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Jay Leonhart: Joy (Sunnyside)

A review of the bassist's latest album

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Jay Leonhart, Joy
The cover of Joy by Jay Leonhart

Pardon the cluster name drop, but in the ebullience of Jay Leonhart’s new release you can hear an imaginary gathering of 20th-century wits—Mose Allison, Willie Dixon, Dave Frishberg, Tom Lehrer, and Bob Dorough topping the list. Throughout this relaxed yet often lively trio set, the veteran bassist/vocalist/composer is in delightful form, whether summing up a situation with an acerbic flourish, lightheartedly delivering social commentaries and cautionary tales, or venting a professional peeve that makes our own seem trifling by comparison. (Suffice it to say, as Leonhart reminds us, you haven’t encountered a flight nightmare until you’ve arrived at check-in with a double bass.)

Among other pleasures, Joy offers listeners a chance to tag along with the congenial raconteur as he recalls some of his early jazz adventures. For starters, there’s a 1962 Manhattan Playboy Club engagement that proved eye-opening in more ways than one for a budding jazz pro; subsequent cross-country jaunts are recounted with a mix of sweet nostalgia and soulful candor. Travel hurdles aside, however, there’s nothing alloyed about Leonhart’s passion for his chosen instrument. “Gasparo,” his tribute to 16th-century musical instrument maker Gasparo da Salo, is an album standout: affectionately rendered, cleverly written, and evocatively arranged. Mostly, we find Leonhart infusing these performances with a buoyant blend of swing and blues rhythms, along with his signature bop-inflected verse and vocals. If not all the music is unfamiliar, it’s all welcome and fresh. With pianist Tomoko Ohno and drummer Vito Lesczak playing complementary roles from the outset, Joy swiftly lives up to its title.

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Mike Joyce

A former editor of JazzTimes, Mike Joyce has written extensively on jazz, blues, country, and pop music for The Washington Post, Maryland and Washington, D.C. public television stations, and other outlets.