Saxophonists of Different Times and Tones Play in Perfect Sync
“ … It was Leitham who grabbed the spotlight in the rhythm section. The young bassist didn't limit himself to any particular range of his instrument, popping out high- end embellishments to contrast with his loaded low-end. He's also an intriguing soloist whose melodic sweetness, accented with double- stops and rib-tickling strums in the upper register, garnered loud ovations from the crowd.”
May 18, 1994-Leitham, Berg: A Complementary Show
Seal Beach - “ … Playing jazz without a drummer is much like tightrope-walking without a net. Without a firm footing, there's a chance the music can take a nasty fall.
The duo of bassist John Leitham and pianist Shelly Berg, appearing at Spaghettini's, managed not only to keep on its feet, but also to hit the ground running. Though they accounted for just two-thirds of what normally constitutes a rhythm section, timekeeping was not a problem. In fact, the two had no difficulty tracking the beat while keeping their instruments singing together in sympathetic style.
Experience, of course, plays some part in this, and both Leitham and Berg are well-practiced in their craft.
Leitham, whose gone on from a stint in the Woody Herman band to become a long time member of Mel Tormé's touring combo, is one of Los Angeles' most in-demand bassists, having worked with trombonist Bill Watrous, the late saxophonist Bob Cooper and drummer Ed Shaughnessy. He has a pair of fine albums out under his own name, the most recent of which, Southpaw, suggests both his love of baseball and the fact that he plays bass left-handed.
The character of the bass-piano sound makes for unusual audio twists, and the two took full advantage of this. Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" was a good example, with Leitham's bass taking the familiar descending line theme as Berg added the barest of accompaniment. On the bop-walk "Moose The Mooche," Leitham and Berg stated the bouncy melody in unison, before Berg took off into his solo propelled by Leitham's astute pacing.
As an improviser, Leitham has few peers. He works close to the melody, as he did on Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You", often sprinkling unbelievably brisk passages among his lyrical attack. His pitch no matter how fast the tempo, is right on, and he decorates his playing with a full complement of sliding tones, double- stops and upper register play.”
Sept. 4 1995-Party Features All The Standard Favors
“ … Bring sixteen top musicians together for unrehearsed mix-and-match jam session and you should expect massive ego clashes and a fair amount of chaos not to mention uncountable versions of "Body and Soul."
Yet Friday's opening night of the West Coast Jazz Party saw none of that.
The sixteen participating musicians made for a harmonious gathering that was rooted in the common language of jazz; the standard.…
The real heroes of the first set were in the rhythm section. Keyboardist Tom Ranier, bassist John Leitham and drummer Grady Tate came together in a way that carried tunes, notably "Stella," on broad-shouldered support. Leitham was especially muscular, his sound deep, resonant and sometimes filled with modulation. ”
November 27, 1998 - Playing the Tunes That Bind
By Bill Kohlhaase
Talk to bassist John Leitham long enough, and the conversation is apt to turn to Civil War history. Talk to saxophonist Pete Christlieb, and inevitably you’ll be discussing drag racing.
Here’s Leitham: “One of the heroes of Gettysburg was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor who joined the Union Army and was one of its most courageous and decorated soldiers. Turns out he played bass.”
From Christlieb: “You don’t hear much jazz at drag races. More likely what you’ll get is the Oak Ridge Boys. I don’t think you could hear the Modern Jazz Quartet playing over the sound of a dragster.”
Despite disparate passions, Leitham and Christlieb have one overriding one in common: music. The much-heard saxophonist will be a member of Leitham’s two-tenor quintet when it plays Steamers Cafe in Fullerton tonight.
Leitham is probably best known for his long association with Mel Torme, which began in 1987. Though Torme has not performed since his 1996 stroke, Leitham keeps in touch.
“I go see him on an occasional basis, and we sit and talk. He’s still all there mentally,” he said. “As far as my career goes, he’s meant everything to me. All the traveling that we did, all the places, like Carnegie Hall, that we played; I wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise. And the level of the music! I’ll never forget how he got up for every show.”
Leitham, a Pennsylvania native, appeared with guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones and others in and around Philadelphia. He joined Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd in 1981 and, after moving to Los Angeles in 1983, played with such distinguished musicians as Louie Bellson, Bill Watrous, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Bud Shank and Joe Pass.
L.A. native Christlieb has worked with an equally distinguished roster of musicians, including Herman, Bellson, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Mel Lewis and Shelly Manne.
In the last several years, Leitham has been leading his own bands and since 1992 has recorded four albums, beginning with “Leitham Up” and continuing with 1994’s “The Southpaw” (Leitham is left-handed), which included pianist Tom Ranier and saxophonist Bob Cooper, who died in 1993.
On his 1996 album, “Lefty Leaps In,” Leitham recorded some numbers with the dual tenor team of Christlieb and Rickey Woodard. The two-tenor lineup, featured on Leitham’s new “Live!” album, is a favorite of his.
History, of course, also plays a part in the two-tenor choice.
“I really dug Dizzy Gillespie’s recordings with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins,” he said, “and I’ve always been drawn to the tenor. It’s the instrument most like the human voice, an instrument that can get you in the heart. And I played a concert [in June of 1991] at the Hyatt Newporter with Bob Cooper’s group that included Pete, and I’ve always wanted to capture that feeling again now that [Cooper’s] gone.”
“And,” he added, “you put two guys together playing the same horn and they tend to push each other.”
Christlieb also cites two-tenor history.
“Players down through the ages have made albums like that: Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Stitt and Sonny Rollins, [Eddie] ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Johnny Griffin,” he said. “There’s a whole history of that kind of thing that I listened to when I was a kid.”
Christlieb says two tenor players in a band need not engage in a battle of egos.
“When two guys get into it with each other on the bandstand, the music suffers,” Christlieb said. “It takes away from the whole endeavor. A little competition is OK. But they should be playing together, not against one another. It isn’t like it’s a sword fight in some pirate picture.”
Christlieb, a fixture on the Los Angeles studio scene since the ’60s, spent 20 years in Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band.
“That was the best job in the world,” he said. “Because of that exposure, I got all kinds of calls and bookings. When people see you every day, you become something of a household figure.”
Christlieb also has visibility among rock fans from his work with Steely Dan and others. That’s Christlieb’s sax solo on Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blue” on the group’s 1977 album “Aja.”
Both Leitham and Christlieb are planning albums. Leitham, departing from his recent two-tenor bands, will record duos. Christlieb’s will feature a large ensemble playing arrangements from Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman and Ranier.
Leitham said he has less time to pursue history now (“I used to read on the plane all the time when I was traveling with Mel.” Christlieb said he still sinks every spare moment, and dime, into his racing car, which his son, Scott, drives.
Come to think of it, drag racers have one thing in common with the kind of jazz Christlieb and Leitham are known for: both burn rubber.
* The John Leitham Quintet, with Pete Christlieb and Doug Webb, appears tonight at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. 8:30 p.m. $3 cover plus two-item minimum. (714) 871-8800.