The Pennsylvania-based David Leonhardt Jazz Group, noted for its presentation of both straight and modern jazz, here eschews the latter turning its considerable talents and energy to the music of the Gershwins. One of the group's stalwarts, Village Vanguard Orch. veteran Ralph Lalama, plays a softer toned tenor than usual as he revels in arrangements of these classic entries in the Great American Songbook. The rhythm section of bass player Paul Rostock and drummer Tom Melito go beyond their usual role of keeping the beat, especially Melito. He is an active participant with solos, punctuating rim shots, and cymbal play on almost every cut, going far beyond routine time keeping, as on "S'Wonderful." In doing so, he adds a level of excitement that otherwise would be missing. Rostock shines especially bright on "A Foggy Day," where he provides stalwart backing for singer Nancy Reed.
But it is the lyrical pianism of David Leonhardt and the articulate vocalizing of longtime collaborator Reed that lifts this album out of the ordinary. The Leonhardt/Reed performance of "Embraceable You" is as sincere a play as one will find of this Gershwin classic. The years these two have worked together is evident in the intimacy embedded in this performance. Lalama's sax comes in on the last chorus with his tenor noodling soulfully underneath Reed's vocals. A similar approach is found on "The Man I Love," this time with Lalama's sax being a bit more assertive without becoming overly demanding. This is outstanding work.
Plays Gershwin is Leonhardt's fifth album for his Big Bang label. Dilettantes and other effete detractors will moan that the last thing needed is another "plays Gershwin" album. But as this fine effort reveals, that position continues to be shortsighted as Leonhardt's group gives refreshing insight to the music of George and Ira Gershwin. Happily recommended.