In this terribly challenging year of COVID-19, we all need to be inspired by stories of hope and perseverance – and for a meaningful understanding about the ways that creativity can finds a path around challenging obstacles. The unbridled joy, melodic and harmonic buoyancy and deeply reflective musical soul searching you hear on New Life, the eclectic, uplifting (and ultra-generous!) double-CD, 17-track debut by The Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra is rooted in its namesake’s poignant and triumphant personal story.
Diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in 2012, the world-renowned guitarist and bandleader – whose expansive multi-decade resume includes jazz icons like Oscar Peterson, Ron Carter, Woody Shaw and Jack McDuff – was forced to make a difficult, life altering choice. He could either undergo potentially career ending treatment or face the possibility of dying very soon. Fortunately for jazz fans throughout the globe – and now the 15- piece orchestra he has assembled – he chose surgery and life. Yet it came at a steep creative cost; he couldn’t physically play his instrument anymore.
His drive to create overcame any leanings towards depression over his changed circumstances – and the result is an extraordinary compendium that is as much a musical triumph as personal autobiography on the art of not just surviving his ordeal but thriving in its wake. Like any brilliant musical narrative created for a large ensemble, Leitch and company vary the tempos greatly, swinging with ferocious and spirited abandon on originals like the whimsical, flute and trumpet graced “Exhilaration” and the festive, percussive fun of the tribute “Clifford Jordan” while slowing down to stop and smell the roses on the dreamy lyrical ballad “Monk’s Circle” and a tender, reflective stroll through “Round Midnight” (one of only three standards in the set).
It’s fine to put on both discs consecutively and just experience the emotional highs and lows and rich storytelling Leitch orchestrates throughout without pause. Yet those paying attention the track titles will better understand Leitch’s story via who and what he honors as playing key roles in his remarkable journey – including “Mood For Max” (Dr. Maxim Kreditor, the oncologist who saved his life), “Portrait of Sylvia” (Sylvia Levine, his wife and love of his life), “Fulton Street Suite” (a tour of 19th Century lower Manhattan in three parts), “Exhilaration” (about his arrival in NYC in 1982), “Ballad for Charles Davis” and “Back Story” (a slow simmering blues acknowledging Black America’s contribution to musical history).
True to its title, New Life is both a gratitude filled celebration of life and love – and an open door to the limitless possibilities Leitch will surely be exploring in the future.