Club Review: Alex Leonard and The Sutton Place Trio

August 9, 2021 | By

Alex Leonard

“What Is This Thing Called Love?” is a deceptively simple 1929 Cole Porter tune that alternates major and minor chords, and is a perennial favorite of jazz musicians. Pianist and singer Alex Leonard set it up as a ballad, sliding in on lead vocals for the first verse, then switched it up with a tempo change in the instrumental—which quoted Sarah Vaughan’s scatted verse in her 1963 Sassy Swings the Tivoli live album version of the song. It was the third number of the evening—which was presented as part of Ben Cassara’s Hot Summer Nights Jazz series at Pangea—and the moment when where we really met Leonard as a singer. Leonard’s warm, focused vocal delivery with a pleasing rasp was working so well that it was surprising to hear that he had laryngitis and that his stellar Sutton Place Trio, with Al Gafa on guitar and Jay Leonhart on bass, were working on the fly— which jazz musicians are, almost by definition, very good at. You’d figure when you play with people who have worked with everyone in the business from Carmen McRae, Sting, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, to Dizzy Gillespie, that your personnel can make quick changes.

Alex Leonard has done his time in the cabaret community, as an accompanist and arranger, and it’s nice to see him step out in front. A very accomplished pianist with a clear, understated style (that potentially has been influenced by early studies with the Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist John Lewis), his patter is peppered with dry, self-effacing humor. Their opening number, “Azure-Te (Paris Blues)” (Wild Bill Davis) started with the band scatting the melody, because, as Leonard later explained with a deadpan face, they’d had a year and a half during the pandemic to learn the words (Donald E. Wolf), and…they hadn’t.

The Sutton Place Trio (l. to r.): Jay Leonhart, Al Gafa, and Alex Leonard (Photo: Ben Cassara)

A truly magical instrumental, Al Gafa’s “Barcelona” was a close Catalan cousin of “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislaw Kaper, Ned Washington), with a spacious, ambient beginning moving into a strong melody with a pulse, with periodic nods to flamenco guitar. Bassist Jay Leonhart was a great storyteller for cabaret audiences, and his funny “Me and Lenny” song about the time he sat next to Leonard Bernstein on a plane was followed by “Cool” (Bernstein, Sondheim). Alex Leonard’s piano solo on “Cool” was one of his best of the evening: playing a little bigger than other moments, really swinging, and bringing an easy authority.

The fairly commonplace practice of jazz players doubling their instrumental line by quietly scatting it to themselves is not meant to be fully-performative, it’s more a musician’s thinking-out-loud process. That night, it worked better in some moments than others. It seems likely that the mic was picking up the extra texture in Leonard’s voice, and so we were hearing it more prominently than we normally would. Because there was also full-out scatting and singing that was meant to take center stage, those transitions between levels of attentiveness to the vocals were occasionally challenging to navigate.

“Moonlight and Shadows” was a Leonard original, a heartbreaker of a ballad, done in all seriousness but wittily introduced as a romantic crowd-pleaser—his vocals were lovely. “End of a Love Affair” (Edward Redding) was also a strong choice for his voice, and the arrangement had a bounce that differentiated it from many of the pure ballad versions that have been done in the past. “Destination Moon” (Marvin Fisher, Roy Alfred) is an easy-going song with fantasy lyrics about an interstellar honeymoon, perhaps most famously performed by Nat King Cole, and this was also a good chance to relax and spend time with Leonard as both a pianist and a singer.

These guys, all great players and seasoned pros, manage to stylishly cross between jazz and cabaret in a way that doesn’t dilute either tradition.


Presented by Ben Cassara at Pangea as part of Pangea’s Hot Summer Nights Jazz series on July 28.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.

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