Carolyn Leonhart loves harmony. She doesn’t think it’s in short supply in today’s musical landscape and will tell you succinctly why, if you ask. In jazz, there’s plenty to go around, as Leonhart’s performances tonight and tomorrow downstairs at The Little Nell will demonstrate.
Leonhart is returning to Aspen as part of JAS Cafe’s Winter Concert Series. She was last here two years ago performing with a big band at the Aspen Art Museum. This time around, Leonhart will be joined on stage by four other musicians. “I love coming to Aspen and getting away from the city,” Leonhart said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s such a beautiful place and I can’t wait to perform jazz standards and non-jazz tunes uniquely arranged in front of a crowd of deep listeners of music.”
A native New Yorker, Leonhart grew up enveloped by the city’s jazz scene. She spent much of her childhood accompanying her father, bassist/composer/singer Jay Leonhart, on his many recording sessions and gigs. By age 8, she was singing professionally. As a teenager, Leonhart listened to a variety of music, attended LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and by the time she graduated, established herself as a featured soloist in the school’s acclaimed gospel choir.
But before graduating, she reconnected with jazz. Leonhart began sitting in with her father at the Blue Note and finding her own voice. “I drew then and still to this day influence from soul, R&B, jazz, from singers Michael Jackson to Mel Torme, Chaka Khan to Steely Dan, Sarah Vaughn to Ivan Lins, the Doobie Brothers to The Jungle Brothers,” Leonhart said.
After college in Rochester, Leonhart returned to New York. In short order, she was the third-place winner at the 1994 Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition. A couple of years later, Leonhart got a call from Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. The folk/rock/jazz group wanted her as a back-up vocalist.
“When I got to the first rehearsal, I pretty much knew all the material already,” said Leonhart. “My dad turned me onto Steely Dan from an early age. Their music was seared into my soul and I felt at home immediately playing with Walter and Donald, both brilliant musicians.”
Since then she has done two world tours with the group and appears on their multi-Grammy-Award-winning album, “Two Against Nature.” “We really are like a family, and it was heartbreaking when Walter passed almost three years ago. To Donald’s credit, his decision was to keep the band together and I am amazed that the fans just keep coming out for Steely Dan shows. We as a band came together in a whole new way after Walter’s death and I am just so grateful.”
Uncomfortable with being labeled as any sort of singer, Leonhart identifies strongly with artists capable of blending genres. “I remember when Norah Jones released her first album, it was such a great example of how crossovers can break down barriers,” Leonhart said. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as just a jazz singer by labels trying to sign me at the start of my career. The last 10 or so years have been wonderful for how the music industry has learned to embrace ambiguity in genres.”
In Aspen, Leonhart will be joined onstage by Myron Walden on tenor sax, Christian Sands on piano, Richie Goods on bass and John Davis on drums. “Each are unbelievably talented musicians joining me onstage. I can’t wait to play some old jazz standards with modern arrangements, a few of my own songs, and a couple of Steely Dan tunes. It’s going to be fun.”
Beautiful music connects people, gives them joy. Leonhart agrees.
“Listening and performing, it never gets old.”
James Rose is on a search for the oldest crow in the county. He can be reached at email@example.com.