Saturday, October 5, 2019

Leo Wright: Alto Sax and Flute with Verve and Vigor

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

One of the most pleasurable experiences in Jazz is finding a musician who is new to you and whose music “speaks to you.”

Alto saxophonist and flutist Leo Wright was one, such discovery for me.

He was appearing at a club in Hollywood with Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet along with pianist Lalo Schifrin, bassist Bob Cunningham and drummer Chuck Lampkin.

Diz was making a West Coast swing shortly after the release of his Gillespiana LP, a 5-part suite that Lalo had composed for him and a large orchestra. All of the musicians in Diz’s group that night had also played on this recording.

Although Leo’s playing on Gillespiana really intrigued me, it in no way prepared me for what greeted me when I heard him in person.

I was sitting at a table close to the bandstand and the force of Leo’s sound on alto saxophone almost blew me away, such was its intensity and power.

This guy could blow and he sounded like nobody I’d ever heard before – the latter being the ultimate Jazz achievement – three or four bars and he is instantly recognizable.

He tore into his solos with a fierceness and reckless abandon that snapped your head back.

Leo sound was huge; it was so rich and muscular that it was difficult to believe it was coming through an alto saxophone.

He was a perfect compliment and complement to Dizzy that night as both adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude in their solos. Each egged the another on, much to the delight of an enraptured audience who innately knew that they were in attendance at a moment-in-time experience.

Thankfully, Leo was to remain a part of Dizzy’s quintet for about three years and make a number of recordings with him as well as a handful under his own name on the Atlantic label.

And then, just like that, he disappeared from the scene and like the music itself, he went to Europe to live.

Sadly, I was able to find very little about Leo in the Jazz literature.

Gary Carner prepared this overview of the highlights of his career for The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Barry Kernfeld, Ed.:

“Wright, Leo (Nash) (b Wichita Falls, TX, 14 Dec 1933). Alto saxophonist, flutist, and clarinetist. He studied saxophone with his father and John Hardee.

He made his first recording with Dave Pike (1958) and performed with Charles Mingus at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959. From 1959 to 1962 he played in Dizzy Gillespie's quintet and big band, appearing at the Monterey, Newport, and Antibes-Juan-les-Pins festivals and recording several albums. He also recorded with Richard Wil­liams (1960) and Eldee Young (1961), and in New York as the leader of bop quartets and quintets (1960-63); his sidemen included Junior Mance, Art Davis, Charli Persip, Williams, Kenny Burrell, and Ron Carter.

After leaving Gillespie, Wright recorded with Lalo Schifrin and Brother Jack McDuff (both 1962) and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Johnny Coles (all 1963).

In Europe he worked as a freelance and recorded with George Gruntz (1965) and with Lee Konitz in the all-star group Alto Summit (1968). After settling in Berlin he played with the studio band of Sender Freies Berlin and other groups, and appeared at jazz festivals in Germany, Switz­erland, and Finland. He later lived in Vienna and retired from music for a period from 1979; he first played again in 1986, recording an album of duets with his wife and performing with Nat Adderley, Grachan Moncur III, and Kenny Drew in the Paris Reunion Band.

A versatile instrumentalist, Wright was strongly influenced as a saxophone player by Johnny Hodges; his timbre on the alto instrument and the bluesy character of his solos show evidence of this. His flute sound, supported by a superb technique, is airy and resonant.”

And, as is so often the case, Leonard Feather offers detailed background explanation and musical analysis in the insert notes he wrote for Leo’s first album on Atlantic, Blues Shout [1358], which was issued in 1960:

“To anyone who has followed the flow of jazz through the veins of the last generation, it should come as no surprise that Leo Wright is a discovery of John Birks Gillespie. Aside from his contribution as a definitive instrumentalist, composer and arranger, not the least of Birks' works has been his talent for find­ing sidemen of exceptional ability.

Historians and fans may have overlooked the fact, but it was as a sideman with Dizzy's combo that Charlie Parker made his first vitally influential records in 1945. The list of stars who at one time or another have been members of the various Gillespie groups since then is almost endless. The entire personnel of the original Modern Jazz Quartet was composed of Gillespie alumni — John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. James Moody was the first of many saxophonists heard in the larger Gillespie ensembles. Quincy Jones, and many of the men heard in Quincy's most recent orchestra, were members of the big band fronted by Diz (and assembled for him by Quincy) in 1956-7. One of Quincy's 1960 sidemen was the guitarist and flutist Les Spann; it was Spann's chair that was taken over in the Gillespie Quintet, in August of 1959, by the slight, quiet-mannered young man who makes his leader debut on the present sides.

Leo Nash Wright was born December 14, 1933 in Wichita Falls, Texas. His father was an alto saxophonist who played with the band of a drummer named Clifford "Boots" Douglas (the group was called "Boots and His Buddies") that worked out of Houston. —Dad was a close friend of the musicians from Sherman, Texas," says Leo, —including Buddy Tate; also the brothers Budd and Keg Johnson from Dallas." Later, the senior Wright moved to San Francisco, where he became a merchant seaman; it was in the Bay Area that Leo was reared and first stud­ied saxophone with his father during the early 1940s.

Leo returned to Wichita Falls, where saxophonist John Hardee (heard on a few records around that time) had taken over the high school band and instructed him during his senior year. There were later studies at a Texas college, to which Leo had won a scholar­ship, and in San Francisco, where he spent a couple of years job­bing around before resuming his schooling.

"After one semester at San Francisco State, I had to stop again — the Army got me. That was in 1956, and as it turned out, it was one of my greatest musical experiences. I was part of a group of more than a hundred musicians and entertainers that played every kind of music all around Germany. I was in a symphony orchestra; I played with Porgy and Bess; I was put in charge of a jazz group. I met some fine musicians, including Cedar Walton and Don Ellis and Eddie Harris. I'd only fooled around a little with flute before the Army, but I got a good chance to develop as a flutist in the service. Altogether I was in for 21 months, then I went back to San Francisco State, majoring in music education."

While in the service, Leo had met the drummer Lex Humphries, who was then in the Air Force. When Humphries played in San Francisco as a member of the Gillespie group, he arranged for Leo to sit in with Dizzy. This turned out to he of con­siderable value later, for after Leo's money had run out he was compelled to give up his studies and, at the advice of some friends, decided to try his luck in New York. After he had worked with Charlie Mingus at the Half Note and at Newport, he received a wire from Dizzy asking him to join the group in Chicago.

Hearing Leo soon after this at a couple of jazz festivals, and later in New York at the Metropole and several other spots, I was impressed with the remarkable degree of maturity achieved by this young musician. Only 25 when he joined Diz, he displayed not mere­ly the superficial fluency of a schooled but mechanical musician, his qualities included a communicative, thoughtful approach and an evi­dent self confidence that belied his modest offstage personality.

For the first recording session under his own name, Leo was teamed on one session with Richard Williams, the remarkable young trumpeter who came to prominence during 1960 with var­ious small combos at Birdland as well as with Ernie Wilkins' big band on records. On the other date, his front-line partner was Harry Lookofsky, the amazing ex-symphony man who stopped in mid-career to develop a technique and style as a jazz violinist. Lookofsky masterminded a unique album, Stringsville (Atlantic 1319), that was one of the most successful efforts ever undertak­en in the difficult field of swinging-strings work. —I hadn't met Harry before" says Leo, "but I was glad Nesuhi Ertegun suggest­ed him for the date."

To compensate for the comparatively light, high-pitched sound of the front line, Leo says, "I decided I wanted a real bot­tom in my rhythm section. So I got Dizzy's bass player, Art Davis, who has a big, strong, full sound; and Junior Mance, who also was in Dizzy's group when I joined it; and another of Diz's former men, Charlie Persip, who I think is much more of a combo drum­mer than people give him credit for, even though he's worked just as successfully in big bands. …

Leo Wright's comment on his first album is characteristic of the man. "I'm not trying to be way out. What I wrote and what I played is a reflection of theory as I know it and as I apply it to my ideas. No twelve-tone rows, nothing like that. But I was hoping that someone might find it a little interesting."

It is considerably more than that. The evidence is persuasive­ly and pulsatingly at hand.”

Leonard had this to say about A Night in Tunisia, the track from Blues Shout that comprised the audio track on the following video tribute to Leo:

A Night In Tunisia, which Leo has played hundreds of times as a sideman working for the composer, has a slightly different guise here, the first six bars of each eight in the main phrase being played in a rather complex meter that might best be called 6/4. For the rest, it's the traditional routine, though even the bridge from first to second chorus is subjected to a rhythmic telescoping that gives it a fresh quality. Everyone solos —alto, piano, trumpet, drums, bass. The minor sixth with the ninth top at the end is strictly from Dizzy.”

1 comment:

  1. I also agree that "musician who is new to you and whose music “speaks to you.”" is in fact a musician. You are a great fan of Jazz, your post here also speaks a lot about you.

    Indeed a great work here. Publishing all the details you knew. Tough job, but still perfectly done. Keep it up!

    San Francisco Music Festival


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