Leron Thomas has just released the haunting duet ‘These Things,’ featuring the trumpeter and singer on a song he has written the lyrics for and which unites him with newcomer singer Shola Adisa-Farrar and producer Superpoze. He introduces Shola and explains to Stephen Graham in this exclusive interview how hearing fellow trumpeter Roy Hargrove singing ballads inspired and taught him to grow as an artist both as instrumentalist and vocalist in the same organic process
When did you write the song and how was it recorded?
DJ Lefto handed a track over to me by the great artist, Superpoze. He said that Superpoze was having a hard time with what to do with the track. Lefto thought that I should try something over it. When I heard the track, I was on a very trying tour with a French producer last summer, and was facing a lot of decisions. Hearing the track during that moment, was so haunting yet reassuring. I heard the melody almost instantaneously. Then it dawned on me that it needed a female entity as well. I quickly contacted Florian Pellissier for the use of his studio, engineering, mixing and Shola for her beautiful vocals, after I had the lyrics, and this is how the track came about.
Tell me about Shola Adisa-Farrar? Who is she and how did you first get to work with her and what attracted you to her work?
Shola is a brilliant vocalist, residing in Paris. We share the same keyboardist for our bands, Florian Pellissier, and so naturally was introduced to her work. What drew me to her work was the distinctness of her voice. What I’m about to say might not make sense, but it’s the best way that I can describe it. Her voice unknowingly, knows itself. In jazz you get a lot of musicians that can shine over standards and then crash and burn over original material. And as well in reverse, you get people trying to define themselves and their “style”, prematurely, thus they suck when it comes to approaching a standard. But there are those that approach standards just fine, almost chameleon-like. Still, when you put them on the spot with an original composition, they surprisingly have this whole other thing going on, in their sound and approach. That’s what I dig in Shola’s voice and approach. That’s something that can’t be premeditated, but somehow gracefully deals with the unknown.
Where have you been touring recently and with what bands?
Well that’s a tricky one to speak on, even now at the moment. Up until last year, for the better part of two years I was touring with a French producer and occasionally my own band. Based in Paris, I was touring all over Europe. That abruptly got cut short, due to matters not worth further indulging in.
Singing, playing the trumpet, is it all part of the one thing, how do you make the leap between the two?
Sometimes one gets so skilful on their instrument, they begin to get lazy in their expression and start to hide behind their skill, yet are not really saying anything any more.That’s why I started singing. I would get around trumpet players and other musicians at jam sessions that would relax and play very fluidly. Only too well. They never seem to have a struggle in their playing because they weren’t wearing their heart on their sleeve like I was. It would frustrate me because even though I had classical skill and could pull some real stunts, I never could bring myself to be so devious and crafty. I played with true emotion. But due to my LOUD trumpet playing out of frustration with these comfortable players, I needed another outlet.
Singing was so fun, and writing things to sing about was just crazy fun. My joy for why I was a musician and artist, came back. And like the trumpet it required breathing. In my earlier stages of trumpet playing in NYC, anyone present would tell you that I was coming out of a random combination of Woody Shaw and Roy Hargrove. I heard Mr Hargrove sing the ballad ‘Body and Soul’ at a late night jam session, one night. His delivery was identical to his trumpet playing. He helped me to understand Louis Armstrong a little better. Because those guys were ancient to me, and the people that were the poster people for that era, were not making it attractive to someone like me. But through Roy Hargrove, I definitely understood more and got my path to where I didn’t see a leap between the two. Just a means of breathing and expressing.
Where are you based these days and what sort of gigs/sessions do you do there?
I’m based in NYC, with no “gigs” at the moment. Although I do like to go and check out my colleagues in the jazz world of NYC. Just checked out Jeremy Pelt, Charles Tolliver, Wayne Tucker, and Theo Hill the last few weeks. They on some good Kung Fu. I mainly only deal with my band right now and am trying to connect with agencies to get us working/touring strong for this next release. But I do enjoy Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party band. It’s an enduring gig on trumpet and artistic taste and choosing what spots to play or layout at is always a great challenge in figuring out because the moment is always alive and moving.
I liked your appearance with Zara McFarlane a few years back and on Whatever. How did you get to know Zara?
That was all Mr Gilles Peterson, right there. Gilles has been really supportive and instrumental in my music getting out to the public and overall career. He has a damn good ear and can hear things that work like a charm. He introduced me to Zara and her amazing voice and yep, we worked. My favourite live performance with her was in NYC. We tore that spot down in Brooklyn.
Going back to jazz history I used to hear a bit of Billy Eckstine in your sound. Maybe not so much now. Is he someone you listened to much or is that way off beam? But how anyway did you first get into jazz vocals and did you sing before you played trumpet?
Yeah I dig Mr Eckstine. The five that I would listen too all the time growing up though, were Johnny Hartman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, and Abbey Lincoln. That’s for jazz though. Don't get me started on rock, funk, soul, and blues. Lightnin Hopkins, jack. Yep definitely sung before I played the trumpet. Wasn’t anything special until the trumpet, though.
Leron Thomas, top. Photo: Dailyswa Laurel/www.leronthomas.com
George Sandbach, managing director of new piano and wine jazz bar Sandy’s to open in the summer on Oxford’s King Edward Street, located between the High Street and Oriel Square, describes his hopes and dreams for the project
“Sandy’s came about for a few reasons. Firstly the nightlife in Oxford for non-students, the 25+ category, offers nothing past the hour of 12am. There are lots of cocktail bars and clubs at this time that are either filled with students or with heavily intoxicated locals. I manage both our Wine Cafes in Oxford and really struggled to advise tourists or even Londoners, who are across for the weekend, where to go after we stop serving. The Oxford Wine Cafes are a fantastic combo of coffee in the morning and quality, boutique wines in the evening with a small but delicious menu open until 11pm or 12am on the weekend. I knew there was a need for a late night venue without Jaegerbombs, UK Top 40 blaring out of the speakers, or 16-year-olds trying to sneak in!
“Our new venue will be without these themes but will still be open until late, 2 maybe 3am, we shall see what the demand is. Every Sunday we have jazz in our Summertown branch in North Oxford which is a huge hit. Packed every Sunday, this addition has drawn crowds and obviously there is a demand. We, the Oxford Wine Company, supply two piano bars in London, the owner of which is now a good friend of ours. After talking over this venue with him he piped up and said ‘why not have a piano bar in Oxford?’ The sceptic that I am I tried to punch holes in this idea but came to realise that actually this was a fantastic opportunity.
“There is very little live music in Oxford and if there is you have to do your research. With us, there will be live music every night and the best part is that it’s free. We will have an in-house pianist and try to get a guest band in once a week with perhaps a ‘come and play’ night, the latter of which must need some more attention! The idea is to have upbeat jazzy music with some old classics throughout the night with fantastic wines, requests will also be taken.
“We really hope to start a new trend in Oxford and in the towns near us. There seems to be a vast amount of young people missing London and moving back there due to the lack of quality nightlife or social scene in Oxford compared to that of London. We are trying to buck the trend and create a more unique scene in Oxford and hope others follow suit too, whether it is in music or something totally different. We are still essentially part of The Oxford Wine Company and so we will be offering a large selection of ‘by the glass wines’ from around the world and another selection of ‘wine by the bottle’. We will also be offering a small range of wine based cocktails, a range of beers and small select nibbles. We are looking to target the 25+ market, Oxfordshire based out-goers who have been frustrated with the lack of quality late night venue bars in Oxford compared to that of London. Don’t get me wrong there are some bars in town I do attend at this hour but in all honesty I still want to have a conversation with my girlfriend or group of mates at 12am not having to shout in their ear to talk about Federer’s graceful backhand!”
We may all return to the very dust of the same song time after time as if it is a window to our soul. Darn that dream, you might say with a sweep as some sort of archaic oath, or mean it more specifically. Jimmy Van Heusen (later renowned for his work with Frank Sinatra) wrote the melody of the song that these three words in that specific order represent as if they were always all along meant but had to be designed by someone to go and denote something together; Eddie (Moonglow) DeLange, the lyrics.
It emerged, like so many near-future jazz standards from a Broadway musical, in this case Swingin’ the Dream based on a certain puckish highly extended riff by the Bard re-located to the New Orleans of the 1890s. Benny Goodman co-supervised the music and led his sextet. Louis Armstrong played Bottom when it ran for a short time. The musical is pretty much long forgotten, the song, such is the enduring power of its devastating kryptonite, not at all, an elegance in its miniaturising of such emotional magnitude. Its allure extends even to Miles Davis' discography for instance and is rare in that the song finds the trumpeter on a vocals number, the singer highly mysterious still but that is another tale, a few references to it and Kenny Hagood further below.
Of these versions I prefer most the Billie Holiday and Bill Evans treatments for their different levels of introspection, probably the Holiday is my favourite. The Lena Horne is the most luxurious and seems showbizzy yet grows on me every time I hear it. Darn That Dream is so effective because the melody is the equal of the lyrics and you do not need to think about the words even if they speak volumes – it is that most untranslatable of sentiments, a song of disappointment that possesses no trace of bitterness, the mood and abstraction lethargic yet honest in their uncloying sense of conviction. The song just sends you into its own private world. And what of Kenny ‘Pancho’ Hagood, eh, still in the interstices but beyond our Ken? Certainly still so mysterious even decades after he died and not often written about during his lifetime when crooning dipped in and out of jazz fashions. In the late-1950s he was briefly married to Alice McLeod later Coltrane and they had a daughter together. If you like the deeper voiced Johnny Hartman and fast forward to these days (although not a jazz singer) Maxwell you will want to collect anything you can find that he is on. The closest I heard to the Hagood sound live so far was last year, on Frith Street, listening to Philip Harper with the Mingus band, moonlighting to sing as he laid his trumpet down.
The LA Times death notice for Hagood printed in 1989 reads: “Kenny (Pancho) Hagood, 62, a Detroit-born ballad and jazz singer probably best known for his rendition of Darn That Dream, the lone vocal on the 1950 Miles Davis album Birth of the Cool. Hagood toured Europe and the United States for a few years in the late 1940s with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and also recorded Gillespie’s theme song, I Waited For You. Times jazz critic Leonard Feather remembered him as ‘one of the better singers in the Billy Eckstine tradition.’ [Died] In Detroit on Wednesday of cancer.”