By Bobby Reed | Published August 2018
Michael Leonhart’s new album is a testament to his glorious, unbridled ambition. He composed, arranged and conducted all the music on The Painted Lady Suite, an album that he also produced. He recruited more than 30 musicians—including guitarist Nels Cline and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin—for the recording sessions, during which he played trumpet, bass trumpet, French horn, mellophonium, electric bass, organ, pump organ, mellotron, accordion, bass harmonica and bass melodica. The bulk of this album consists of the seven-part titular suite, which was inspired by Leonhart’s fascination with migrating swarms of painted lady butterflies, an insect that can embark on a 9,000-mile round-trip journey that involves multiple generations (due to its limited lifespan).
Song titles like “The Experimental Forest, North Dakota,” “The Arctic Circle” and “1500 Feet Above The Sahara (Night)” illustrate the depth of Leonhart’s research into the butterflies’ migration, while also nodding to the enormous scope of his sonic palette. And even if you’re not someone who geeks out on nature documentaries and butterfly minutia, you still can revel in the esoteric textures of this suite, which is fueled by a nine-piece brass section and a 10-piece group of saxophones and woodwinds. With this suite, Leonhart eschews easily digestible melodies in service of something quite complex and mysterious; this is music befitting its intriguing inspiration.
Following the suite are three tracks that show a more accessible side of the composer. “In The Kingdom Of M.Q.” has a groove akin to a march, with an arrangement spiced by a muscular McCaslin solo. “Music Your Grandparents Would Like” lopes along in a woozy, cough-syrup sort of way before Cline erupts with some gnarly guitar work transmitted from a spaceship. “The Girl From Udaipur” concludes the album with an enticing, drone-like mood, a compelling brass-section riff and the acoustic bass work of the composer’s father, Jay Leonhart.