Rant ‘N’ Roll: Next In Line

Who the hell is Alan Leatherman and how could he be making the music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Lerner & Lowe and Charlie “Bird” Parker come so alive again? On his self-released Detour Ahead, this neo-soul badass sings his heart out on material once considered dated. But it ain’t. Not by a long shot. True, I thought I’d never want to hear “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” from My Fair Lady, again, but in this dude’s hands, it’s absolutely beautiful, a vision of stunning clarity. I guess it’s true what they say: Everything old is new again.

I think it’s the attitude. When he sings “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” he’s taking what’s usually an optimistic song and singing it in such way that what he really means is, “yeah, sure, you’d be so nice to come home to but I know that ain’t gonna happen.”

I didn’t want to hear this thing at first. I was told it was “lite jazz.” Hate that shit. But, once again, it ain’t. It’s the real deal. Hell, he even takes a saxophone solo by Bird and sings it note-for-note using the lyrics that King Pleasure (1922-1981) wrote for vocalists attempting to tackle this meandering circuitous adventure of a song. “It was hard,” admits Leatherman.

He also goes “jazz vocalese” on “This Is Always,” his voice skipping atop the melody like a stone skipping across a lake when thrown really hard and just right.

Mostly though, his pure, clean, honest, organic, elegant vocals are in service to the song. He doesn’t stretch out the syllables like those obnoxious cartoon-character singers on American Idol. His voice is totally devoid of melisma. In other words, he doesn’t make the word “love,” for instance, into five syllables. He sings it sweet, unadorned, declarative, deceptively simplistic. He makes these timeless lyrics mean something again.

Truth be told, this cat’s really in the neo-soul camp. He can nail Kanye West’s “Blame Game” like John Legend on steroids. He can sing the hell out of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” But that’s not what Detour Ahead is about. This is something he had to get out of his system and even he admits he won’t be revisiting this terrain anytime soon. “It was an album I felt I had to make at the time,” he told me.

So there’s three components at work here. The first is obviously this material. One might run the other way to encounter a relative newcomer singing “Blame It On My Youth,” the 1934 tale of regret by Oscar Levant (1906-1972). Levant would make my Top 10 list of coolest guys of the 1900s but that’s another story. Sinatra sang the definitive version. Pianist Keith Jarrett performed the hippest version. And Brad Mehldau recorded the latest, most excellent version. Until now. Add “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Just One Of Those Things,” “Lush Life” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues” and you can give this album to your folks and they’d love it.

I don’t know how he scored such world-class musicians but he’s got McCoy Tyner’s bassist, Gerald Cannon. He’s got New York City mainstay Rick Germanson on piano. Germanson is the Teddy Wilson to Leatherman’s Billie Holiday. And he’s got Steve Williams, who was Shirley Horn’s longtime drummer.

His voice rings like a bell, organic and elegant. This guy doesn’t need AutoTune. His vocals are effortless. He doesn’t try to reach. He lightly swings with unerring timing, precision and clarity. Sure, at times, he sounds like Harry Connick, Jr., but hey, even Ray Charles started out imitating Nat King Cole.