Eric Lechliter has reached that point in life where the days are long, but the possibilities seem endless.
He is in his first season as music director and primary arranger for the Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. He leads the Original Farm League Big Band, made up of friends who like to create their own charts and try them out in public. He teaches trumpet at Xavier University, leads the jazz orchestra and has 20 private trumpet students.
At the tender age of 26, life is full, but as he said, “I’m doing what I love doing.”
Lechliter spent his early years in Kansas and then Springfield, Mo., before his family moved to West Chester when he was a high school junior.
“I started playing trumpet when I was 10,” he said. “Pretty much from the start, I knew I wanted to be a musician, but there’s not a whole lot of avenues for seeing or performing live music in small-town Kansas or Missouri. So, when I moved here, it was like I had reached the oasis.”
After Lakota West High School, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music was his next step, where he prudently chose to major in music education, with a jazz specialization. But a jazz theory class with pianist Phil DeGreg and exposure to jazz arranging with Craig Bailey lit his fire and gave him the vocabulary for creating his own path forward.
According to DeGreg, who also is the CCJO’s board chair and pianist, “Over my 27 years at CCM, Eric stood out as one of the finest and most complete musicians I encountered. He absorbed information very quickly and turned even mundane assignments into fully formed creative output, with great attention to detail.”
Scott Belck, former CCJO music director and his trumpet instructor at CCM, likes to “sum up” Lechliter with this story: “The day after spring break of Eric’s freshman year, I asked him, ‘Did you and your family travel anywhere?’ He said no, but that he did transcribe five Blue Mitchell solos. I knew then he was going to be just fine.”
When Lechliter finished student teaching, he started the Original Farm League Big Band. As he described his thinking at the time, “I’ve got all these great friends, and everybody has to take the arranging class in college, and all of us can write big band charts, but there’s no one to write for. So that was the idea – to have a writers’ band made up of all my best friends.”
About that same time, the CCJO was soliciting charts for a composers’ concert. Lechliter submitted several pieces to then-CCJO music director Rob Parton, who apparently liked what he received, since he began asking Lechliter for more and more.
So, when Parton left the CCJO in 2018, Lechliter threw his hat in. “It was kind of a natural transition at that point,” he said. “So I’m very fortunate to get to do cool stuff with that band.”
According to CCJO board secretary LeAnne Anklan, Lechliter stood out within a strong field of candidates. “His musicianship, skills at writing and unique programming ideas made him an ideal candidate,” she said. “He also had a passion for education, which is an important focus for CCJO.”
The CCJO differs from most jazz organizations in that it is a nonprofit and produces its own season of concerts. It has a board of trustees, governance, an operating infrastructure, plus the aforementioned education outreach.
“The CCJO is a very produced and polished product,” he said. “A lot of thought has been put into crafting programs that are really fun … to make them an experience. There’s a wide spectrum, and it’s the only place you can hear these world premiere arrangements.”
Lechliter is bullish on the state of jazz within the musical marketplace, citing Esperanza Spalding and Kendrick Lamar as examples of a renaissance of young artists immersed in or at least incorporating a jazz aesthetic. “I think jazz is in a really cool spot right now where it has a big impact on American popular music again.”
This appreciation for fusing styles inspires many of his own creative ideas. The past few years, the CCJO has devoted one concert to arrangements of an influential rock or R&B artist: Prince in 2017, David Bowie in 2018 and Earth, Wind and Fire last spring. This spring (April 16) the band will tackle Steely Dan.
“If someone is coming in to see the concert just because they like Steely Dan, then they’ll be satisfied. But if someone is ambivalent about Steely Dan, but they really like jazz, then they’ll be really satisfied with the jazz content.”
And Lechliter feels a big band like the CCJO has one unique attribute – power.
“Even if you’ve never heard jazz,” he said, “if you just sit down in front of a 17-piece band and get your hair parted by the enormity of the sound and all the depth and all the different colors, it’s a spectacle.”
Sticking with that fusion vein, the CCJO’s Christmas concert is coming up Dec. 12.
Looking at holiday music through the lens of James Brown, “Have a Funky Christmas” will feature nine world premiere arrangements drawn from Brown’s three Christmas albums, mostly non-standard fare. Then in February, the CCJO delves into gospel with “We Gotta Shout: Gospel Meets Jazz,” joined by an all-star gospel choir led by A. Michael Cunningham.
As part of its educational mission, the CCJO brings an existing high school jazz band to perform as the warm-up act for CCJO performances and provides clinicians to present workshop or individual instruction at the school.
As for future goals for CCJO, Lechliter wants the organization to be seen as ambassadors of the great jazz scene in Cincinnati – recording, playing at festivals and drawing jazz fans to our region.
“I would love to radically expand our profile in the region,” he said. “If I’m driving to Columbus or Indiana to see shows, I would hope that people would start coming in and making (the CCJO) a real destination event.”