Michael Leonhart Orchestra, “The Silent Swarm Over El Paso,” from The Painted Lady Suite (Sunnyside)
The Painted Lady Suite, the debut album by the Michael Leonhart Orchestra, derives inspiration from a naturally uplifting source: the migration of butterflies. Specifically, the Vanessa cardui butterfly, commonly called the “painted lady,” whose seasonal migration spans 9,000 miles and several continents.
There’s poetry in Leonhart’s attraction to the painted lady. After all, Leonhart’s own three-decade career has taken a similarly boundary-crossing migration. A player with a pliant tone and malleable aesthetic, he’s collaborated with artists as diverse as James Brown, Steely Dan and The Wu-Tang Clan. He also played trumpet on Mark Ronson’s record-breaking hit “Uptown Funk,” and was a member of the pit band for Broadway’s Tony-winning play Fela. In convening the orchestra for The Painted Lady Suite, Leonhart recruited players who shared his eclectic musical background and polyglot musical mentality, and the resulting ensemble comprises members of the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Maria Schneider’s Orchestra, the Dap-Kings, Menahan Street Band and Antibalas. The group weaves together the bandleader’s disparate musical influences — ranging from Frank Zappa and Beastie Boys to Stravinsky and Ravel — with confidence and poise.
Take “The Silent Swarm Over El Paso,” today’s Song of the Day, which blends elements as diverse as Third Stream classical, surf rock, industrial noise, Carnatic music and Metheny-esque pop into a smooth-surfaced whole. Befitting its ominous title, the song makes creative use of darkness, motion, stillness and light. A pulsating minor-keyed refrain from the bass casts the song in a haunting shadow, and a rolling open-tom drum beat sustains the ominous tone. But there are moments, especially toward the song’s midpoint, when the sun breaks through and a chorus of wordless voices lifts the melody into areas of optimism and joy.