The Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra
Heartwarming stories such as that of Peter Leitch deserve attention. Although the Canadian-born, New York City-based guitarist can no longer play his guitar for audiences, he perseveres, having been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer eight years ago. Due to remarkable work by his oncologist, he is still alive and driven by music. He has reinvented himself as a composer, arranger, and director of a 15-piece orchestra. So, the aptly named New Life is the expansive double CD debut for The Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra.
At 74, Leitch offers, “It occurred to me that I was free from the tyranny of the jazz guitar—of having to practice very day. I realized I could create music that was not limited to four fingers on six strings. I began to write.” The results of two years of this writing comprise the 17 pieces in this project. It seems that Leitch vacillated between a medium-sized ensemble and a big band, and he settled on a compromise wherein it is indeed a big band playing arrangements more suited to a small unit, thereby providing more soloing and improvisation than one typically hears from a big band. If there was a bit of uncertainty there, Leitch was determined to assemble top echelon players. Among the recognizable names are saxophonists Steve Wilson and Dave Pietro (who also play with Maria Schneider’s Big Band), pianist Peter Zak, trumpeters Duane Eubanks and Bill Mobley, and tenorist Jed Levy. Most of these are original compositions with some standards such as “’Round Midnight” and “Spring Is Here.” Levy is the composer of “The Minister’s Son.”
The idea of two discs is essentially to replicate two concert sets. He begins, not surprisingly, by nodding to his oncologist in “Mood for Max” (For Dr. Maxim Kreditor), followed by one for his wife in “Portrait of Sylvia.” “Sorta, Kinda” is a stretched out blues before moving to the shortest track (2 minutes) entitled “Monk’s Circle, “ the cul-de-sac in Los Angeles where the Monk family resided for years, that now bears the name “Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle.” Although the soloists are not denoted in the credits, we’ll mention them when we can. ”’Round Midnight” features Eubanks and guitarist Phil Robson. Both Wilson and Pietro play alto and soprano while Levy plays flute and alto flute in addition to tenor. Tim Harrison plays flute exclusively. Levy and Harrison play throughout while the two saxophonists never play on the same track, instead alternating as denoted on the jacket.
Leitch seemed to be drawn to colors on the latter part of Disc I as “Penumbra” is the line that divides light and shadow in visual art while “Brilliant Blue, Twilight Blue” uses shifting rhythms to denote the shifting patterns of the sky. “Fulton Street Suite” though, rather obviously is about lower Manhattan in three distinct parts -Prelude: the mystique of ancient streets, Theater Alley – the forerunner of Broadway, and fast-pace blues for the financial center.
Disc 2’s opener, “Exhilaration” is about Leitch’s arrival in NYC in 1982. He uses some clever wordplay in “Elevnases” to marry the ear (Gil Evans) and the eye (photographer Walker Evans). “Clifford Jordan” nods to great saxophonist and composer, a Leitch favorite while he also honors saxophonist Charles Davis in “Ballad for Charles Davis.” Levy’s “The Minister’s Son” is yet another tribute this time with a saxophonist honoring the late pianist John Hicks. These three pieces and the three that follow the Rodgers and Hart standard “Spring Is Here” (featuring especially sparkling turns from guitarist Robson and pianist Peter Zak) are Leitch’s way of expressing the profound influence of Black American music on his writing. “Back Story” is slow blues. “Tutwiler 2001” is about a small town in Mississippi before the state formally recognized its own deep musical tradition. It was a railroad town, one of the major departure points\\\\ for the migration north. “The Long Walk Home” treads (sorry, couldn’t help it) similar turf as it’s a 12-bar blues.
This music is vibrant, inventive, playful at times with a bit of everything from melodies to colors, textures, to light and dense moments. His are challenging compositions for the musicians, offset by the freedom that many get to improvise. It can be a challenging listen if you approach it from a big band mindset, yet if you are more open to improvisation, it becomes much more fun, as it takes you in many directions.
- Jim Hynes