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Leon Redbone - Sunday Breakfast with John Platt - 2014 Radio Interview 

9.2.14 at 8:43pm by John Platt

Is Leon Redbone lazy or just laid back? It's a question worth asking, since it took him 13 years to put out his most recent album, ironically titled Flying By. When he came to WFUV recently, I did ask, but I'm not sure he answered it (or any of my questions) directly, but he laughed a lot and let us know a little about what appeals to him in a song. He also gave us a couple of tunes in Studio A, accompanied by the incomparable Vince Giordano on tuba and upright bass.


Leon Redbone flies high with new album 'Flying By' 

Asked why it’s been such a long time between the release of his last album Any Time and the new Flying By, Leon Redbone smiles and answers, in trademark laconic manner, “Things take time.”

"I get distracted,” he adds, considering his activities since Any Time’s 2001 appearance, these including plenty of live performances, and in the last year or so, planning for Flying By.

That’s not to suggest that the planning and production of Leon Redbone albums are long drawn-out affairs. But the singular pre-World War II ragtime, jazz, blues and Vaudeville stylist is ever-careful when it comes to choosing his material, and in the case of Flying By, also had a hurricane to contend with.

“We started recording at Water Music in New Jersey—and then they went under water!” says Redbone’s longtime producer Beryl Handler, recalling the deleterious effects of Hurricane Sandy.

"Then we found a place in the Poconos—of all places!” Handler continues. “Red Rock Recording is a great studio, and all the guys came out there.”

The musicians included Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, whose leader Giordano is a Redbone studio regular. Two tracks with big band arrangements were done at New York’s MSR Studios.

“It was all very haphazard because we were totally discombobulated--and it takes a long time when you haven’t been in the studio for so long,” says Handler.

She notes that Giordano really wanted to cut “Wanna Go Back Again Blues,” which they knew from Duke Ellington’s recording. Redbone revives another jazz immortal via Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mr. Jelly Lord.”

“He was an amazing piano player and songwriter and singer—and what a character!” says Redone. He further singles out Irving Berlin’s “But Where Are You,” which closes the album.

“That particular song, as far as I’m concerned, is his best work,” says Redbone. “But almost no one’s heard it.”

In fact, “But Where Are You” was sung In the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie classic Follow the Fleet by Harriet Hilliard—of later Ozzy & Harriet TV sitcom fame.

“I just happened to come across it one day—and once you hear it, you can’t forget it,” says Redbone.

“The amazing thing is that it’s an extremely simple melody--which is the best,” he informs. “You get way more out of a simple melody than something that’s very complicated, and there’s a whole sentiment expressed in that simple melody, with heart and sincerity.”

Sentimentality in music, suggests Redbone, has “evaporated.”

“It’s just noise volume level, with no sentimentality at all,” he says of contemporary music. “It didn’t get better over the years, which is unfortunate. Maybe a slight jog in the planets might make it get better!”

He runs his hand across his neck in a slicing motion and adds, “It’s just flatlining.”

So on Flying By, Redbone revives the music of another legendary artist--the now largely forgotten 1920s-‘30s jazz and blues singer Lee Morse.

“She was a unique individual—everything about her was unique,” says Redbone, who opens Flying By with Morse’s “Just You and I” and also performs her “Main Street.”

Morse, notes Handler, called her band Her Bluegrass Boys long before the term was defined and popularized.

“Songwriters would submit songs to her because she could cover any range,” says Handler.

Redbone notes that like Berlin’s “But Where are You,” “you hear [a Morse] recording one time and it stays with you.”

So much so, apparently, that Redbone took a trip to Rochester, N.Y., to visit the grave of Morse, who died in 1954 at age 57--and was buried without a marker.

“There was snow on the ground, and I knew they might take a dim view if we started shoveling things in a cemetery,” Redbone says wryly. “I’ve seen it happen.”

But he adds that the reporter he was with went on to organize funding for a headstone for Morse.

More recently, Redbone, who has been seen and heard on TV and film since first appearing on Saturday Night Live during its 1975 debut season, sang “When You Wish Upon a Star” on the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s 2010 film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and appeared on the soundtrack of Boardwalk Empire episodes.

But his main activity now is to promote Flying By, which is out on August Records--his label since 1984--and features whimsical cover artwork by his daughter Blake Redbone Mayer.

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Woody Allen, Leon Redbone, and the Serious Business of Cutting a Joke 

Is it possible to fall in love with a movie just from the first notes of the soundtrack, before an image even hits the screen? Yes.
Woody Allen’s most recent film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opens with Leon Redbone’s version of "When You Wish Upon a Star." The pairing of Allen and Redbone is perfect for the tightly crafted masterpieces Woody Allen still seems to be churning out in his late seventies. Redbone performs his shows as a drunken and riotously funny washed-up tin pan alley musician out of the 20s. Similarly, Allen’s recent films seem to be of a different era. Although contemporary in their setting, Allen remains intent on putting out "good little movies" as he calls them. Allen's last three each ran a budget of a mere $15 million, chump change by Avatar standards. And his films actually turn a profit because Europeans still like Woody, while his mother country seems to have lost interest in his films. 
Allen remains absorbed in the themes that have long been the center of his work (the unpredictability of human desire, betrayal, the terrible things an alright person will do in the wrong circumstances, etc.). Because these are such illusive and slippery topics to explore, Allen remains capable of crafting great, "little" (in length, not ambition) films to teach us something new about the rise and fall of fortunes that surround the a typically average characters. Well...not completely average: his protagonists are usually amusingly cursed with an extra dose of intelligence and a fair share of pretense and arrogance.

Whether in his utterly serious crime thrillers like Cassandra’s Dream and Matchpoint, or the more humorous--yet still serious--cornerstones of his catalog like Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen remains absorbed with the aesthetic possibilities surrounding deceit in the worlds he fashions. In Allen's cosmology the rain falls both comically and tragically (usually at the same time) on the horrible and the miserable (see clip below for Allen's categorization of these two types of people).

Allen opens his newest venture with the famous quote from Macbeth about life being comprised of nothing but "sound and fury." A little heavy-handed? Perhaps, but Woody pulls it off because he’s chose Redbone's track for playing the light-sounding acoustic jazz guitar in the background. The tension achieved in that moment of the lighthearted exposition of life's hard realities touch on the aesthetic possibilities Allen relentlessly keeps exploring. But to be honest, it hasn’t gotten old--at least not for me, and I've seen 28 of his films. 29 might put me over the edge, but I doubt it.  Allen keeps coming up with new angles, and therefore new sets of questions to accompany his lifelong Hamlet-meets-Groucho Marx quest for meaning through his films.

Allen's work testifies that "cutting a joke" when you do the right way "is the most serious undertaking this side the grave” (qtd Dale Cockerell’s Demons of Disorder). Recently his humor, like Mark Twain’s, seems to carry the tragic inevitability of suffering and death. These preoccupations help explain Allen’s pension for Bergman and Dostoevsky references and their influence on him as a writer, but what makes Allen different is that dose of vaudevillian humor. Allen can wash down his cold existentialism with reversals of fate filmed, scripted, and scored amusingly enough that you actually enjoy seeing the fragile human condition represented for 90 to 120 minutes. Laughing about a little bit of life's futility with Woody makes you feel less crazy, because his characters are usually going to be crazier than you.
Stranger stays on par with the other quality work Allen has put out of late. Vicki Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works were two of my favorite films from 2009. Even at 77, Allen is relentlessly entertaining as he continues to  return to the big questions with his characteristic nervous and high-spirited energy. And after all these years, he seems even less inclined than ever to go for the easy joke, so expect to find a little vinegar at the bottom of Allen’s unique brand of Vaudeville.

This article also published at Best Geek Blog Ever. Make sure to check out all the great articles and podcasts EZ Gutierrez and company have to offer there.

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