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Moving forward with the past

BY CAROLINE BERG | OCTOBER 07, 2009 7:20 AM

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mp3 sample: Leon Redbone

"Ain’t Misbehavin’"

The only excitement the elusive Leon Redbone finds in life is through musical terms.

“I’m interested in the sheer power music has of striking emotion in the listener with just one or two notes,” he said. “I’m interested in music that transports me.”

The musician resides in the past with the melodies of recorded vaudeville ditties and early 20th century jazz and blues.

“The best I can do, but it’s not going to happen, is to recreate the past,” he said.

Sure to appear in his trademark Panama hat and dark sunglasses, Redbone will perform his interpretations of American standards at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., at 8 p.m. today. Admission is $32.

“He’s definitely a unique personality,” said Vince Giordano, a musician, collaborator, and longtime friend of Redbone’s. “Still, after all these years, he remains a man of mystery.”

Redbone has managed a private personal life ever since he appeared on the musical scene more than 30 years ago.

“It’s always been the music,” Giordano said. “It’s always a very rewarding experience working with Leon.”

One of Giordano’s most cherished memories was performing with Redbone on “Saturday Night Live” in the ’70s. In fact, “Saturday Night Live” was the spark to generate Redbone’s career. Initially, Redbone’s album was slowly creeping along the sales charts, but his 1976 performance on the show sold 200,000 records by the end of the year without any outside advertising.

Now, even with more than 15 albums to boast, the mumbling crooner has maintained a novel presence in the musical world.

“He likes to experiment with different groupings of musicians to keep things fresh,” Giordano said.

One of Redbone’s well-known collaborations was “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a duet with actress and musician Zooey Deschanel for the Elf soundtrack. His music has also been featured in commercial advertisements and incorporated into a ballet, Paper Tiger, upon Mikhail Baryshnikov’s suggestion.

“Delving into unusual things and experimentation is important,” Redbone said. “Otherwise, there would be no forward movement.”

In terms of performing style, Giordano said Redbone’s shows are spontaneous.

“You never know where Leon’s going with a show,” Giordano said.

Redbone allows his music and his environment to navigate him onstage. He’s often receptive to the audience’s needs, sometimes even taking song requests.

“The song becomes the vehicle operating the performer,” he said. “I become dispossessed from myself.”

After all their years of touring and working together, Giordano appreciates the extensive musical history he has learned through Redbone. The two mostly bond over their shared love for the music of simpler times.

“When I listen to older recordings, there’s an intensity to the music,” Giordano said. “[The music] had a natural, built-in drive to the rhythm … It’s almost like a lost language.”

Redbone believes that the craftsmanship of melodies that can reach a listener is essentially the missing link in modern-day music. To him, the contemporary method of grabbing attention is achieved through loud, pounding music screaming in the listener’s ear. He asserts the quality of music really lies in its subtlety. Nevertheless, he respects people’s diverse range of tastes.

“To corral a bunch of people and force them into the past where they don’t want to go is too self-serving,” Redbone said. “The music speaks for itself.”


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