by Sean Fitzell
Gina Leishman revels in eclecticism, cherishing the journey as much as the destination. She plays saxophones, piano and bass clarinet as well as atypical wares like accordion, ukulele and harmonic glass. Best known to jazz listeners as the co-leader of the perennial horns-and-drums ensemble Kamikaze Ground Crew, she’s also worked in musical theater as a performer, musician and composer; a cabaret vocalist; a composer for television and film and a voice-over specialist. Typically, her two recent CDs are stylistically diverse.
Postcards From the Highwire is the fifth Kamikaze album and the second with the “east coast” lineup: trombonist Art Baron, tubaist Marcus Rojas and drummer Kenny Wollesen joining longtime tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and co-leading multi-instrumentalists Doug Wieselman and Leishman. The virtuosic ensemble builds episodic pieces drawing on jazz, rock and other influences while jettisoning the manic quirkiness of their earlier work. After rollicking group passages and exchanged solos, Apfelbaum’s “Shotgun Bouquet” untethers Rojas from the bass role, encouraging his sonic freestyle for a rousing finish. The fleet Dixie-swing of Bernstein’s arrangement of Chu Berry’s “Christopher Columbus” launches Apfelbaum and Baron’s growling mute over the traditional form. Leishman’s delicate piano leads over the dynamic terrain of her “Love-Go-Round”, while she wields ukulele with spare accompaniment on “O Mistress Mine”, her setting of Shakespeare to music and warm singing.
Kamikaze records have always featured a Leishman vocal, but only in recent years has she developed and documented her singer-songwriter material. In My Skin is the second installment of her songbook, the breezy tunes mostly written on and propelled by baritone ukulele within an unusual string quartet of guitar, violin and bass. Lyrically, songs like the title track, “The Scenic Route” and “Girl With a Curl” are bemused personal reflections on themes which one can relate to like finding identity. On the latter, violinist Charlie Burnham colors and reacts to the words with clever bowed and plucked retorts. The languid ballad opening of “Food First” later quickens behind guitarist Matt Munisteri’s loping bluesy runs and bassist Greg Cohen’s emphatic thrum, his round tones a steady anchor. Leishman’s incredulous commentary on our wars forms “Nightwind”, boasting the unmistakable twang of guest guitarist Marc Ribot’s prodding fills. Leishman charmingly unfurls her narratives, revealing another stop along her picturesque musical road.
For more information, visit ginaleishman.com.
Kamikaze Ground Crew is at MoMA Sculpture Garden Aug. 21st.