In 1968 MPS Records assembled four alto saxophonists who, together, represented the spectrum of 1960s post-bop alto sax. Alto Summit featured Lee Konitz with his angular, abstract lines that stretched the boundaries of jazz, Phil Woods, feet firmly planted in the bop tradition, Norwood “Pony” Poindexter, the often overlooked reedman who never lost bop’s blues roots, and Leo Wright, in whose playing can be heard the full spectrum: bop, hard bop, Texas blues, and third stream, along with a healthy dose of Latin and African flavors.
Leo Nash Wright was born on December 14, 1933 in Wichita Falls, Texas. He took up the saxophone in the early 1940s under the tutelage of his father Mel, who taught him, “Don’t forget what came before.” He was influenced early on by blues greats Louis Jordan and fellow Texan Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. As Wright told one reporter, “People in the South know the blues.” His first alto idol, however, was Johnny Hodges whom Wright called the “father of the alto saxophone.”
It was also inevitable that a young altoist in the fifties would fall under the spell of Charlie Parker. “Whatever Bird was doing, in all his music,” Wright said of his predecessor, “he retained the idea of the blues.” Wright could never have imagined that just a few years out of college he would play Bird’s former role as the foil to Dizzy Gillespie.
Drafted into the army in 1956, Wright began what would eventually be a long relationship with Europe. While stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, he played in a variety of bands that included Eddie Harris, Cedar Walton, Don Ellis, and Houston Personyoung musicians, like Wright, ready to break onto the American jazz scene when they returned.
After a brief stint with Charles Mingus, which included an appearance at the 1959 Newport Festival, Wright joined company with Dizzy Gillespie, in whose band he would play for the next three years. Whatever he might have learned in college, Wright attended finishing school during his three years with Diz. “Dizzy is a giant,” Wright said at the time. “And when you’re working with the giants, you’ve got to improve. . . . You’ve got to learn discipline, get down to business. I’m still in school.”
It was at the University of Dizzy that Wright’s playing gained its full range. The expanding world musical consciousness of his leader and their globe spanning travels added to Wright’s bop and blues vocabulary the musical idioms of Latin America, the Near East, and Africa.
During the first few years of the 1960s, Wright’s talents were much in demand in the recording studio. His alto and flute can be heard on recording dates led by Kenny Burrell, Tadd Dameron, Jack McDuff, Dave Pike, Luis Bonfá, John Lewis, Lalo Schifrin, and Jimmy Witherspoon, and Blue Mitchell. This list alone suggests the range he had developed by this time, making Wright equally comfortable blowing bop changes, Latin grooves, or unadulterated blues.
This range can also be heard on the Atlantic recordings he made under his own name from this period. On Blues Shout (1960) Wright relies on standards for half of the tracks but his readings are anything but conventional. He infects the head of “Night in Tunisia,” a song he was playing regularly at this time in Dizzy’s quintet, with a bluesy hard bop groove.
By the time his career hit full stride, Wright’s flute had become as much a vehicle for his blues and Latin inflected bop as his alto. Though he resented having to major in flute at San Francisco State because they did not offer a sax major, it was Wright’s flute playing that first caught Dizzy’s attention. One of the most poignant moments on Blues Shout comes on “Indian Summer” when the old melody played on flute gains a depth of feeling accompanied only by the counterpoint of Art Davis’ bass.
On his follow-up recording Suddenly the Blues (1962), Wright pairs himself with guitarist Kenny Burrell for a more easily swinging feel. As Wright said of his playing at this time, his aim was “to express myself with simplicity and directness, minus clutter and pretense.” On Soul Talk (1963), Wright digs deeper into soul and blues territory with a quartet of Burrell, Gloria Coleman on organ, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. The organ quartet proved a comfortable home for Wright’s talents here and on other sessions led by Coleman and, most notably, on “Brother” Jack McDuff’s album Screamin’ (1962).
Having moved on from Gillespie’s bands by this point, Wright turned his sights to Europe, arriving there at the end of 1963 for a six month sojourn in Scandinavia. He played throughout Europe for the next year before arriving in Berlin to headline in a variety of clubs, including Jazzgalerie where he replaced Eric Dolphy after his unexpected death in a Berlin Hospital.
Wright lived in Berlin until 1981 when he moved to Vienna, Austria, making Europe his home base for the remainder of his life. During this time he performed and recorded almost exclusively in Europe and predominantly with European musicians and fellow American expatriates such as Kenny Clarke and Art Farmer.
Some of his most noteworthy work came with the Sender Frei Berlin (Radio Free Berlin) band. He also played with the Berlin Dream Band that made noteworthy recordings with guest artists Don Ellis, Oliver Nelson, and Stan Kenton. A rare stateside appearance resulted in I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1978), a collaboration with pianist Red Garland.
Sidelined by a stroke from 1979 to 1986, Wright enjoyed a brief comeback, playing frequently with his wife, Austrian jazz singer Elly Wright. His final concert took place in November 1990 with Jimmy Witherspoon. On January 4, 1991, Wright suffered a fatal heart attack and was later buried in Vienna. His autobiography, God is My Booking Agent, was published later that year.
When one puts Wright next to the dominant altoists of the 1960s, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, it would be easy to unfairly dismiss his playing as stuck in the past. Throughout his career, Wright remembered his father’s dictum to never forget what came before. His feet firmly planted in the bop and a blues tradition, Wright was able to blend divergent directions in jazz on his expressive palette. World beats, abstract expressionism, sixties soulall became avenues for Wright to color what he heard in Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker. Along with the American expatriates, Wright spread the gospel of jazz to sustain a scene abroad that continues to make Europe a destination for American jazz musicians.
As a Leader
Blues Shout (Atlantic, 1960)
Suddenly, the Blues (Atlantic, 1962)
Soul Talk (Vortex, 1963)
Modern Jazz Studio No. 4 (Amiga, 1965)
Flute+Alto-Sax (Amiga, 1965)
Alto Summit (MPS, 1968)
It’s All Wright (MPS, 1972)
Evening Breeze (Roulette, 1977
With Dizzy Gillespie
Four Jazz Legends Live at Newport 1960 (Vanguard Classics, 1960)
Gillespiana (Verve, 1960)
An Electrifying Evening With The Dizzy Gillespie Quintet (Verve, 1961)
Carnegie Hall Concert (Verve, 1961)
New Wave (Philips, 1962)
Dizzy on the French Riviera (Philips, 1962)
Bossa Nova (Philips, 1962)
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