The Normyn Suites
Release date: March 25, 2022
Label: Sunnyside Records
The Normyn Suites by the Michael Leonhart Orchestra is both a requiem and celebration, inspired by the life and death of the bandleader’s 15-year-old dog, a female mini dachshund named Normyn. The third album by the Michael Leonhart Orchestra features a pair of suites – the first of which is an exploration of the stages of grieving, while the second is a reflection on love and loss. In keeping with the MLO’s eclectic musical palette, the album features several collaborations with Elvis Costello, with contributions by Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and JSWISS as well as two bonus offerings with Donny McCaslin.
“The Normyn Suites is an elegy; to listen is to spend time in that space of loss, reckoning, questioning, and mourning. At the same time, though, with each note, each phrase, we are propelled back into life,” reflects author Alexandra Horowitz in the stirring liner notes. The first part is titled “The Normyn Suite #1: (Soundtrack to the Five Stages of Grieving)”, and was inspired by “The Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle”, a model introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. “The Five Stages of Grief” is a critically acclaimed study on how humans handle loss.
For this suite in five parts, Leonhart expands the MLO’s live performance palette of brass, woodwinds and strings to include choir and found percussion over gritty breakbeat drums.
Leonhart shares, “I wanted “Denial” and “Anger” to have an emotional tension and raw quality, almost a whiplash effect, before the contemplative soloing of Bill Frisell over the peaceful “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 monophonic synths before Jim Pugh (trombone) and Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) take turns as instrumental narrators. Leonhart’s years with Pugh and Weiskopf as part of the Steely Dan horn section inspired him to choose them specifically for their expressiveness and personal experiences with loss. The final movement of the suite,“Acceptance” starts with Leonhart’s mother Donna singing a wordless melody over chamber strings. Leonhart utilizes gospel harmonies and a written soli over a soulful 6/8 groove to represent the peace and empowerment that come with the true recognition of personal heartbreaking loss.
“The Normyn Suite #2: (Love & Loss)” is a collection of 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 Larry Goldings), “Waking From Sedation” (featuring Bill Frisell), “Freedom From The Pain”, “Unconditional Love”, “La Preghiera”, and “The Dunes Of Cahoon Hollow” take listeners on an dazzling sonic journey.
In addition to the two suites, the album features three songs co-written with Elvis Costello during the quarantine. There are two versions of “Shut Him Down” 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. Costello performs spoken word on “Radio is Everything”, featuring legendary guitarists Bill Frisell & Nels Cline who also co-wrote the songs with Leonhart and Costello. The final collaboration is the driving “Newspaper Pane”.
Two bonus tracks, “Kenny Dorham” and “Wayne Shorter”, present the debut recording of Leonhart’s organ quartet featuring Donny McCaslin. These two songs were initially composed as a birthday tribute to each of these jazz legends, two of Leonhart’s favorite small group composers.
The Michael Leonhart Orchestra developed its singular sound over the course of its monthly residencies at Jazz Standard, one of New York’s most prestigious jazz rooms. Pre-pandemic, Leonhart was steadily honing his vision there, with unconventional instrumentation and a shapeshifting community of sought-after players from a variety of cutting-edge scenes and disciplines. Leonhart’s approach to the MLO is informed by his many other activities and wide-ranging credits: he’s a top-level jazz trumpeter and longtime member of Steely Dan; a gifted and distinctive 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). The polyglot musical worldview Leonhart has developed as a result stamps the MLO’s work at every moment. And the joy he gets from it is infectious.
Hailed as “a blazing hot mess of awesome” by The New York City Jazz Record, the Michael Leonhart Orchestra (MLO) traverses a huge swath of musical terrain, guided by the highly developed ears, ceaselessly omnivorous tastes and playful yet meticulous artistry of its leader, Michael Leonhart.
The Michael Leonhart Orchestra features a who’s-who of today’s contemporary musical talent including Keyon Harrold, Catherine Russell, E.J. Strickland, Freddie Hendrix, Eric Friedlander, Ryan Keberle, and more.