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Original big band music from Peter Leitch

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    Posted: 26 Oct 2020 at 8:36pm

Although PETER LEITCH can’t play guitar for audiences anymore, it hasn’t curtailed his creativity or his indomitable spirit. Diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2012, the prognosis was grim. He could either undergo potentially career-ending treatment or face the possibility of dying within months. Eight years later, thanks to a brilliant oncologist, he is still alive. Although he is unable to play his instrument, he is still driven to create music. Leitch has re-invented himself as a composer, arranger, and director of a 15-piece orchestra. Celebrating this transformation, he has released NEW LIFE, the debut, 2-disc recording by the eponymous PETER LEITCH NEW LIFE ORCHESTRA.

Spanning several decades, Leitch has built an impressive discography as a guitarist, leader, and composer. A native of Montréal but a longtime resident of New York City, he has performed in most of the popular jazz rooms in the city, such as Jazz Standard, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, The Blue Note and Birdland. A tour favorite, Leitch and his groups have appeared at festivals and clubs in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. Versatile in a broad range of jazz artistry, he has worked/recorded with some of the top names in jazz, including Oscar Peterson, Ron Carter, Milt Jackson, Woody Shaw, Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Jack McDuff, Kenny Wheeler, Al Grey, and John Hicks.

With his recovery underway, Leitch found that his interest in music was still strong. Leitch says, “At my age [74], I considered myself retired from the music business. I couldn’t play anymore. But I couldn’t get rid of this urge to be involved in music and it seemed to me that the only way I could do it was to start writing. I wrote a few things and wanted to hear what they sounded like, set up a rehearsal and it went from there. Suddenly I found myself being a bandleader, which I didn’t expect to happen.” The result is his NEW LIFE ORCHESTRA.

The title NEW LIFE refers both to his personal odyssey and to the music itself. “After coming to terms with the loss of the use of my left arm as the result of the chemo and radiation,” Leitch says, “It occurred to me that I was free from the tyranny of the jazz guitar--of having to practice every day. I realized I could create music that was not limited to four fingers on six strings. I began to write.”

It took Leitch two years to compose, arrange, and orchestrate the 17 pieces that comprise this project. In search of a personal voice in writing for a medium-sized ensemble, he was looking for something that sounded like a bigger band but had the freedom and looseness of a small group. The arrangements serve as a framework and showcase for the improvisations and creativity of the soloists who comprise the New Life Orchestra, all supported by a solid yet flexible and interactive rhythm section. Some familiar names in the band include altoist STEVE WILSON, pianist PETER ZAK, trumpeters DUANE EUBANKS and BILL MOBLEY, and tenor saxman JED LEVY.

With this bigger band, Leitch took a couple of pieces that he composed earlier for record dates with smaller groups and expanded the arrangements. Some are new and specifically written for this orchestra, but most are original compositions. He also included a couple of standards, for example, Monk’s ‘‘Round Midnight.”

The project consists of two CDs, corresponding to two sets of music in a club or concert. Disc 1 opens with “Mood for Max,” which is dedicated to Dr. Maxim Kreditor, the oncologist who saved his life. He composed “Portrait of Sylvia” for the love of his life, his wife Sylvia Levine. “Sorta, Kinda” is a kind of stretched out blues form. Leitch composed “Monk's Circle” to commemorate the official renaming of the cul-de-sac in Manhattan (where the Monk family resided for years) to "Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle" in 1983. Monk’s “Round Midnight” features trumpeter Eubanks and guitarist PHIL ROBSON. “Penumbra” is the line that divides light and shadow in visual art. “Brilliant Blue, Twilight Blue” reflects the changing colors of the sky, with its shifting rhythms and changing tempos. “Fulton Street Suite” is a tour of 19th century lower Manhattan in three parts. Prelude: The mystique with its ancient streets; Theater Alley: the beginnings of the Broadway stage; and the fast Blues that reflects the ups and downs of the financial markets that made New York "The capital of the 20th century."

Disc 2 opens with “Exhilaration” about Leitch’s arrival in New York in 1982. “Elevanses” is a wordplay that reconciles the ear and the eye, with a nod to Gil Evans and Walker Evans. “Clifford Jordan” is a tribute to one of Leitch’s favorite saxophone players and composers. “Ballad for Charles Davis” is an homage to sax great Charles Davis. Leitch says, “Playing with Charles was like playing with the entire history of Black American music.” “The Minister's Son” is saxophonist Levy's remembrance of the late great pianist John Hicks. “Spring Is Here” is a reharmonization of the beautiful Rodgers and Hart ballad. “Back Story” is a slow blues honoring Black America's contribution to the world's music. “Tutwiler 2001” is about a small town in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi before the state finally formally recognized its own deep musical tradition. It was a railroad town, which was one of the major points of departure in the great migration north. “The Long Walk Home” is a 12-bar blues.

Although Leitch misses the in-the-moment aspect of being an improvising musician, he has found a new outlet for his endless creativity. His original melodies range from hauntingly beautiful to classically inventive to playful. His orchestrations also have a wide range of colors and textures, from dense and dissonant to light, airy and contrapuntal. His music is fun and challenging for the musician, but more fun for the listener to absorb it all.

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NEW LIFE will be released on November 20, 2020 and will be available online everywhere.


Edited by js - 26 Oct 2020 at 8:43pm
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