You might remember Orange-based keyboardist Carl "Sonny" Leyland from his stint as a former member of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, plus his curious status as apparently the only rockabilly session pianist of the modern day. Leyland's reliably excellent playing has graced the recordings of such retro elite as Deke Dickerson, Kim Lenz, Biller & Wakefield, and Cave Catt Sammy. I'd also heard Leyland's 1999 solo album, I'm Wise, a fine rock & roll-based effort, but one that barely hinted at the finger-iffic mayhem lurking inside the soul of this outwardly serene Englishman.
Leyland left the Fly-Rite fold a few years back to pursue a solo career as a jazzbo. I heard it from no less an authority than Dickerson that the man was a breathtaking power in his chosen genre. Still, I was unprepared for the thundering bitchenness of Leyland's new release, Gin Mill Jazz, a collection of solo piano performances with a few vocals tossed in. It's as if Leyland absorbed the greasy-black-guy souls of such disparate piano legends as boogie woogie master Albert Ammons, self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton, blues aesthete Sunnyland Slim, ragtime evolutionist Scott Joplin and stride sultan Fats Waller then matched—and in some cases even improved upon—their already astonishing technique.
I'm a big fan of such contemporary piano leviathans as Henry Butler, Dr. John and Cyrus Chestnut, but—I'll go ahead and say it—I must now consider them all Carl "Sonny" Leyland's collective bitch. That this level of virtuosity and versatility emanates from a melanin-deprived Yurripeen heretofore known primarily as a rockabilly musician . . . Well, it astounds and inspires is what it does.
"Rockabilly musicians still come to me for session work, and I'm completely okay with that. I still like rockabilly," says Leyland, who continues to sport a properly oiled coif. "I've never been fickle about music. I still like all of the paths I've been through. I pride myself on my ability to play all these different kinds of music with the correct feeling. If someone hires me to play on a rockabilly record, I don't suddenly start throwing in Bud Powell [bebop] riffs."
But why was Leyland determined to abandon the rockabilly scene in the first place, after spending so many years earning his reputation as the 88s guy in the field? Leyland was the top of the food chain in his circle; few working musicians of any persuasion would sacrifice status and security of that nature to start all over again.
"I've been interested in [jazz] for quite a while," he explains. "I actually started out in blues and boogie-woogie, not the rockabilly thing. I liked '50s music when I was a little kid, but I actually didn't start playing piano until I was 15. I heard some boogie woogie and got excited about that, primarily the Albert Ammons/Pete Johnson/ Meade Lux Lewis/Jimmy Yancey/Cripple Clarence Lofton kind of thing—the stuff that was happening in the '30s. I was very into that kind of archaic, solo-piano sound. I was listening to a bunch of jazz, but I wasn't really capable yet of understanding anything that was harmonically adventurous."
And whither Big Sandy, whose band Leyland is the first to admit he nearly begged to join in the first place? Leyland enjoyed his stint with the band, but as his muse evolved, he simply decided it was time to move on. "With Big Sandy, it just got old for me," he says. "The combination of playing a lot of the same stuff for a long time—which is not to imply they didn't update their repertoire—and always being on the road, it just got tiresome after a while. My motivations were changing, which they do when you start getting up into your 30s. I wanted opportunities to play more jazz."
Sadly, while Leyland refuses to be fickle about music, he soon found the rockabilly scenesters who had once looked up to him as a hero were not as flexible. "My fantasy was, you know, all these people know me and like me, and they'll accept what I'm doing because they care about me as an artist and as a person," he says with a sigh. "But in a lot of situations, it hasn't worked out like that. They just want you to rock & roll, and they don't understand it when you don't. To me, I'm putting out the same feeling and the same energy; I'm just not putting out the same attitude. It's not about standing up when you play and looking a certain way. For instance, I can't go to the Doll Hut anymore. I went there a couple of times and attempted to play jazz, and people were making comments like, 'Go get a job at Nordstrom!'These scenes where it's primarily about looks and attitude, it's so . . . teenage. There are people there that are connoisseurs of music, certainly, but it's kind of like the more of a connoisseur you become, the less people you can reach. It's bizarre."
We shall leave the realm of the bizarre now, for anyone who experiences Leyland's magic without recognizing it as such is clearly an earless, closed-minded moron. Better to continue focusing on the genius at hand, for I am hardly done raving about this man. To wit:
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.
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"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.