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Leap Day Trio celebrates 2020 gig with new release


"Live at the Café Bohemia" is the new release from Leap Day Trio, featuring drummer Matt Wilson, saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Mimi Jones.

"Live at the Café Bohemia" was recorded at the historic New York City jazz club to mark the storied venue's reopening nearly 60 years after it was shuttered.

Recorded in February 2020, the record serves as a potent introduction to the trio and as a powerful reminder of the sheer force of improvisation-driven music in the 21st century. Released in February, "Live at the Café Bohemia" retains a deeply collaborative spirit while spotlighting the individual genius of Wilson, Lederer and Jones.

Wilson and Lederer recently spoke with KMUW about their longstanding friendship and musical collaborations — which date back to the early '90s — and the joy of making music together.

Interview Highlights

Jeff, I understand that the two of you met not long after Matt moved to New York City.

Jeff Lederer: I think Matt's recollections of the day are much more clear than mine. One of the cool things about the Leap Day thing is that a number of people have observed, "Oh yeah, these guys, Jeff and Matt, have been doing stuff for quite a while in a lot of different contexts." It's actually been nice to reflect on that … shed a single tear, Matt. There's a lot of shared history; it's really something special. It's a really wonderful thing to cherish at this point in life.

Matt Wilson: For sure. It was a rehearsal band out in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I can't remember whose band it was.

JL: It was a guy named Richard. He was a high school music teacher. He was one of these guys who had a pet project; it was a big band that rehearsed every Tuesday night. There were a lot of great players in the band.

MW: There was a bass player in Boston that I knew named Dan O'Brien. We drove out there [to Bay Ridge]. This was before cell phones — way before cell phones, maps, anything like that, GPS — I remember when you first stood up to play, which I'll talk about, I remember when we were going out there, we stopped to ask directions. I said to this guy, "Excuse me, sir," and he goes, "You talking to me?" [Laughs.]

JL: [Laughs.]

MW: I had been in New York maybe a year or something. I said, "Whoa." But there were a bunch of people around, so he really was asking. He was super helpful. "Yeah, you go down here, take a right." It was one of those moments where you thought you were going to get this New York gritty edge and it wound up that you had a new best friend in 15 seconds.

But I remember the band. The drums were set up on the floor, and I heard you playing and thought, "Man, this tenor player stands out." We started talking and then things started happening.

JL: The moment I remember more clearly is when I finally did have the opportunity to hire Matt on a gig of mine at a place called the Internet Café on the Lower East Side, which was so long and narrow that half the band would set up on one side and the other half would set up on the other side. The waiters would walk in between the two to bring the drinks and stuff.

Anyway! We were playing some Albert Ayler music, which I enjoy, we go into Albert Ayler's tune "Universal Indians" from the "Love Cry" recording, and Matt immediately broke into a surf rock beat. I said, "Wow! I can really hang with this guy!"

MW: [Laughs.] That's how we met. I don't know how many projects and road dates later it is now. It's been pretty crazy.

JL: One thing that came out of Leap Day Trio is that we don't play the same way in any of the many, many things we do together. It actually feels quite different in each setting because of the difference of the bass player or whatever, which is very nice.

Tell me about working with Mimi. I don't think anybody plays bass quite like her. She's a highly emotional player and has this distinct timbre on the instrument.

MW: I played on her husband's senior recital at Manhattan School or his graduate recital. One of those two. Years ago. Luis Perdomo, the great pianist from Venezuela. I knew of her through various things, but I heard her group at this jazz awards thing I was at, and I was really blown away. I liked the character of the music. I liked her approach. I liked her performance ways. Just the aura that she offers off the bandstand.

I have a real affinity — and I believe that Jeff does too — for the era of bass players that came from a tradition of sorts of song playing but also got into the New Thing. People like Cecil McBee, Buster Williams, Rufus Reid, Calvin Hill. These people that did fringe music but also really swung. There's some more avant garde guys that didn't really tip but these guys found both worlds, and I think Mimi bridges that gap. That's one of the things that got me — that affinity of sound, getting to play with somebody who is continuing that legacy, I think, is cool.

JL: Jim Mackney, a great writer, observed something about the Leap Day thing. He said, "Watch out when Mimi puts her head down! Watch out." She does this thing where her head goes down and you know that she's really exploring. She's always exploring, but at that point she's really exploring the music and herself.

In Leap Day, it's not a matter of throwing away song form or keeping song form. Each song is just a performance. It can go either way. Once she goes down into that zone, it feels very much like, "OK, we can stay with song form or we can just go with where Mimi's going to go." It's a very nice in-between kind of quality. It's almost generational. You don't see it quite as much in younger players now. I think there's a certain adherence to form or not.

A great experience that I had on a recording of mine with Buster Williams was similar in that I brought some tunes and said, "OK, let's explore these things." With Buster, it's very much like he's going to play the piece, he's going to respect the piece. But, at the same time, he's going to explore, so it's really a great process.

MW: I love that playing that's very real and raw but also romantic in a way. Mimi is just who she is. I think all of us are the same way. We are who we are, and I love that. There's no agenda: "She has to be this on this." I think she plays that way pretty much all the time, which I think we love. The combination opens things up.

JL: It's great to have a trio with a bassist like that because it takes this focal point out of the bass/drum connection and then the horn player being outside of that. I feel like this band is very much like a triangle. The music can go any direction in the triangle. It's definitely not that hook up between the bass and the drums, which is wonderful when that happens but [here] the music is much more swirly in the triangle of sounds.

MW: And that's liberating.

Matt, on "Dewey Spirit," it seems like you're playing with time and playing with this question of whether drums can be considered a melodic instrument. Is that accurate, and did you have an awareness of that as you were playing that tune?

MW: [Pause.] A combination. I feel so comfortable in that world of sound. I grew up …. I think all the things that I was listening to and all the things I was doing and all the things I was trying, whether it was before Wichita days, high school, college. There was always that aspect of music that I wanted to be involved in where the drums were more a fabric of the music than a function all the time.

This allows that to happen. I've been really welcomed into that by my colleagues, my peers, but also these great people that I've gotten to apprentice with: Dewey [Redman], Lee Konitz, Andrew Hill, [Joe] Lovano and those folks to a certain extent. Just welcoming that to be part of it, so I think that is something that's part of my voice in a lot of ways. I don't really remember [playing that] but I just know that everything was comfortable enough that it allowed that sound to come out.

I think that's one thing we want: That feeling that you're being respected and heard by the other people in the band or by the audience, but by the other people in the band especially. That welcomes it. Sometimes you don't get that. People think of the drums as whatever role; they don't hear it as something else. But somebody like Jeff hears the drums that way, Mimi hears the drums that way. I'm lucky that most of my family of musicians hears the drums that way.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.