The Canadian jazz guitarist Peter Leitch was a familiar presence in the clubs of New York City after moving from Montreal in the early 1980s. He recorded 20 albums as a leader and worked with just about everyone from Oscar Peterson and Kirk Lightsey to Woody Shaw and Kenny Wheeler. Like many others before and since, Leitch suffered the downside of the jazz lifestyle with bouts of depression and addiction, which were laid bare in his painfully honest autobiography Off The Books published in 2013. It was the year before, at the age of 68, that Leitch was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
Although he survived the intense medical treatment that surely saved his life, due to the resulting nerve damage he was no longer able to play guitar. After a few years in recovery, Leitch felt he had unfinished business with jazz and began to write music. Before long he found himself directing a 15 piece line-up of New York musicians specifically to play his new repertoire that became his ‘New Life Orchestra’. After a number of rehearsals and live gigs at The 75 Club and a St. Peter’s Church Midday Jazz concert, over two hours of music was recorded in January 2020 by Ryan Strieber and produced by Leitch and Andy Farber, then mixed at Bass Hit Recording by David Darlington.
Split into two CDs to correspond to two club sets, New Life consists of 14 original pieces plus Monk’s Round Midnight, Rogers and Hart’s Spring is Here and New Life Orchestra’s tenor saxophonist Jed Levy’s The Minister’s Son. Leitch sets out his plan in the liner notes: ‘in search of a personal voice, in writing for a medium-size ensemble I was looking for something that sounded like a bigger band but had the freedom and looseness of a small group, and a way of seamlessly combining the written and the improvised.’
From the opening musical dedication to his oncologist, the music swings confidently with a vibrant and positive energy. Leitch clearly has so much that he wants to say and there’s a great deal to digest, from the blues and hard bop to more modern and abstract elements, but the quality of the writing and the subtlety and texture of the arrangements is immediately apparent. There are some lovely tunes throughout the two sets, Penumbra may be the most memorable theme I’ve heard all year, Clifford Jordan gives off a warm glow and the stretched out blues Sorta, Kinda is really satisfying. There are more, especially the love songs to New York City – Fulton Street Suite and Exhilaration, and to his wife, Sylvia Levine, without whom one can imagine this project would never have come together.
This band of musicians perform the music with real commitment. There are so many compelling solos from everyone involved, especially pianist Peter Zak, trumpeters Duane Eubanks and Bill Mobley and saxophonists Steve Wilson and Jed Levy. It’s also a pleasure to hear guitarist Phil Robson who is on superb form: our loss is New York’s gain.
This project has everything, from a remarkable and moving backstory through to a triumphant and satisfying musical conclusion. I hope as many of you as possible take the trouble to seek out and listen to this music, you won’t regret it.
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