TERRE HAUTE —
The formula appears impossibly magical.
A handful of former high school buddies, scattered by life to three different cities, remain the core of a blues-funk-jazz-R&B band. Their sound is tight, yet fluid and spontaneous. They reunite just a few times a year, like an alignment of the stars, but turn in crowd-pleaser performances.
Maybe their band name supplies the magic — The Leonard Washingtons. It’s based on a stoic, trash-talking, World-Series-of-Dice-playing character from the old “Dave Chappelle Show,” who is “very confident and stone-faced,” as drummer Al Doti put it, with a laugh. “Those little snippets, we’ve kind of taken to heart.”
Despite the comedic inspiration, The Leonard Washingtons are serious about their music, as fans of Terre Haute’s annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival know quite well. Their confidence flows from years of practice, performance and improvisation together and individually. For lead singer-keyboardist Will Foraker, tenor saxophonist Alex Sperellis, trombonist Mike Nearpass, and Doti, their history dates back to high school and then their Plastic Heroes band in college. That familiarity makes their rare gigs seem seamless.
The Leonard Washingtons will display their unusual blend as one of a dozen acts performing at the Crossroads — the historic intersection of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue — this weekend. Five acts take the stage Friday night, beginning at 5:15. Seven more play Saturday, starting at 3 p.m., including The Leonard Washingtons from 9:15 to 10:45.
The seven-piece band gathered again in Terre Haute last weekend, playing a fundraiser. Two traveled from Chicago — Nearpass and alto saxophonist Natalie Lande. Sperellis trekked from Indianapolis. Doti, bassist Eric Schatz and guitarist Tim Doyle live and work in Terre Haute. Foraker resides here three months a year and spends October through spring entertaining vacationers as a singer-pianist on the Celebrity cruise ship line. The reassembling of these musicians is special.
“For the seven of us, it’s really pretty rare,” Foraker said.
The time and distance melt away as The Leonards roll through the hectic groove of “Sweet Little Miss Massey,” the ’70s soul feel of “Myself to You,” or the smooth “Hannah.” They recorded those original tunes and six others in the summer of last year for their second album, “Honest Drangle’s Wino Hat,” and unveiled them at the 2012 Blues at the Crossroads Festival. They’ve lived a year with those songs and know them more intimately now, as the 2013 blues fest crowd will hear, along with some choice covers.
“We’ll bring a little bit more of a raw energy,” said Doti.
Their secret? “A lot of it comes from all the years we’ve played together,” Doti said. “That, and we use as much technology as we can.”
Technology bridges the geographic gap. Their originals typically begin with Foraker penning the lyrics and basic chord structure. The rhythm section — Foraker, Doti, Schatz and Doyle — builds a fuller number, as the melody, bridge, verses and chorus take shape. Then, they send a recording to Nearpass, who develops the horn section parts, and he relays those to the others. They practice individually, mulling possible ad libs. It all unfolds on stage.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Foraker said. “It’s very kind of ad hoc, but we found a way to make it work.”
The end result resembles a mix of the Allman Brothers, Tower of Power and John Mayer, at least in Foraker’s opinion. Structure and free-form jamming coexist.
It works through “improvisation and the ability to go with the flow,” Doti said. He saw that skill revive in last weekend’s performance at Jacobpalooza, a benefit show. “It was really impressive to see us all come together as a unit.”
What happens after Saturday remains a bit enigmatic. Foraker leaves for his cruise work next month and returns early in 2014, “but I’ve got an album’s worth of ideas,” he emphasized. With ages ranging from 24 to 30, The Leonard Washingtons’ lives now include marriages for some, jobs and graduate studies. Tricky as reuniting has become, they enjoy the moments, Doti said.
“So that’s just kind of our thing,” he said. “We don’t really get a lot of time to practice, so we just play our hearts out when we do get together.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.