Properly Oiled

Awed by the jazz genius of Carl Sonny Leyland

Many jazz revivalists tend to approach their music in a twee, deferential fashion, as if the music itself is a delicate antique that might crumble to dust if handled with undue enthusiasm. Leyland plays jazz with his whole body, with a curled-lip sneer that still owes much to Jerry Lee's killa instinct. Then there's the Unfortunate Technician Syndrome, a malady that Leyland neatly eludes: many artists who base their career on being chops monkeys fall on their face like a Bush twin on a bourbon binge when endeavoring to sing or compose. Yet the best tunes on Gin Mill Jazz aren't the covers by Joplin, Little Brother Montgomery and Charlie Spand; they're Leyland originals such as the giddily melodic title track; the finger-twisting, minor-key workout "Witch's Kitchen"; and the genre-bending, bop-and-boogie fusion "Juke Joint Jump." You vant vocals, Velma? There are too few here for my taste, but when Leyland sings, he conjures up the effortless, cool authority of Roosevelt Sykes, the great, criminally unsung singer/songwriter/pianist who is among Leyland's champions.

"He's definitely a big guy for me, and I can't help it if a little of that comes through," he says. "I think he's a giant, a guy that really gets overlooked. He had a career that went from 1928 up to about 1980. His lyrics are sheer poetry rather than the run-of-the-mill blues stuff; he's a great pianist, a great performer and a great singer. And he transcends all genres and time periods—his stuff never really sounded dated."

Great pianist, great performer, great singer, transcends genres . . . the very same can be said of Our Mr. Leyland, a man who refuses to be pigeonholed, a man who has created the best piano music I've heard since granny Ella was shittin' yella.

"Sometimes, despite the fact that you can play a lot of things, you feel that you have to confine yourself within a genre because people won't understand," he says. "But if people don't understand, I don't care anymore. I just want to play music for music's sake."

Carl "Sonny" Leyland performs with drummer Hal Smith and bassist Marty Eggers at Steamers, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Tues., 8 p.m. Free. All ages.
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