assignments for a diverse cast ranging from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars to Yoko Ono, David Byrne, the Dap-Kings, James Brown, Slash, Caetano Veloso, Levon Helm, Wynton Marsalis, and even Meryl Streep. He’s been at it since his youth when he gravitated toward trumpet and picked up tips from his renowned bassist father, Jay Leonhart. In 1992, the 17-year-old Michael became the youngest Grammy recipient up to that time when he took home a special trophy for Outstanding High School Musician in the U.S. In more recent years, he’s served as the house trumpeter for the Brooklyn-based Truth and Soul label, contributing to more than three dozen titles.

The Painted Lady Suite was inspired by the butterflies of the same name that Leonhart observed during a school field trip with his young son. “There were these beautiful designs, the symmetrical wings and the eyes on the wings,” he says. “I wrote [the name] down and then started looking more into it. They had a longer migration than the monarch, these fascinating little creatures, and there were all these stories that go along with it: how high they fly, the patterns.”

Leonhart wrote the suite as a seven-part orchestral story, charting the insects’ unfathomable journey from the Arctic to the Sahara, via North America and other locales. The album is filled out with three other new Leonhart compositions, including the curiously titled “Music Your Grandparents Would Like.” Having written arrangements for, conducted, and played on guitarist Nels Cline’s 2016 orchestral album Lovers, Leonhart welcomed the opportunity to craft his own large-scale piece. (Cline, who sat in with the MLO at the Jazz Standard gig, also appears on the album.)

“[After Lovers’ release] I said I’m just going to keep going with this and put together my own orchestra,” Leonhart says. “The intention was not to have it be a big band per se, even though I love Ellington and Thad Jones. I wanted to have a little bit of the Third Stream element. We had a residency at [New York’s] Rockwood Music Hall and then expanded to some other festivals, then we started recording right away.”

Although he’s known primarily as a trumpeter, Leonhart avoided the temptation to insert his own playing into too many segments of the album. He solos on only two sections of the main suite, giving other orchestra members (including saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a fellow dabbler in rock via his work with the late David Bowie) equal time to shine. “I only tried to use myself as a color in certain places,” Leonhart says. “I’ve done many albums where looking back, I thought, was I overly ambitious? Restraint can be a very powerful tool, and even though there’s so many instruments on this, I didn’t want to throw everything at the wall and use everything in the kitchen sink. I thought, let me just be up front orchestrating.”

With The Painted Lady Suite behind him, Leonhart hopes to continue pursuing his compositional ambitions. “My idea for a long time has been to bounce back and forth between albums, one of original music and then the following album would be an album of covers,” he says. “I thought of doing the music of Nina Simone, with guest artists, and maybe working on something called The Galapagos, then back to another suite of covers. Sky’s the limit. It’s very cathartic.”