Leap Day should be predictable – it comes around like clockwork after all, once every four years. But it always seems to spring out of nowhere, an odd quadrennial anomaly that realigns the calendar and the clock. The Leap Day Trio does something similar. After nearly three decades of playing together, drummer Matt Wilson and saxophonist Jeff Lederer shouldn’t have too many new tricks left up their sleeves. Somehow they continually manage to surprise both audiences and each other with their witty interplay and off-kilter sensibilities, in this latest venture aided by a new addition to their ever-expanding circle, the potent and vibrant bassist Mimi Jones.
Another surprise comes via the location of the trio’s spirited debut recording: Live at the Café Bohemia revives a legendary name from jazz’s past. Due out February 24, 2023 thanks to the artist-centered nonprofit Giant Step Arts and recorded by renowned photographer/engineer Jimmy Katz, the album features the birth of a new trio at the rebirth of a storied New York City venue. This lively and electrifying set took place (when else?) on Leap Day and Leap Day Eve 2020, just four months after the Bohemia reopened – and mere weeks before live music experiences like this were shut down for months to come.
Wilson and Lederer first met at a rehearsal date shortly after the drummer moved to New York City in 1993, where Wilson was immediately struck by the saxophonist’s visceral sound. “Any relationship I have with a musician usually starts with the sound coming up through the ride cymbal, and with Jeff the sound and the feel were so hard-hitting.” The two went on to work together in Wilson’s Quartet, his Carl Sandburg-inspired project Honey and Salt, and the holiday-focused Christmas Tree-O; and in Lederer’s Albert Ayler-inspired bands Sunwatcher and Brooklyn Blowhards.
When Katz proposed a recording date at the newly reopened Café Bohemia, a trio made the most sense for the somewhat cavernous space. Wilson instantly thought of Jones, who he’d recently seen perform. “I was really digging the way that I heard Mimi approach music,” he recalls. “Her spirit is to me is very reminiscent of an era of bassists that that I’ve been very fortunate to get to play with: folks like Cecil McBee, Buster Williams, Rufus Reid and Calvin Hill. They’re grounded but also have a great sense of adventure.”
All three brought in music for the date, though in the trio’s collective spirit the pieces remain uncredited on the album. It’s not always difficult to place the composer – opener “Dewey Spirit” is clearly named for Wilson’s mentor, saxophonist Dewey Redman, and “Gospel Flowers” previously appeared on a date that Lederer recorded with drummer Jeff Cosgrove and organist John Medeski – but the point is that the band was far more interested in communal invention than in individual expression.
“I loved the way it felt,” says Lederer. “The way we play in this trio is pretty distinct from the way we play in the one that works in the month of December. It creates a whole different feeling. There’s just something about the openness of it, and Mimi brings a very flowing feel to it. There’s just a lot of breath in the sound.”
“The trio only rehearsed twice before the gig,” admits Wilson, “but I could tell we were really going to throw down. Our spirits are aligned in a lot of ways. We all have differences, of course, but the overall spirit of adventure and kindness comes through.”
Originally opened as a jazz club in 1955, when Charlie Parker offered to play the room in exchange for free drinks, the original Café Bohemia barely survived two Leap Days before closing in 1960 (Bird, tragically, passed away before ever playing the club he’d willed into being). After almost six decades, the club reopened in 2019 in its original Greenwich Village space, now the basement of the Barrow Street Ale House.
Live at the Café Bohemia immediately joins the ranks of the stellar recordings captured live at the Bohemia by some of the music’s most revered names: Kenny Dorham’s ‘Round About Midnight at the Café Bohemia and two volumes by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, both on Blue Note; Randy Weston’s Jazz à la Bohemia for Riverside; a pair of Charles Mingus albums featuring Max Roach.
Cannonball Adderley was discovered at the Bohemia when he sat in with Oscar Pettiford, who penned “Bohemia After Dark” in tribute to the club. Herbie Nichols was the house pianist, and the club was the testing ground for the Prestige recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet. Marvin Koner’s famous cover image for Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight was snapped at the Bohemia, its red tint coming not a filter but from a red fluorescent light above the bandstand.
“It felt great to be back in a place that’s small and carefree,” says Wilson, citing his and Lederer’s early days as regulars at the now-defunct East Village bar Detour. “The Miles Davis Quintet – John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, Paul Chambers – used the Bohemia as their home base in New York. And the Kenny Dorham record from there is a classic.”
“I was trying not to feel the weight of history,” Lederer says. “I thought I was cool with it, but then we walked in on Friday night and the first face I see at the table is Joe Lovano. Joe is a friend, but at the same time he’s still a hero. It felt like such an event, all tied with the history of the place.”
Attended by a host of family, friends, fellow musicians, jazz history buffs and just plain fans, the Leap Day Trio’s debut was no doubt a memorable event – one that the band ensures will be repeated far more than often than every four years.