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By Jonathan Widran
Michael Leonhart expresses grief and catharsis through a pair of new suites dedicated to a beloved four-legged companion.
Though best known for his quarter-century-plus stint as trumpeter and arranger for Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, Michael Leonhart added a fascinating new distinction to his résumé with the release of The Normyn Suites (Sunnyside). The ambitious, multifaceted album, his third with his New York City-based ensemble the Michael Leonhart Orchestra, is likely the first jazz recording to have liner notes written by an expert schooled not in music, but dogs.
In her eloquent essay accompanying the CD, Alexandra Horowitz, author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, sums up the emotional intensity of what Leonhart — who lost his dog Normyn in 2018 — was feeling as he composed the pieces that evolved into the two suites at the core of the project. She writes: “[Dogs have] become the breath we expect in the room, the greeting we anticipate at the door, the responsiveness that we look for from the world. Then they are gone, one day. … In their absence the room is chilly, the world is flat.”
For Leonhart, those “rooms” Horowitz speaks of include countless studios where he worked on sessions with the likes of Aloe Blacc and late soul greats Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Leonhart didn’t want to leave Normyn — a mini dachshund named by his wife Jamie when the couple adopted her in 2003 — home alone in their NYC apartment, so he took her everywhere, including to work.
Normyn was also a regular presence at Steely Dan rehearsals and at the studio where Leonhart co-produced Fagen’s 2012 solo album Sunken Condos. Fagen enjoyed walking the dog and showed his deep affection for her after she was attacked in the park and had to wear a “cone of shame” while healing. The singer wrapped her in a cowboy-styled gauze scarf and took a photo of her lying on his Wurlitzer.
“We had a beautiful bond,” Leonhart says. “Normyn was my wingman, and she went on many adventures with me. Sometimes that included her sleeping at my feet while I was working with these artists. I remember spending two, three hours trying to get a vocal just right, then taking a break, relieving the tension by taking a walk around the block. At one point, Normyn’s presence was like a bellwether to feel out the vibe of the singer. If the artist didn’t approve of her being there, or me breaking up the session to take her out, I knew the session would be difficult. The musicians I bonded with most were those who would take her leash and ask if they could hold her — and this in turn led to better overall recordings.”
Normyn’s final illness in 2018 forced Leonhart to cancel work, but the quiet quality time he spent with her offered not only what he calls a “strange peace of living with her, Zen-like, fully in the moment,” but also great personal musical catharsis. He put her on top of a piano in one of his favorite live studio rooms on 37th Street and noticed how the vibrations calmed her as he played. Finding that the pressure he put on himself to write “the most beautiful piece ever” for her was too much, he let go and simply composed what came to him naturally. When he wrote a subdued piece he titled “La Preghiera” (the prayer in Italian), he had an inkling that it would one day be part of a suite.
From initial severe writer’s block upon her passing to a proposed orchestra project featuring a suite based on his visit to the Galapagos Islands and finally the pandemic, Leonhart experienced numerous mindset shifts and stops and starts between the time of Normyn’s death in September 2018 and the development of the 11 total pieces forming The Norman Suites #1 and #2. These suites gave rise to an epic collection featuring his 60-plus piece orchestra, guest appearances by guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, keyboardist Larry Goldings, reedist Chris Potter (on bass clarinet), rapper JSWISS and Leonhart’s longtime friend and collaborator Elvis Costello, who appears on four tracks, including the brassy, high-energy opener/palate cleanser “Shut Him Down.”
Horowitz’s liner notes remind us that, as we listen to Leonhart’s fascinating piece-by-piece approach to loss, reckoning, questioning and mourning, “with each note, each phrase, we are propelled back into life.” Perfectly embodying this sentiment is Suite #1, which is subtitled “Soundtrack to the Five Stages of Grieving” as per Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Grief Cycle, introduced in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. What makes this suite unique is that sometimes the piece’s title and musical vibe seem at odds, with “Denial” involving brass-tinged percussive hustle and bustle and “Catharsis” presented as a gentle piece spotlighting Frisell’s contemplative guitar. The final stage, “Acceptance,” begins as a chamber piece, then evolves into funky gospel, representing the energizing sense of freedom that comes from fully acknowledging loss.
The second suite, subtitled “Love & Loss,” comprises six parts (including “La Preghiera”) that Leonhart wrote during those sessions with Normyn atop the piano during her final months. Starting with the haunting, sonically trippy “May the Young Grow Old,” featuring a hypnotic B-3 organ solo by Goldings, the suite concludes with the dark, ambient “The Dunes of Cahoon Hollow,” named for a Cape Cod beach where Normyn frolicked with Leonhart and his family, and featuring a stark, wafting trumpet melody. “The key to making the suites work was creating a sense of space,” he says. “The producer-orchestrator in me kept saying these were too empty, that a glacial pace might bore listeners, but I rejected that in the name of an honest portrayal of the process.”
Though Leonhart wants the focus to remain on his elegy to Normyn, he offers a glimpse into a bright musical future beyond this challenging era, wrapping the album with quartet-driven homages to Kenny Dorham and Wayne Shorter (who was still with us when he recorded the piece) that showcase dynamic interactions between Leonhart’s trumpet and Donny McCaslin’s soulful sax.
“These pieces grew out of asking myself, ‘When I think about their music, how do I write?’,” says Leonhart. “Technically they don’t connect with the Normyn material, but everything on the album is about reflecting on who and I what I love. Originally, I wasn’t sure if the world needed to hear the suites, that they were more about me coming to terms with the past and pushing the boat out to sea. But during the pandemic, when so many people lost loved ones, I realized that love and loss come in many forms, and it’s something everyone can relate to. I realized there’s nothing more human than loving someone or something and learning to let them go.”
Featured image by Nathan West.