The "Hamilton" star brings his classic jazz act this Friday evening
Leslie Odom Jr. comes to New Orleans in a key moment of his career. He leaves behind the world of the musical Hamilton that made him famous as he embarks on a solo career. If the albums he has released since the show are any indication, when he plays Jazz Fest’s WWOZ Jazz Tent this Friday at 5:40 p.m., he will be debuting a brand new role—that of the classic jazz singer.
Before Hamilton, Odom was a working actor, but like many others, he struggled to find his place. He performed in plays, moved to sitcoms, and had stints on television crime dramas. This trajectory was rocky and punctuated with disappointment, a journey he describes in the title of his 2018 book, Failing Up. But Hamilton changed things. He was not only part of a musical that became a cultural phenomenon, but Hamilton’s success made Odom an awards season hero. He won a Grammy and the 2016 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. That success gave Odom’s prospective singing career an air of inevitability, despite his years of struggle. The New York Times‘ Michael Paulson describes him as similar to his character, Aaron Burr: “Mr. Odom is deft, stylish and charismatic.”
Much like his performance of Burr, Odom fully commits to the age-old archetype of a smooth jazz singer, Christmas album included. His album covers and the songs within could be easily mistaken for those of Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr, or the generation of singers that inspired them. He commits himself to the classics, and so far sounds, looks and plays the part. This path leads him away from those who earned similar notoriety from Hamilton. Daveed Diggs has a hip-hop career and acts on television, while Philippa Soo stayed on Broadway and Anthony Ramos accepted a role acting in Spike Lee’s next mini-series. In a world where musical theater nerds Lin Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt have seen success with pop music audiences far past the normal fans of Broadway, it seems like a natural move to transition to endeavors that reach for a similarly broad base. Odom may want that audience too, but he asks it to join him in his love of the music and aesthetic that dominated the charts in the pre-rock 'n' roll era.
In 2013, Odom described the debut album he intended to make as “the album that Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis, Jr might make today.” He added, “There isn't really a black male Traditional Pop vocalist visible enough on the contemporary music scene for me to draw a comparison to. That is where I come in... Our sound will be lush, full, and emotional.” Odom fits the bill aesthetically, performing the songs that Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis might sing today (and a few that Cole did back then) in the sleek, sophisticated suits and ties they wore too. He dresses for the part he's playing, and although the cover art for his self-titled debut album presents him in something a little au courant with the tiger-striped suit coat, the cover photo of Simply Christmas with Odom in a cashmere sweater, sleeves rolled up, could come from 1957 as easily as 2017.
His commitment to the dressing the part wouldn't matter if he didn't have the vocal chops, but Leslie Odom Jr. features 12 songs that illustrate the velvety quality of his voice. On “Brazil,” he delivers a quick and effortless version of the song in Portuguese, and later he makes Anthony Newley's “Cheer Up Charlie” from the 1971 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory his own by replacing the obvious strings with a lonely acoustic guitar. The standout song, his cover of “Autumn Leaves,” is, as Rolling Stone contributor Brittany Spanos wrote, “a tenderly passionate interpretation of the jazz standard.” The music video for the song features Odom “washed in warm orange, yellow and blue as he croons in a lounge between scenes of him running around and later fighting with his lover through Central Park.”
In concert, Odom leans heavily on his debut album and Hamilton, but like Frank Sinatra in the 1970s, he's also intrigued by the pop world. Sinatra tried on The Beatles, most famously with "Something," and in concert, Odom has interpreted songs by Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, and even Selena’s Gomez. The star of Odom's show is not a body of work, but rather his voice and the endless possibilities that it presents each performance. Those who see Odom on Friday will likely to recognize the role he's best known for and can see how he's doing in his new one.