With credits ranging from Steely Dan to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!” to the Hold Steady’s new album, Michael Leonhart has been living the sweet life. On his own, meanwhile, the trumpeter is immersed in the suite life.
The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s version of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” premiering exclusively below, is part of a larger Wu-Tang suite, more elements of which are featured on the MLO’s new album, Suite Extracts Vol. 1, coming out Aug. 30. The 12-track set also features pieces of suites dedicated to Fela Kuti, Howlin’ Wolf…and Spinal Tap, along with four Leonhart originals. The album follows the MLO’s 2018 debut The Painted Lady Suite and grew out of the troupe’s live performances.
“We were doing a lot of our music live, but mixed up the set with different artists, doing Wu-Tang, Spinal Tap, Fela Kuti in addition,” Leonhart, who’s been Steely Dan’s trumpet player for nearly 30 years, tells Billboard. “There was a real hunger from the audience — ‘I have The Painted Lady Suite. How do I get a copy of what you’re doing live?’ We’re planning to do one album a year, so I felt the next album would be the covers — but not the full suites the way we do them live, just extracts.”
Leonhart estimates that the MLO has about 35 suites in various forms and expects he’ll record some of them in their entirety in the future. Suite Extracts Vol. 1 also features the ensemble’s versions of GZA’s “Liquid Swords,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and Raekwon’s “Glaciers of Ice,” while Leonhart’s “Liquid Chamber” is another manifestation of “Liquid Swords.” “In the case of ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,’ that was such a beautiful one I basically listened to it and re-orchestrated it into a kind of Lalo Schifrin-esque thing,” Leonhart says. “There’s something kind of Mission: Impossible about it with the altos (flutes) starting it off.”
Leonhart recalls a studio visit for Raekwon that left the rapper impressed. “He came over and was interested in maybe doing some shows with [the band El Michels Affair] backing him up,” Leonhart says. “He came and said, ‘I want to hear what you guys sound like live’ and heard us play in a small room. He heard the samples come to life and how powerful it was, just the instrumentals. It’s one thing to have an orchestra play it, but if it doesn’t have that spirit or that swagger that (the original has), I don’t want to do it. I want people who know the original to say, ‘I know exactly what that is!'”
One suite Leonhart hasn’t put together for the MLO is something dedicated to Steely Dan — though he’s often asked when he will. “It’s really tricky, ’cause of course I love the music, and I’m very close to the music and Donald (Fagen) is a very close part of my life,” Leonhart says. “I think Donald would love to come down and do something with (the MLO), but I don’t know if he’d want to do Steely Dan music. Maybe there’s one or two things but I think he’d sooner do ’60s Rolling Stones or something.” Steely Dan, meanwhile is getting ready for its late summer tour, which kicks off Aug. 27 in Youngstown, Ohio, with multi-night full-album shows set for October in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
“The band is very strong now,” Leonhart reports. “Donald’s in great shape and the shows are good. He’s at a place in his life where he loves touring. He’s very comfortable with the band; He trusts us, and we push back on things and he just enjoys playing. Since Walter (Becker) died there’s a certain anarchy that’s missing, but I think (Fagen) is aware he has the freedom for things to be how he wants, and it’s very collaborative and we get a lot of input. It’s a good time to be in Steely Dan and for people to come see us, I think.”