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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.”

Leon Redbone's "Flying By" CD cover.
Blake Redbone Mayer/August Records

"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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