There’s a bit of a problem that comes along with being wrapped up in art of the highest caliber. Idina Menzel may very well have to sing “Let It Go” for the rest of her life and “You’re the One That I Want” from “Grease” probably haunts John Travolta to this day. Performers and their iconic works are inextricably linked, for better or worse.
So the question is: How will Leslie Odom Jr. rise up (“Hamilton” fans, go ahead and call out the unintended play on show lyrics) above the towering shadow of a cultural phenomenon? Odom has found the answer: Release a jazz album amid Tony Award chatter. Instead of allowing his celebrated performance as Aaron Burr to guide his career, Odom produced the album in the residual glow of success. This isn’t Aaron Burr. This is wholly Leslie Odom Jr., man of supreme talent.
Odom released a variation of the self-titled album in 2014, but a jazz album put out by a semi-obscure theater performer is apparently a tough sell. The earlier Leslie Odom Jr. was composed of an unfocused nine-song tracklist, albeit full of lovely vocals and imaginative arrangements. The 2016 reworking streamlines the original release and engages in a more focused narrative, one of maintaining optimism and relishing in love.
The album’s opener, “Look for the Silver Lining,” makes that optimism pretty clear. The new arrangement of the Jerome Kern tune is made up of all the trademarks of smooth jazz — simple bassline, bright piano, the occasional hi-hat — and gently awakens the album’s sounds of bliss and gratitude. Though some songs do acknowledge sadness (“Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)”), the album incessantly begs for listeners to toss away their worries and look around (not another play on show lyrics) at the joys that permeate our daily lives.
The most explicit example of the singer’s eagerness to lift spirits is in his rendition of the famed “Cheer Up Charlie” from “Willy Wonka.” Recalling the corniness of the film version, it may come as a surprise that the song could be redeemed. With its sorrowful guitar — the only instrument used here — and familiar lyrics sung through a smile, the tune makes you feel like Odom is kneeling down next to you and telling you everything will be all right. It leaves you with no choice but to lift your chin and share in his unrelenting optimism.
With the album’s oozing positivity, Odom demonstrates his extreme versatility as a singer. From “Hamilton” we got a hybrid of stage and hip hop styles, but here he could be a jazz singer (“Love Look Away”), an R&B artist on the Top 40 charts (“I Know That You Know”) or even an expert in Portuguese (“Brazil”). Never does his voice lose its impeccable smoothness. He takes new arrangements of classic songs and fits them to his own liking instead of falling into the redundant intonations of past recordings — a common curse for jazz albums.
Among the new arrangements is a reimagining of “The Guilty Ones,” a Duncan Sheik song originally conceived as a duet in Broadway’s “Spring Awakening.” It’s a song from a show about teen sexual awakening, but Odom’s version comes from a man who’s experienced love in all of its maturity and profound passion. The song begins with demanding piano as Odom brings us into a world of feverish intimacy, then transitions into a heart-racing, drum-filled encounter. He sings, “Our touch will color the hours / Night won’t breathe, oh, how we / Fall in silence from the sky.” Quite frankly, this interpretation’s sensuality makes you feel a little guilty yourself after listening, the mark of a great, lusty love song and thus the mark of a great performer.
The best performers are able to transfer their own feelings and motivations to their audiences. Odom has already done this over and over again in the theater. And now with his reworked album, he’s done it again. With Leslie Odom Jr., the singer has come into his own, sharing his optimism and joy along the way. When he leaves “Hamilton” come July, he won’t have to worry about being Aaron Burr for the rest of his career.
Danielle Gutierrez covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected].