Welcome to the Monkey House. This acclaimed project is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/arranger/producer Don Breithaupt, and, nearly 25 years into its career, Monkey House has recorded its strongest work yet, Left. To be released worldwide on ALMA Records on June 3rd, this is the follow-up to 2012’s Headquarters, a recording that made believers out of some internationally renowned musicians who were then eager to participate in Left.
To record Left, Breithaupt again set up shop at elite Toronto studio The Drive Shed with the team of co-producer Peter Cardinali and engineer John ‘Beetle’ Bailey. “My comfort level with Peter is high, and John is indispensable for making records these days,” reports Don. “For the first time, I decided t o have a core quartet at the heart of this album on all the basic tracks, as a way of making the album cohesive.’
That all-star grouping comprised drummer Mark Kelso, bassist Pat Kilbride, and guitarist Justin Abedin, with Breithaupt contributing typically eloquent keyboards, and bassist Peter Cardinali guesting on one track. After bed tracks and vocals were recorded, a five-piece horn section (William Carn, John Johnson, Perry White, Christian Overton, and Vern Dorge) came in for a full day of recording, adding their versatile magic on most of the tunes. But wait, there’s more! Monkey House is renowned for big name guests, and Left is certainly no exception. “I put feelers out for soloists, and ended up getting audio from around the world: Toronto, London, New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles,” says Breithaupt.
Stellar guitarists featured include Elliott Randall and Drew Zingg (both of Steely Dan fame), L.A. session great Jay Graydon, and rock legend Kim Mitchell. Other guests include backing vocalists David Blamires (Pat Metheny Group) and Lucy Woodward (Snarky Puppy), trumpeters Michael Leonhart (current musical director for Steely Dan), and William Sperandei, and saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a key player on David Bowie’s final album. Breithaupt’s ability to attract guests of this caliber speaks volumes on the peer respect now enjoyed by Monkey House, something that thrills him. “I was proud to nab Elliott Randall,” he says. “He was the lead guitarist on a lot of early Steely Dan stuff, including ‘Reelin’ In The Years,’ such an important song to me growing up. I was tickled by how much he loved the tune he’s on, and he’s offered to help us talk the album up. Donny McCaslin, who discovered the last Monkey House record via a mutual friend, is a fellow Berklee alumnus. And I’ve been working closely with Jay Gaydon ever since I moved to California.”
The collaborating also extended to some of the songwriting on Left. Marc Jordan co-wrote “None Of This Would Have Happened,” Julie Crochetière co-wrote “The Art of Starting Over,” Don’s acclaimed lyricist brother Jeff Breithaupt co-wrote the very witty “What Exactly Is It That You Do All Day?,” and Jay Graydon co-wrote “Good To Live.”
Don’s skills as a superb songwriting craftsman illuminate Left. His songs are both lyrically and musically sophisticated, and the meticulous care taken with them helps account for the length of time always taken between Monkey House albums (this is only the fifth one since 1992).
Much of the core of Left’s material can be traced back to a long-distance drive Don took across the continent three years ago when he relocated to Los Angeles from his Toronto home. “Driving eight hours at a stretch across the flattest part of continent you get into a zen thing,” he recalls. “The mind gets more fertile when there is less input. I kept having lyric and melody ideas that I’d scratch down on gum wrappers, scrap paper, magazines, anything! I’d say at least half the songs on this album started on that road trip.”
A refreshing variety of musical styles and lyrical themes help keep your attention riveted on Left. There’s a melancholy tinge to “It’s Already Dark In New York,” a song that has impressed Alan Paul of Manhattan Transfer fame. “It Works For Me” is a pop-meets-soul tune featuring old school horns and a lovely guitar solo from Randall. “None Of This Would Have Happened” is an AC-friendly pop ballad featuring a strong vocal performance that Don says was influenced by the song’s co-writer, Marc Jordan.
Left represents an artful starting over for Monkey House, and Don Breithaupt is justifiably enthusiastic about it. “Part of the buzz for me on this album is that I sense a lot of people are waiting for it. I keep getting inquiries from people from all over the world giving me grief for taking so long, but that’s a fun situation to be in.”