Known for his colorful hair, flashy fashion, and incredible dance moves, Leo P is bringing jazz into the modern era. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, this baritone saxophonist was a member of Lucky Chops and now plays with Too Many Zooz, who can be heard on the song “Daddy Lessons” from Beyonce’s hit album Lemonade. His career also boasts performances at the Country Music Awards in 2016 and the BBC Proms’ Charles Mingus concert in 2017. When I talked to Leo, he told me what he wishes he’d done differently after college, what it was like to play with Beyonce, and just how important it is to be a responsible musician.
Leo will also be a featured guest in The 8-Bit Big Band’s sophomore concert at the Berklee Performance Center. A 33-member jazz/pops orchestra based in New York City, 8-Bit dedicates itself to celebrating and performing musical themes from video games, and on March 1st they’ll perform VGM’s greatest hits in a multimedia concert spectacular. Leo will perform with the orchestra’s creator, Charlie Rosen, as well as fellow saxophonist Grace Kelly. It’ll be a fun-filled night fit for the whole family - get your tickets for this can’t-miss event HERE!
What caused you to get started in music - was there a moment that inspired you to want to play bari?
I got into music because my dad plays accordion - I actually started on clarinet as a kid because we would play traditional Italian polkas. The first saxophone player I heard was John Coltrane, and I originally started because I just thought sax was cooler than clarinet. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore, but as a kid that was what I felt, because I saw all these saxophonists playing with rock and pop bands where you don’t see as much clarinet stuff. It felt like I couldn’t switch to a totally different instrument because I had a natural talent with the reed, so I did sax. Then the bari sax player at my high school got expelled for some stupid stuff, so then I had to play bari and it just resonated with me. I don’t know - it just kind of became my thing.
Who and what inspires you in performance?
Any personal drama, heartbreak, anxiety - all the negative stuff that people feel, I like to turn into positives. I feel like I usually pull from a dark place, and I try to take as much negativity as I can and use it.
I feel like when I get asked these questions, there’s a million people I’m leaving out! But growing up I watched a lot of videos of Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. As far as saxophone players, of course John Coltrane, but my favorite bari sax player ever is this guy that not a lot of people know named Ronnie Cuber. He’s the best. Whenever Beyonce releases a new music video I’m pretty amazed, and I also went to see Bruno Mars a year ago, which was the best show ever.
What were the best things you learned at Manhattan School of Music?
Studying bebop and improvisation was really helpful for me. I’d never really thought about the notes I was playing before, so it helped me to learn and study something so I wouldn’t fail a class. Being forced to understand the harmony and theory behind what I’m doing helped me improve.
If you could go back to when you started college and give yourself advice, what would you say?
Definitely “don’t go to grad school.” I only went to one semester even though I got a full scholarship, and it was really traumatic and bad. I knew that I could not continue going for another three semesters, but I feel like maybe I put a lot of people through drama because of me. I don’t know how it works with schools and giving people money, like if they could have given the scholarship to someone else - I still feel bad about that, but I didn’t realize how intense it would be. I wouldn’t have gone to grad school, and maybe I would have started playing the subway three years earlier. It’s impossible to give someone confidence - you have to have it, this idea that “I can do this.” I think the younger me just had to go through what he went through.
You collaborated with Beyonce - what was that process like? Beyonce’s musical director hit up my band Too Many Zooz through Facebook Messenger. It was kind of like “oh yeah, you’re Beyonce’s musical director? Sure. Whatever you say.” Then he said, “No, really, we’re doing a recording session and you guys should come.” So we went and met with the musical director. Honestly a lot of the collaborating was between us and him, and we just recorded a bunch of different stuff for hours. Then it was sent to Beyonce - she’s in charge of most of it, but she works remotely because she’s so busy. We ended up being on the song “Daddy Lessons” where I have the little bari sax part. I guess she was going to perform at the Country Music Awards with the Dixie Chicks, and since we were on that song she wanted us to come. So we had a bunch of rehearsals in LA and it was awesome - some of the best days of my life. I was in awe the whole time; everything was run professionally and I got to play the CMAs.
Are there mistakes you’ve made that have taught you important lessons?
I could talk for an hour about that. It’s hard to say because if I didn’t make some of those mistakes, I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to figure it out. But whenever you’re making deals with people, you need to see where all the money is. For example, the first agent we worked with offered to pay us a set amount per week to do a four-month tour of Europe, and it was my first tour, so I said “Yes. Cool. Boom. Signed.” What I didn’t realize was that he wasn’t taking the percentage I would have agreed to, and instead it was staying in really bad hotels with a show every day. Sometimes we would be playing a show, flying overnight to play two shows the next day, then getting on a train to go play another show. We were in scenarios where we were being rushed and power was being taken away from us, because I didn’t realize it was totally normal to ask what percentage the agent was taking of our shows - to say “I want to see the guarantee, the offers, every single thing, and read through all of it right now.” That’s totally what you can and should do.
At the end of the day as a musician, you have to realize that you are the boss of people that you’re hiring. They’re not your boss. You can fire that human. As a kid I always felt like I was in the wrong, and that first summer I worked really hard and really understood my mistake. Now that I can see where all the money is and stuff, it’s so much better. Basically you need to be on top of things, ask a lot of questions, and know what money is being made off of you from who.
How do you #getinthegroove? I don’t know - I have ideas and I just try to attack them aggressively with as much constance as I can. I hit up people I respect and get their opinion on the best way to move forward, and I follow my instinct of who I want to work with and who I don’t. And beyond that, I just kind of do what I want to do.