David Leon is a Cuban-American saxophonist, woodwinds player, and composer/improviser, born in Miami, Florida and living in Brooklyn, New York. Leon is a busy sideman around New York as well as a full-time member of several ensembles including Threeplustwo and Sound Underground. Leon is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, having participated in The Jazz Gallery’s Mentoring Series in 2018, performing alongside pianist Kris Davis.
This week, Leon will bring a new band to The Jazz Gallery to present his first show as a leader on the Gallery stage. The band features Leon on saxophone plus Sonya Belaya on piano, Florian Herzog on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. The new quartet is a laboratory for improvisational experimentation, such as extended solo playing, disruption, and unison, all in search of increased mobility and expression within the band dynamic. We caught up with Leon on the phone while he was on tour with another of his bands, Threeplustwo.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making time to chat! Where are you today?
David Leon: I’m in North Carolina with my band Threeplustwo. It includes two of my college roommates, and one of my college roommates’ siblings—he’s a triplet. We’re down here playing some shows, and today is our first day.
TJG: It’s funny, I interview a lot of people, but I rarely, if ever, hear of anyone playing in North Carolina.
DL: That’s hilarious. I don’t know what the scene is down here, but we ate some nice ‘craft ice cream’ today, and have been playing pool and practicing. We’re playing mostly colleges, as well as a place called Sharp Nine Gallery in Durham, another place in Durham, and a show in Baltimore. It’s three shows, seven masterclasses, and an excuse to hang out.
TJG: What’s the music like? What are the classes all about?
DL: The ensemble is a chamber jazz ensemble. I play saxophone, Jonah Udall plays guitar, Lowell Ringel plays upright bass, and the other two triplets Ivy Ringel and Evan Ringel, play bassoon and trombone. We come from a bunch of different musical places, but we all meet in the middle. There’s improvisation, but also heavy writing, rather specific writing. Only three of the five are here now, so we haven’t figured out the masterclasses yet, but I think we’ll talk about our writing progress and how we incorporate improvisation. We have a recording that’s been out for a little bit, and this short tour is an opportunity for us to come together and talk about next steps.
TJG: You mentioned Lowell Ringel. Did you recently do a Miami residency with Lowell and Stephen Boegehold?
DL: Yeah. Lowell was my college roommate, and is one of my best friends. I have a trio in New York with Stephen and my friend Sam Weber on bass. I had picked out some dates to come to Miami, play around where I’m from, and see family at the same time. It was my first time bringing my music to Miami since moving to New York. Sam wasn’t able to make it, which was sad, but my first thought was naturally to call Lowell. He’s such a great bass player. We played around for a week, at the WDNA Jazz Gallery, which happens on Friday nights, and on Saturday we did a masterclass with young students for the WDNA Jazz Bootcamp, which is the same program I attended when I was a kid. It was cool to play my stuff for them. We also enjoyed some time in the sun: I think it was literally a blizzard that week in New York, so that was good timing [laughs].
TJG: This upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery represents your debut as a leader. Would you mind telling me a little about the group?
DL: Sure. We have Sonya Belaya at the piano. I heard about her through the grapevine. We ended up playing a session together, and I was totally blown away. I’ve had a trio for a while, and I was looking for a pianist to fill out the sound I was hearing. She’s a perfect fit. She’s an amazing improviser, and doesn’t come from a jazz background, which makes the other members of the ensemble, including myself, play totally differently.
Florian Herzog is playing bass in this group. We also met at a session. His musical tendency is to ground the music, but to still instigate, to cause tumult. Florian and Stephen play together a lot in Stephen’s band, and Stephen and I have been playing since day one in New York, which happened to literally be the same day. We both attended SIM, the school for improvised music, and so we met there. We reconnected after the program and started playing more regularly in my trio. I feel like we have a special connection, both friendship-ly and musically.
TJG: There are obviously a ton of saxophone quartets, each so different from the next. What gets you going about this group?
DL: I’d only been in New York for about a year and a half, and one of the first things I formed was a trio with bass, drums, and saxophone. I’m also part of a band called Sound Underground, and we’ve been together for five years. Those are the two groups that I was playing with regularly. Sound Underground is guitar, trumpet, and alto. Both are a little off-kilter, and so I wanted something a little “normal,” you could say. I specifically wanted a pianist, and to do something unconventional with a more conventional instrumentation. The music I’ve been writing, which we’ll do at The Jazz Gallery, explores collectivity.
I keep thinking about the “stipple” technique in visual art. With stippling, you take a bunch of dots and small lines, and depending on how much of them you put in different places, you create a different shape. It’s an overall shape made out of a bunch of tiny parts. I really dig that about this band, and the music is written that way too. The improvisations are structured like that, but are also trying to mine the material that’s there. There is lots of improvisation, and lots of free improvisation, but there’s more structure than just “Let’s play something written, let’s be inspired, and let’s come back.” The compositions are more about getting from point A to point B with a specific dialogue.
TJG: How did this stippling technique get on your radar, and what do you think speaks to you about it?
DL: You know, I’m not sure. I’ve been trying to explore visual art more. I think it was just a word I read once, and I thought, “That sounds cool, that makes sense to me.” It felt like something I wanted to explore musically. It even felt like something I already try to do, but I didn’t have a word for it yet.
TJG: While you were there at Frost, did you get into the Miami art scene at all?
DL: I didn’t, really. Part of the reason I moved from Miami was that I felt that, while there are a lot of people who are willing to spend money on art, I didn’t feel that there were many people who were both spending money and actually sitting to appreciate the art on a deeper level, seeking it out as soul food [laughs]. I never got into that culture while I was down there, but since I moved to New York, my museum intake has gone way up. I’ve been exploring culture way more.
TJG: What are some of your favorite outlets for exploring culture in New York?
DL: I often take trips to Chinatown. There’s something about that part of town that’s really magical to me. There’s cheap, great food, and everyone’s on a mission, you know? They’ve all got something they’re doing, and I somehow feel like an outsider and an insider at the same time, in a strange way. I eat a lot of food in Chinatown, and will often just go by myself to hang.
Down by Battery Park, in Nelson Rockefeller State Park, there are a bunch of penny sculptures by Tom Otterness, the same artist who has an installation in the 14th Street L station. You know, it’s a bunch of these ‘penny people.’ I went there once, and I had a conversation with a man who told me about this penny park for probably three hours. He was a New Yorker who had lived across the street from the park for thirty years, he told me. He said he goes to this park just about every day at sunset, to think about life and look at the park. He was telling me so deeply about this work of art, all the allegories he found within it. I feel like you don’t really meet those kinds of people if you don’t go to artistic places.
TJG: You also have to be a certain kind of person to seek out those conversations. I’m sure thousands of people pass that guy every day and don’t necessarily engage him.
DL: I was actually with my parents. I took them to the park to show them the sculptures, to tell them what I thought all of this stuff meant. It’s haunting. There are kids playing in this park made of these penny people, and it’s kind of fun, some of the sculptures have smiles, but they’re inside the image of this giant human head, there are rich penny people, poor penny people, penny people who are dead, police penny people beating other penny people. As a kid you don’t see those things, but when you’re older, you’re like “Wow, there’s something really dark about this.”
As I was explaining it to my parents, this man interrupted me and said “That means this, this means this, did you notice over here in this corner there’s the same person…” There must be a thousand little penny people, and he had names for some of them, what they meant. It was incredible. So you could say he engaged us [laughs].
TJG: Are one or both of your parents from Cuba?
DL: Yeah, both of my parents are from Cuba. They moved here separately with their families in the mid 60s, and then met in the United States. So I’m first-generation Cuban.
TJG: Musically, do you do anything to connect with your Cuban roots?
DL: Right before I left Miami, I started really getting into Rumba. Since then, I’ve been trying to get into it more and more, so it’s an ongoing process. I grew up around these sounds that would enter my ear around town or at family parties, but otherwise I didn’t go deeper than that, until recently.
TJG: When you present yourself as a Cuban-American saxophonist, do you find that people bring certain assumptions to the table in terms of your sound, your priorities?
DL: You know, it’s interesting, because I’m not really sure. The prejudice is not obvious to me, but it might be there. Spanish is my first language, but I also speak English with an American accent, and I’m very white-passing, so I don’t think people assume I’m Cuban until I tell them. By that point, they’ve already made their assumptions about me being a white dude from Miami. So it’s not often that people know I’m Cuban before I tell them. And sometimes Cuban people meet me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re Cuban?!” [laughs].
TJG: Does it make you uncomfortable to have to explain yourself to other Cubans?
DL: Being first-generation, I feel very connected, in that I know all of the Cuban food, I know a lot of the slang. Culturally, my family is very Cuban, and what they imparted to me is very Cuban. But at the same time, I grew up very American, with American values. I don’t necessarily sound like a current Cuban, like someone who just moved to the states. My family’s accent is different, because they haven’t lived in Cuba for fifty years. I speak that way too. I don’t know. Do I feel weird? Sort of. I’m in an in-between place. I’ve heard other people talk about it too. I’m American and Cuban. What is there to do about it, except to be yourself?
The David Leon Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 21, 2019. The group features Mr. Leon on saxophone, Sonya Belaya on piano, Florian Herzog on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.