Q&A with Boogie Woogie & Blues pianist Carl Sonny Leyland, displays a spontaneity, providing plenty of surprises for the listener

"For those of us who have experienced the magic of that music, it is a worthy pursuit to try to convey that magic to others. It is important that we honor those who created and shaped that music, not just the famous names but also lesser known artists who despite their obscurity have created something profound."

Carl Sonny Leyland: Boogie Woogie Party

Carl Sonny Leyland was born & raised on the South Coast of England, growing up close to the city of Southampton. As a child he was drawn to the American music which he heard on LP records his father would play. It was here that he developed an appreciation for Dixieland jazz, the rock & roll of the 1950s & the country music of Jimmie Rodgers & Hank Williams. At age 15 Leyland discovered boogie woogie when he heard a school friend working through a written arrangement of a tune called JD's Boogie Woogie. Captivated by the sound of the repeating 8 to the bar left hand pattern, Leyland was inspired to go to the piano & begin on a path that would become his life's purpose. Within 3 months he would be performing in public & shortly after would become a member of a respected local group "The Bob Pearce Blues Band." Initially influenced by boogie woogie greats Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson & Meade 'Lux' Lewis, Leyland went on to fully explore the piano blues genre, becoming an authority on early & obscure styles such as those played by Cow Cow Davenport, Little Brother Montgomery, Montana Taylor & Speckled Red to name a few.

(Carl Sonny Leyland / Photo by Stradi Corleone)

In 1988 Leyland had the opportunity to come to the USA. This initial visit to New Orleans inspired him to relocate to that city where he would spend the next nine years. During that time he was active on the club scene, quickly gaining a reputation for his authentic blues & early rock & roll stylings. Also, he toured with the Dallas based band Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets whose line up included blues great Sam Myers. In 1997, feeling the need for a change, Leyland relocated to Southern California. He joined Big Sandy & His Flyrite Boys, the well known rockabilly & western swing group & toured with them for over three years. By this time his repertoire had expanded to include ragtime & early jazz styles which enabled him to become part of the traditional jazz scene around Los Angeles & San Diego. In June of 2003 the Carl Sonny Leyland Trio was formed with drummer Hal Smith & bassist Marty Eggers. They have recorded seven cds and continue to work steadily on the festival scene. Whether playing solo or with his trio, or with his quintet The Boogie Woogie Boys, Leyland's playing displays an infectious spontaneity, providing plenty of surprises for the listener.  While he possesses the necessary vocabulary to pay tribute to the greats of old, he refuses to be limit himself to this & prefers to let each performance be an opportunity to say something new. His repertoire spans the Ragtime era to the 1950s & includes a number of self written material.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Playing music for a living has enabled me to travel to diverse locations, meeting people from all walks of life. Outside of performing I am a rather shy person so I’m sure I would not have had these kinds of experiences had I not become a musician.

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

My sound is vintage yet eclectic, boogie, blues, early jazz & swing, rockabilly & country having all had some influence on me. I enjoy some music that is technically simple, & some that is complex. The feeling is the main thing, the emotional & spiritual weight that it carries. With my repertoire I try to keep a balance between honoring the memory of those artists who have influenced me, and saying something personal with my playing style ,which I have developed and evolved over the many years since I started in 1980. I have composed numerous pieces which I mainly play in solo concerts.

"I think the music of the past, in particular the period approximately from 1900 to the mid 1960s contained emotional elements that seem to be extinct today. If I had to narrow it down I’d say pathos is the ingredient that has gone. I hear this in old music including everything from popular songs to the deep blues of players like Jimmy Yancey & Clarence Lofton." (Carl Sonny Leyland ? Photo by Laura Wuest)

Why do you think that the Boogie Woogie music continues to generate such a devoted following?

There is an infectious excitement in the rhythm of the left hand. Once it has you hooked you’re in for life. For those that want to dig deeper there are great stories, like that of how boogie came to fame on the stage at Carnegie Hall with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, & Meade Lux Lewis. Then there are the individual stories of the many pianists who shaped that music in which we find triumph, tragedy, and all aspects of the human drama.

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

There is no particular highlight. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to accompany many great artists, and also that I’ve been able to create an audience for my own music. The highlight comes any time I’m able to reach that feeling of transcendence while playing music.

A moment that changed me? I think back to 1988 when I first came to the USA. There was a bar in Mandeville, Louisiana where my group was well liked. It was a rural bar, not a blues club, or a place that was part of a Scene. We would play, and people would dance. It all felt very natural, without pretense. I experienced a kind of enlightenment, music and the world fitting together perfectly.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

A few pictures come into my mind. Bob Pearce, my original mentor, walking along the bar of  The Onslow Hotel with his guitar on a long cord & then heading out into the street (it was a very long cord). From the stage I could see through the window a bus driver with a look of astonishment on his face… Harmonica great Jerry McCain rolling around on his back on stage at House Of Blues (LA), giggling in a state of ecstasy. Janis Martin the great Rockabilly singer hopping towards me, dangling a microphone between her legs… In these kinds of moments I find a kind of transcendence that seems very significant.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think the music of the past, in particular the period approximately from 1900 to the mid 1960s contained emotional elements that seem to be extinct today. If I had to narrow it down I’d say pathos is the ingredient that has gone. I hear this in old music including everything from popular songs to the deep blues of players like Jimmy Yancey & Clarence Lofton.

(Photo: Carl Sonny Leyland & Champion Jack Dupree, 1988)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Don’t fall prey to compromising one’s artistic vision, thinking that you’re creating a detour path that will lead back to it. It doesn’t work that way-the path you’ve created actually goes in the opposite direction & eventually you have to go back to zero & start over.

Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues? What is the role of music in today’s society?

For those of us who have experienced the magic of that music, it is a worthy pursuit to try to convey that magic to others. It is important that we honor those who created and shaped that music, not just the famous names but also lesser known artists who despite their obscurity have created something profound.

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