Pennsylvania-based David Leonhardt Jazz Group, noted for its presentation of both straight and modern jazz, eschews the latter on this CD turning its considerable talents and energy to the music of the Gershwin Brothers. One of the Group's stalwarts, Village Vanguard Orch. veteran Ralph Lalama, sets aside his hard bop sax as he revels in the tenderer arrangements of these classic entries from the Great American Songbook. The rhythm section of bass player Paul Rostock and drummer Tom Melito go beyond the usual role of keeping the beat, especially Melito. He is an active participant with solos, contributing punctuating rim shots and cymbal play on almost every cut, going far beyond routine time keeping as on "S'Wonderful". In doing so, he adds a level of excitement that otherwise would be missing. Rostock burns brightly on "A Foggy Day" where he is the principal backing for singer Nancy Reed.
It is the lyrical pianism of David Leonhardt and the articulate vocalizing of long time collaborator Reed which lifts this album out of the drudgery of the ordinary. Leonhardt has been on the scene for more than 25 years, having played with many a stellar jazz performer. Reed excels here not only as a soloist, but as a background singer where she her voice assumes the role as an instrument. The Leonhardt/Reed offering of "Embraceable You" is as sincere a rendering as one will find of this Gershwin classic. The years these two have worked together is evident in the intimacy embedded in their approach to this song in particular and throughout the session generally. Lalama's sax comes in on the last chorus with his tenor noodling soulfully behind Reed accenting the mood created by Leonhardt's piano. A similar situation is found with "The Man I Love", this time with Lalama's sax being a bit more assertive without becoming overly demanding. This is outstanding work.
Plays Gershwin is Leonhardt's 5th album for his Big Bang label. Dilettantes and other assorted naysayers will moan that the last thing we need is another "plays Gershwin" album. But as this fine effort reveals, that position as always is shortsighted as Mr. Leonhardt's group gives refreshing insight to the music of George and Ira Gershwin. Happily recommended.