Leo P – the Jimi Hendrix of the baritone sax?

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To claim that anybody is the Jimi Hendrix of anything is a pretty bold and possibly silly claim and I realise that it’s one that may be open to ridicule, especially when I concede that I know almost nothing about the baritone sax and the only other player I can name off the top of my head is Harry Carney, who played so beautifully with Duke Ellington, as in this clip here:


…Leo Pellegrino (or to use his stage name, Leo P – but I think he should stick with the Pellegrino name – if there’s one thing this guy has got, it’s plenty of fizz!) became a global star as millions watched the YouTube videos of him playing with the ‘brass house’ trioToo Many Zooz, busking on the New York subway.

I should add that when it comes to Jimi Hendrix, I know what I am talking about – I have been a fan since about the age of 13 and I have listened to everything that he ever commercially released, as well as everything that is available online. It always strikes me as amazing that most of this material was recorded in just under four years – between 1966 and 1970. Jimi Hendrix also ‘earned his chops’ in New York and made his first real leap to stardom playing in Greenwich Village clubs. But why else might I compare these two musicians who at first glance seem so very different to one another?

1)  Stagecraft

There have been a few sax players who like to jig around, but Leo P takes this to a new level with some virtuosic dance moves that include high-kicking, spinning in circles and fancy sliding foot action. He also likes to play one-handed, with his other hand gesticulating like a rapper. Reading this back, it sounds pretty awful, but it all somehow seems to work as it feels as though he is authentically conveying his emotion as he plays (and he backs it up with some amazing playing).  Jimi Hendrix initially gained a lot of attention not just for his outstanding musicianship, but also his distinctive look, his ability to play the guitar with his teeth and behind his head, and his use of feedback. He later toned down his on-stage histrionics, but it was an important part of getting recognized early in his career. Like Hendrix, Leo P strikes me as a talented introvert who enjoys performing in front of people. They both had unusual dress sense, hair styles and an eye for the flamboyant. And they are both very talented musicians.

2) Virtuosity

Beyond the striking dance moves, Leo P is an outrageously good player and a brilliant technician who gives the impression that I think all brilliant players are able to give with their instruments – that they can do virtually anything with it. In this piece (below) he explores an enormous range of sounds, timbres and styles – from thick, grungy dance rhythms to jazz improvisation, with a fair bit of swirling, squealing overtones added in. Most importantly, together with his brilliant drummer The King of Sludge, he manages to make the unusual saxophone and drum combination sound utterly compelling. One of the reasons he is able to do this is that he plays the bassline, melody and solo parts, sometimes simultaneously, and is always driving the music forward in with incredible energy and control.  And this remind me of the way that Jimi Hendrix would also play the rhythm and solo guitar parts in his songs. Hendrix redefined what a guitar could do; it strikes me that Leo P may be doing a similar thing with the baritone saxophone.


3) Innovation

One of the things that I found most arresting about Too Many Zooz when I first heard them play is that although they are playing what are traditionally jazz instruments, the style of music they are playing is rarely what you might call jazz in any conventional sense. They describe themselves as a ‘brass house’ band, which I think refers to the driving dance rhythms at the base of everything they do. While the sheer energy, noise and ballsiness of their playing makes me think of punk. Yet jazz clearly is an important component of what they do as well – and watching Leo P playing at the Charles Mingus prom at the Albert Hall last year shows that he is a pretty mean player of canonical jazz. Hendrix too blended different styles into his playing – from Mississippi blues to hard rock, jazz and soul. It’s always refreshing to see musicians trying to break out of traditional genre boundaries – and Leo P certainly seems to be doing that.

4) ‘Feedback’

In terms of technical innovation, one of the things that Hendrix was most well known for was his use of feedback. He understood that an electric guitar was much more than just an amplified instrument – the ‘electric’ part also opened up a whole new set of possibilities. He used feedback to create all kinds of effects – the sounds of bombs, alien spaceships, wailing, gunfire – that were out of reach of an acoustic or conventionally amplified guitar and which redefined for subsequent generations of players what the instrument could do. The saxophone equivalent of feedback is overtones – the harmonics of the notes that take the instrument out of its conventional range and allow it to scream and wail, increasing its overall vocabulary and range of expression.  Leo P is a master of this difficult art.

Make up your own mind – listen to the music of the legend that is Jimi Hendrix; check out this talented young musician called Leo P. There is a long way to go before Pellegrino can claim to have anywhere near the reputation that Jimi Hendrix gained in his few years of prodigious creativity and fame, but I think there’s something in him that has the same energy and passion for music that is similarly infectious and charismatic.

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