Leslie Odom Jr. first rose to prominence as a star in the Broadway mega-hit Hamilton, winning a Tony Award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical for his role as the duel-loving politician Aaron Burr. But for as long as he’s been a performer—he made his Broadway debut at 17—he’s also been an avid lover of jazz.
In 2014, Odom recorded a passion project of jazz standards for small-scale release. “My mom and aunt had copies,” he said, “but it was like a tree falling in the forest. No one was around to hear it!” After the wave of success that came with Hamilton, he was approached by S-Curve Records to re-record the album with fresh material. That album, his self-titled major label debut, went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard and iTunes jazz charts, and No. 7 overall on iTunes.
Earlier this year, the singer released Simply Christmas (S-Curve), a collection of holiday classics rendered through a jazz-meets-r&b prism. DownBeat sat down with Odom to talk about making the leap from the Great White Way to the Great American Songbook.
Talk about some of your early exposures to jazz. Who were some of the vocalists you were listening to back then?
You know, the vocalists I really connected to at first were female vocalists. Ella, for example. I found her early on. A lot of times, when I talk to young singers, I often tell the girls to listen to guys and the guys to listen to girls, because sometimes you can get past your own insecurity if you’re listening to a singer of a different sex. A lot of the times these male singers just made me feel so inadequate, like it was such an impossible standard. So sometimes you can get past that if you’re listening to a voice that you can never sound like. You learn a lot.
So I was listening to the greats early on. It was Ella, it was Billie, it was Sarah Vaughan. And then once I got to college I really started listening to Mel Tormé, and even some contemporary guys. Like, I went to high school with Bilal, and he ended up going to the New School to study jazz music, but he was sort of the guy while I was in school. Bilal was setting the bar for the singers of my generation, you know? Even back then he was forward-thinking. He was a leader in jazz singing and jazz improvisation.
Jazz, historically, has been defined by improvisation, the ability to think on your feet, to react to your fellow performers in the moment. Coming from the world of musical theater, where so much is scripted, did you find it diffcult to make the transition?
Yeah, I definitely did. That was the toughest thing about it. And honestly, I still consider myself a baby in this, a newbie for sure. As for improv, I call it the God space. I talk to [Grammy-nominated vocalist] Ledisi a lot about it—you know, Ledisi is a master improviser—and what I came away with was that improvising is terrifying, but it is necessary. It is necessary to go into that space, that unplanned space, to go into what is available to you in the moment. And what I’ve found is that it helps me in the rest of my work as an artist. It helps me in the stuff where I’m scripted, where I do have a plan. Because in the musical theater world—you’d be surprised—there’s a whole lot of that stuff that really works at its best if you’re present. Stuff that is at its most potent when you are in the moment, when you are responding to what is given to you right then and there, with no judgment and no hesitation. So, it’s helped on both sides.
Do you think there’s an aesthetic difference between singing for musical theater and singing for jazz?
You know, with those early vocal influences that I had—and you can also add George Benson and Frank Sinatra to that list, not for nothing—those guys did such amazing things with their voices. The coloring of their voice, the way they told a story. It’s a whole lot different in the jazz arena than it is in musical theater or pop or r&b–or gospel music even. All of the genres have different roles and different ways of expression, but there’s something about jazz and the way that I like to sing, the way that my voice naturally gravitates, the kind of things that I sound best on—that sets me free. And I’m not talking about the improvisation or the crazy scatting. Sometimes it’s about simplicity and stripping things down to their rudiments. It’s like trying to get down to the essence of the voice as the true “first instrument.”
When you were recording your self-titled debut album, did you go into the studio knowing you would cut a jazz record?
Well, part of my training as a performer was to make me flexible, to make me malleable. Growing up, I learned to sing everything—I was singing r&b, I was singing some classical music, and I was singing some gospel in church. When we set out to make the album, and when I set out to make music as a solo artist, it was like, “Where do I fit best?” It was a little bit of an identity crisis to be honest (laughs). So we really took out time. We took about a year and a half, and the music kept leaning in this jazz direction, and so we just decided not to fight it. Little by little we realized we were walking down this path. And it felt right, it felt natural, it felt like something that would lead to growth as well. It felt like something that, if it kept digging, it would just get better. And it was exciting. The path was exciting and it hasn’t proven me wrong.
We just completed the Christmas album, which is the next step down the path, and I think you can hear my growth as a vocalist—for sure you can hear my growth as a vocalist. Yeah, it was the right move.
How did your time in Hamilton affect your approach to the recording process?
There was something about the Hamilton cast that reminded me of the Kind Of Blue recording session. It was a situation with jazz musicians at the top of their game and it was all about how we were going to rise together. I mean, when you’re on stage with Lin-Manuel and Daveed Diggs, you’re on stage with Coltrane. Those guys are masters. So, yeah, I spent a lot of time thinking about that experience and translating it into becoming a jazz musician. DB