I met the delightfully imaginative Carl Sonny Leyland a decade or more ago, and was quickly made welcome in his many-hued world. More about that whimsy of mine after the music. Don’t let the somber photo study above spook you: that is the face he puts on when he wants a minute’s peace after having been polite to his many admirers.
Hot Jazz sometimes can seem a little lopsided, tilting in the direction of the past, of course because there is so much beauty to be found there). Musicians in the present treat the past in divergent ways: I’ll call them Strict Tempo and Rubato. The ST people approach with awe and reverence, as if the materials we have — mostly recordings and sheet music, transcriptions and the like — are tiles in a holy mosaic. Their commendable goal is to reproduce past glories as accurately as possible. That’s not easy, as anyone who has tried to sound like Charlie Christian or Joe Thomas can tell you. The Rubato fellows have lovely vintage neckties, but theirs are loosened; Rubato women wear gorgeous vintage dresses but might pair them with red Keds. They feel that the heroes were innovative, and would encourage a kind of respectful innovation as the greatest tribute.
I write this to introduce Sonny’s lively and individualistic treatment of James P. Johnson’s CAROLINA SHOUT in March 2011, location unknown, although perhaps a house party, with the gentleman on the couch exhausted by it all — hedonism is tough work:
I have no doubt that James P. is admiring this and pointing to that young fellow at the keyboard with pride.
To PLAYLAND. I could have put on my English-professor garb and said that Sonny lives by the light of Whitman and Emerson, encompassing multitudes, delighting in contradictions, trusting himself. True — perhaps a little pompous, but valid.
However, even though it is childish to pun on people’s names, I had the vision of Sonny as creator and proprietor of a vast — although secret — amusement park, with bright lights, sleek modernist rides made of gleaming metal in curves and elliptical orbits, snack bars serving Bombay gin and chickpea curry, and at odd corners of the park signs enticing Annoying People, pedants, and arm-grabbers to be sucked into darkness and deposited miles away, to teach them to be less Annoying. No hot dogs, no distorted music coming through speakers. I’d be delighted to visit. But until we are invited, we can hear its proprietor creating lively surprises at the keyboard.