Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On A Misty Night with Peter Leitch - A JazzProfiles Snapshort

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

“Drawing on every available aspect of the guitar tradition, Leitch is a smooth and accomplished performer whose very facility sometimes disguises the sophistication of what he is doing. Easy in the studio, he has created a substantial body of recorded work.

Listening to the evolution of the music and the musicians on Leitch's records in a recording career stretching back to the mid-'8os shows how much Leitch has evolved from an essentially horn-based style to a much more guitaristic (his own word) approach.

When he came to Criss Cross, Gerry Teekens gave him the breadth and leeway he wanted to make swinging but intelligent records which refused to sit neatly in any currently agreed niche.

In all his Criss Cross recordings, there's the same sageness of utterance and fertility of invention that make them equally hard to resist. For the interplay of guitar and percussion, underlining Leitch's strong rhythmic instincts, they are a highly recommended showcase for a quiet and understated talent.”
- Richard Cook, Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

I thought it would be fun to work-up a series of brief features - what I have been referring to as JazzProfiles “snapshots” - on three musicians from what I call the Soft School of Jazz guitar playing.

The Soft School of Jazz Guitar members are made up of those guitar players who caress the instrument and who seem to gently coach a sound from it rather than the percussively pluck it and pick it alternative, which is fine, too, when I’m in the mood for that approach to guitar Jazz.

Mundell Lowe, Johnny Smith and Jim Hall generally fall into the former category while Pat Martino, Tal Farlow and Joe Pass are typically grouped into the latter category [Although to be fair Pat, Tal and Joe also fit the first category. So much for generalizations but you get the idea.]

Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel seem to straddle both categories, but after a while one begins to understand why Duke Ellington used the phrase “beyond category” when he was pressed to answer questions of groupings regarding certain musicians.

The three guitarists that I had in mind for Soft School Snapshots [doncha just love alliterations?] are Peter Leitch, Jimmy Raney and Kenny Burrell. Let’s start with guitarist Peter Leitch who I first heard on a Criss Cross CD [1026] entitled On A Misty Night with bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Mickey Roker.

What initially attracted me to the CD was its superb track selection Jazz Standards including the Tadd Dameron’s title track, Tom McIntosh’s The Cup Bearers, Wayne Shorter’s Witch Hunt, Monk’s Crepescule with Nellie and Sonny Rollins’ Airegin, beautiful treatments of two Great American Songbook tunes, Serenata and Spring is Here and two originals by Peter - Duet and Fifty Up.   

I also learned a great deal about Peter and his approach to music from these informative insert notes by Mark Gardner which include references to other Soft School of Jazz Guitar candidates.

"A superficial study of the history of modern jazz guitar will show that this instrument has had many important and creative non-American exponents. Starting with Django Reinhardt, Europe developed a special guitar tradition which found its greatest modern exponent in the late Rene Thomas, a Belgian like Django. Ireland produced John McLaughlin and Louis Stewart. From France came Sacha Distel, and more recently Dave Cliff emerged in England.

So much for Europe, but closer to the USA Peter Leitch has now emerged from comparative obscurity in Canada to take his place with the front rank guitarists. Peter was born 41 years ago in Ottawa, but was brought up and began playing jazz in Montreal. It was on an album he made there in the early 1970s that I first heard him. He made impressive contributions to a Sadik Hakim album entitled The London Suite.

By 1977 Peter had moved to Toronto, but after five years in that city he was drawn to New York, the recognized centre of jazz. His five years in the Apple are proof enough of his talent and ability. He has worked with an astonishing range of leaders including Milt Jackson, Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard , Red Norvo, Al Grey, Jimmy Forrest and Woody Shaw. Fellow Canadian Oscar Peterson employed him for two Pablo albums.

This is the fourth released album by Peter Leitch but the first in which he has chosen to use the conventional trio instrumentation throughout. His U.S. debut record for Uptown was a quintet set with the late Pepper Adams.

It was deservedly well received. The present set was taped two years later and marks the growing maturity and expressive depth of a fluent improviser at the peak of his powers.

It's interesting that Peter names Kenny Burrell and Rene Thomas as two of his main musical influences, because, like those two, he is a guitarist who always swings. Thomas, of course, worked extensively in Canada before his untimely death, and it was Sonny Rollins who proclaimed him the greatest guitarist since Charlie Christian. Burrell has been among the most consistent creators in the art. So Peter took good models, though his playing betrays no stifling influences but rather displays a welcome freshness. His other influences were saxophonists John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, and pianists McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell and Bill Evans. That's a good listening list!

Peter Leitch ("My name is actually pronounced leech, as in the familiar aquatic blood-feeding worm") receives exceptional support in this well cooked session from bassist Neil Swainson and drum master Mickey Roker. Swainson will be a new name to many. Says Peter, "Neil is not yet widely known, perhaps because he lives in Canada. But as good as he plays, everyone's going to know about him. He's right up there with today's great bassists - just ask Woody Shaw or George Shearing, with whom Neil has been heard both in Europe and the U.S."

Mickey Roker, from Miami, Florida, has been playing drums professionally for more than 30 years during which his employers have included Milt Jackson, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie. Now that Philly Joe Jones has gone, Mickey keeps alive that crisp, hard-driving style which Jones propagated among his disciples, of whom Roker is one of the best.

The programme for this set incorporates four works by some of the great jazz composers - Tadd Dameron, Tom Mclntosh, Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk. Peter, more so than any other jazz guitarist I can think of, has a particular feel for Thelonious’ compositions. On a previous album he presented three Monk tunes. There's only one this time around but it's worth waiting for.

Peter wrote his own commentary on the music and here it is: On A Misty Night is Tadd Dameron's portrait of a damp evening sometime after Labor Day (harmonic structure September In The Rain). This version uses the interlude, out chorus and coda from Dameron's 1961 large band arrangement (on Riverside). Great drumming by Mickey Roker on the out chorus.

No More/Detour Ahead: A medley of two bittersweet ballads which were sung by Billie Holiday. They are not as well known as they should be.

Fifty Up is a simple but tricky blues line. Fifty Up is a brand of Canadian ale. This piece was written for a drummer friend who quite enjoys this particular product. This is also dedicated to the late Pepper Adams who enjoyed this blues as well as the ale.

The Cup Bearers: A harmonically and structurally interesting composition by Tom Mclntosh, a somewhat underrated composer and trombonist who has written for Dizzy Gillespie, Blue Mitchell, James Moody and Art Farmer among others.

Witch Hunt is a Wayne Shorter composition whose modal harmony lends itself well to stretching out in trio format.

Crepescule With Nellie: I have an affinity for Monk's music, perhaps unlike any other guitarist. On this, I use the steel string acoustic guitar to bring out the inherent back-country blues feel that is in much of Monk's music - particularly his solo piano works.

Spring Is Here is a somewhat reharmonized, quasi-bossa version of the Richard Rodgers standard. I have been playing this arrangement for several years, but it was new to me at the time.

Duet: This piece was originally written as a duet for guitar and piano. As you will hear, it works well for bass and guitar. It has a great bass solo by Neil Swainson.

Serenata: A piece of music I remember hearing on the radio on Sunday afternoons from my childhood, although certainly at a slower tempo than we did it here."

Sonny Rollins's Airegin has long been one of my favorites. I really am glad this is being issued on the CD; there just wasn't room for it on the LP.

The above lucid descriptions contain no references to the cogent, controlled and coursing playing of Peter Leitch. Neither does he mention his unswerving commitment to the jazz guitar tradition which comes through strongly in his improvisations. At times, as on Detour Ahead, he achieves the purity of sound and clarity of line that we associate with Jimmy Raney (whose essential works of the 1980s are all to find on Criss Cross Jazz). And if its funky, dug-in bluesology you crave, cop Peter's groovy choruses on Fifty Up.

There are many other savouries in this collection, Peter's acute chordal sense being most apparent on the theme by Mclntosh. But Crepescule With Nellie is really something special - a strikingly different solo treatment of Thelonious’ amble with his lady, but it is foursquare in the Monk mood. The modality of Which Hunt never becomes a bore as Peter's diligent digits fly. I too heard Serenata on radio as a kid, but never imagined that this piece of grist for lightweight dance bands could sound so good as to make the proverbial silk purse.

This album will surely provide many listeners with a greater awareness of the substantial and singular talent of Peter Leitch. You'll find it rewarding to string along with him.”

Mark Gardner (Author: Jam Session) Faversham, February 1987.

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