Club Review: Erik Leuthäuser’s “In the Land of Ronny Whyte”
Berlin-based jazz singer/composer Erik Leuthäuser made his American debut recently at Pangea as he celebrated the forthcoming release of a new tribute album to New York music legend Ronny Whyte, with Whyte himself as a special guest. Multi-tattooed Leuthäuser has a goth, gender-fluid look and wardrobe that make his thoughtful, understated vocals and impressive jazz chops even more surprising. As with many singers for whom English is a second language, he pays great attention to the phrasing and meaning of the lyrics and his personal attack on many well-known songs breathed new life and meaning into them. There was no pretense, no artifice, just remarkably fine jazz singing. The musical backing was provided by the first-rate duo of Alan Farnham on piano and Steve LaSpina on bass.
I first came across Leuthäuser through his beautiful tribute album to Irene Kral and Alan Broadbent. During the same initial New York trip on which he recorded the Whyte tribute, he also produced tracks for a Susannah McCorkle album and a project with Broadbent, so he is nothing if not productive. The first fruits of those labors were on display with the Ronny Whyte originals included in the Pangea show.
The show began with a rollicking “Day by Day” (Axel Stordahl, Paul Weston, Sammy Cahn) that contained a churning scat chorus that was thrilling. A striking piano solo and some swinging bass added what was a forecast of great music to come. Switching gears to a delicate “Where Do You Start” (Johnny Mandel, Marilyn & Alan Bergman) the singer was equally impressive on a romantic ballad, capturing a style and a feeling well beyond his years. Dave Frishberg’s wonderful “Quality Time” proved a prescient warning for life interrupted in 2022 although it was written 50 years earlier. It opened with a witty quote from “Guess Who I Saw Today” and even the most dated and arcane references were not beyond the singer’s intelligence and phrasing.
The first Whyte original of the evening was “Here’s Looking at You” which was a smile-inducing delight—supper club wit and elegance at its finest. Roger Schore’s smart, literate lyrics were a feast, from which Leuthäuser had his fill. He flooded the stage with cool, right down to a Basie ending. Farnham then gave the piano over to Whyte for a few numbers, including a great duet on “People, Places, and Things” on which their voices blended magically, and the generational element of their pairing was quite moving. As a special tribute to his host, he sang Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” in German—a funny idea he pulled off fantastically. His set, which closed with his should-have-been-a-standard “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own,” contained some of the finest singing of his career. I can’t wait to hear the CD.
With Farnham back in place, the genius of Fran Landesman and Simon Wallace took center stage with “Down” (a hymn to self-destruction to which the singer confessed he feels quite close) and then their paean to the walking wounded in love, “Scars.” These two songs were the beating heart of the remarkable evening and left me hoping for a Landesman project in the future. Leuthäuser’s taste in music remained above reproach as he revisited Carmen McRae’s “I’m Getting Through” (Arthur Herzog Jr, Irene Hitchens). Then a surprise guest, Latvian singer Arta Jekabsone, whom he met at an improv competition in Montreux—she won, and he came in second but a partnership was born and their second album will be released later this year). On stage they combined their extraordinary voices in a glorious bit of a cappella vocalise during which the palpable joy of the singers as they supported and challenged each other was mirrored in the smiling faces of the audience.
To add one more talent to his already impressive arsenal, the singer then revealed that since childhood he had been writing lyrical impressions of great jazz instrumental solos, inspired by the great Jon Hendricks. He then floored us with his German lyrics to a Miles Davis solo on “Little Willie Leans.” It was electrifying. His final choice for the night was another standard, “That Ole Devil Called Love” (Allan Roberts, Doris Fisher) that left the audience wanting more, as it should. This was an assured and memorable U.S. debut for someone well on his way to becoming a star of international proportions. When he returns to New York, make every effort to see Erik Leuthäuser—I know that I will.
Presented at Pangea on June 29.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”