MICHAEL LEONHART: Steely Dan, Meryl Streep, Ronald Rump and…

Photo Credit: Bill Burke

Photo Credit: Bill Burke

BY George Halas

The Dan Who Knew Too Much Tour, Steely Dan and Steve Winwood, makes a stop at the BMO Harris Pavilion in Milwaukee on July 16th.

After spending much of the time early in their careers as the prototypical studio band, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker resumed touring as Steely Dan in the 1990’s. By that time, the duo had accumulated enough critical acclaim and platinum albums as well as Grammy awards and nominations that, as they had in the studio, they could put together a band of some of the best musicians in the world.

One of the early recruits was trumpet player Michael Leonhart who had won a Grammy of his own in 1992 as Best High School Musician. He has been touring and recording with Steely Dan for 20 years….as has his sister, vocalist Carolyn Leonhart.

A friend of the Leonharts, Scott Barkham helped facilitate the communication that started while Michael was playing with saxophonist Chris Potter who has played with Steely Dan.

“I got a call to play and they said that they were looking for new backup singers,” Leonhart said. “They called us individually and we auditioned. Four months later, they called and hired me to play the tour and said ‘and we want your sister.’ It’s wonderful to have Carolyn in the band. She and I get a chance to hang out. We don’t have that much time when we’re in New York and she has always been one of my best friends.”

“The best thing about playing in Steely Dan, “he added, “is that every night at some point I get goosebumps. Great music and great players. Donald and Walter are brilliant.”

In addition to his trumpet playing, Leonhart has made significant contributions to Steely Dan in the studio. He wrote horn arrangements and played on the Grammy Best Album-winning “Two Against Nature,” including playing Wurlitzer on the title track. He played trumpet and was credited as a horn consultant on the follow-up album, “Everything Must Go.” He co-produced, co-wrote horn and vocal arrangements and played a variety of instruments on Fagen’s 2012 solo release, “Sunken Condos.”

What may be even more interesting is that his work with Fagen and Steely Dan is just a portion of his most unusual and accomplished musical resume.

The Grammy-winning trumpeter/composer/producer/arranger has performed/recorded with Yoko Ono, James Brown, Meryl Streep, Caetano Veloso, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and the Charles Mingus Big Band. His trumpet playing was recently featured on Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ smash hit “Uptown Funk,” which won two 2016 Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.

Leonhart directed Meryl Streep in the studio and composed the music over which she read poems by India’s four-time Nobel Prize for Literature nominee, Faiz Ahmad Faiz. He served as musical director and arranger on the just released “Song of Lahore” album featuring the incredible Sachal Ensemble from Pakistan; other guests include Wynton Marsalis, Sean Lennon, Nels Cline, Cibo Matto, Bilal, Seu Jorge, Madeleine Peyroux, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and Jim James.

“Meryl Streep was lovely to work with,” he said. “My original thought was for her to sing, but she said ‘I’m not a singer. I can play a singer but I can’t sing.’ It was the nicest rejection I ever got.”

The “rejection” led to Streep’s reading the poems.

Leonhart and Karrin Allyson co-produced “Many a New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein,” which was a 2016 Grammy nominee for Best Jazz Vocal Album of the Year. The album is out on Motema Music and features Kenny Barron (piano) and John Patitucci (acoustic bass).

Leonhart contributed horns and orchestrations to the Mark Ronson/Geoff Zanelli film score for the film “Mortdecai,” starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow & Ewan McGregor, which also features the Dapkings.  

He has also recently produced albums such as “Slow Motion Miracles,” by Sachal, “Disturbing Wildlife,” by Invisible Familiars, “Mexican Dust,” by Mosquitos and “TBA,” by The Knitts.

This summer will also see the double-vinyl release of Nels Cline’s mood album “Lovers;” the music was arranged and conducted by Leonhart featuring a 21-piece orchestra. 

His success has positioned him to be “just creating with no limits.”

He also has a new album (his eighth) of his own coming out, but he may draw the most attention for ”Ronald Rump.” In the spirit of renowned artists, including “Mingus, Byrne and Zappa,” who have continually kept an eye on politics and human rights issue, he has crafted “Ronald Rump,” with his Michael Leonhart Orchestra, a form of political satire using the uniquely brazen dialogue of Donald Trump from the public domain.

Available on YouTube, “Ronald Rump,” combines Leonhart’s music with overlays of actual recorded quotes from and the “crazy tone,” of Trump.

“When I started, I did not have an agenda and there was not much of a political bent,” he said. “He (Trump) speaks with such crazy confidence and arrogance in that crazy style of his. It’s not about policy, it’s more about him as a person.”

Trump has been a most generous if unwitting creative partner. He provides Leonhart with additional material, “every time he opens his mouth.”

“I’ve been thinking about suites like (Duke) Ellington did,” Leonhart said. “Because of all the new material available, I may have to turn this into the “Ronald Rump Suite.”

Check out “Ronald Rump,” on YouTube at:

While you’re there, check out the myriad “conventional” music videos that Leonhart has produced, as well as an interview with Leonhart and Steely Dan guitarist John Herrington in which Leonhart discusses his creative evolution, some of his influences and his work with other artists like Boz Skaggs:

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