The Michael Leonhart Orchestra w/ Elvis Costello, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline & More Convene On ‘The Normyn Suites’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

If you’ve ever lost a dog, you can relate to the poignant stages of grief and reflection. Composer and bandleader Michael Leonhart does exactly that with his The Normyn Suites, inspired by the life and death of his 15-year-old dog, a female mini dachshund named Normyn. This requiem and celebration may seem relatively tame at first glance but offers an amazing 71 musicians and singers in the credits including collaborations with Elvis Costello, and contributions from Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and JSWISS as well as two bonus offerings with Donny McCaslin. As one courses through this expansive list, we see such familiar names as Keyon HarroldChris Potter, Catherine Russell, E.J. StricklandFreddie HendrixEric FriedlanderRyan Keberle, Larry Goldings, Cochemea, and many more.

Quickly, if you’re not familiar with the multi-talented Leonhart here is just a short glimpse of his many endeavors. He’s an elite jazz trumpeter and longtime member of Steely Dan; a gifted pianist; a singer, songwriter and film composer; a session player with credits including the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson megahit Uptown Funk“; an accomplished orchestrator (Nels Cline’s Lovers) and producer (Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos, Sachal Vasandani’s Slow Motion Miracles). Leonhart’s multi-dimensional worldview shapes the unpredictable, versatile work of the Michael Leonhart Orchestra (MLO), with this, their third album.

Primarily the two suites read as an elegy, interspersed with other tracks which we will describe later. The first part is titled “The Normyn Suite #1: (Soundtrack to the Five Stages of Grieving)”, inspired by “The Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle”, a model introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.  We must all be familiar with the sequence – Denial, Anger, Catharsis, Nostalgia, and Acceptance. For this five-part suite, Leonhart expands the MLO’s live performance configuration of brass, woodwinds and strings to include choir and percussion over gritty breakbeat drums. Leonhart creates emotional tension that he describes as “almost a whiplash” effect with the jagged horn parts, careening strings, and driving percussion in the first two stages before welcoming the calming notes of Bill Frisell soloing over lush, teeming strings in “Catharsis.”

The fourth composition, “Nostalgia” opens with a nod to the main melody of “The Dunes Of Cahoon Hollow” (from “Suite #2), orchestrated for choir and synths before Leonhart’s Steely Dan bandmates Jim Pugh (trombone) and Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) deliver expressive statements, conjuring loss. The final movement of the suite, “Acceptance” starts with Leonhart’s mother Donna singing a wordless melody over chamber strings. Leonhart employs gospel harmonies from a ten-person choir and a floating theme over a soulful groove to evoke the peace that finally arrives at the final stage of loss. 

“The Normyn Suite #2: (Love & Loss)” collects six pieces Leonhart began composing in the final weeks of Normyn’s life, when she was physically too weak to walk and began to lose her appetite. Leonhart would bring her to the studio where she would rest in her favorite bag on top of the grand piano while he played and composed. The six pieces “May The Young Grow Old” (featuring organist Larry Goldings), “Waking From Sedation” (featuring Bill Frisell), the choral “Freedom From The Pain”, soothing symphonic “Unconditional Love”, the dissonant piano-driven “La Preghiera”, and the echoing, spacious horns and choir in “The Dunes Of Cahoon Hollow” create a sonic journey that will evoke endless visual imagery and will leave listeners lost in dreamlike thoughts.

Now to the other compositions – the album features three songs co-written with Elvis Costello during the quarantine. There are two versions of the funky, percolating “Shut Him Down,” with Costello’s vocal prominent, bookending the suites — one with Joshua Redman, playing his late father Dewey’s newly restored tenor saxophone for the first time on record, the other with Chris Potter on bass clarinet with JSWISS rapping. Costello performs spoken word on “Radio is Everything”, which pairs guitarists Bill Frisell Nels Cline, both co-writers with Leonhart and Costello. The final collaboration is the atmospheric, driving “Newspaper Pane,” listed as a bonus track, with both Costello and Frisell. Two more bonus tracks, “Kenny Dorham” and “Wayne Shorter,” serve as debut recordings of Leonhart’s organ quartet featuring tenorist Donny McCaslin aside Leonhart’s trumpet while the leader is also credited with organ, drums, and bass. 

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra thrives on unconventional instrumentation, relatable themes, and highly sought-after players coming at this work from different perspectives to deliver a purposely uneven album. The Costello co-writes and the quartet features on one level don’t fit but add intrigue and contrasting tonality that amplify the emotional impact of the two cohesive suites.

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