Jay Leonhart, one of Manhattan’s most in demand bass players is somewhat of a Renaissance man. He also happens to be a singer, composer and creator of some very witty lyrics. A busy studio musician, he pops up when one least expects to see him at jazz concerts and most often in support of cabaret singers.
In his featured solo turn at the Oak Room, there’s no sign of the usual cabaret fare. There are no Gershwin or Sondheim charts on the music stands. The hour is all Leonhart and his wry humor is devilishly hip.
Leonhart is a quiet observer of life around him and his story songs reflect a gallery of amusing portraits. He covers considerable terrain with his fanciful poetry from a “Robert Frost” protest song and the dusty reflections of a “Lonely Cowboy,” to “Me and Lenny,” inspired by a cross country flight the musician shared with Leonard Bernstein.
Leonhart’s sprawling canvas covers a broad spectrum and his picturesque songs summon a kind of Norman Rockwell vision of Americana. In “On the Road,” the lyrics explore a musician’s lonely journey, dotted with midwestern towns, cheap motels and endless roads. “The Strangest Thing” was perhaps the most touching reflection of all, with its study of a piano player who “didn’t use a pick-up or an amp” and “played music written centuries ago.” It was a poignant and reverent observation of a musician and the vision was heightened by Bill Charlap’s Debussy-flavored piano interlude.
While the wry humor of the lyrics take center stage, one cannot deny the sameness of the repertoire. The clever little patter songs — as delightful as they are — lack a musical variety. Leonhart is admirably assisted by Charlap’s piano and some beautifully restrained muted trumpet solos by son Michael Leonhart, taking a few days off from a current tour with Steely Dan.
Not to forget that he is a masterful bassist, Leonhart’s instrument remains his best friend. The fingers are always busy, the chords are boldly defined and the lyrics are dotted with colorfully inventive bass lines.