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All Those Glittering Notes: The Music of Richard Thompson

Pianist Richard Thompson.

My favorite sentences in my favorite jazz book ever come from Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. The lines arrive near the end when author Stanley Crouch is at his summarizing best; he notes that jazz, a performer’s art, involves “navigating a landscape in which spontaneous creation whizzes by in layered stacks.” He quotes the great bebop drummer Max Roach: “Jazz is about creating, maintaining, and developing a [musical] design.” Jazz was designed—forget, for the moment, by whom—to maximize its players’ skills as improvisors, often at what seems like the speed of light. Whether it’s such standards as the calm “Stormy Weather” or the blustery “’Round Midnight,” good jazz men and women push themselves and their ensembles to create, maintain, and develop the music—bend expectation with surprise, follow the uncommon riff or abrupt turn where it wants to go.

Many bent expectations perked my ears recently at Dizzy’s while listening to pianist Richard Thompson and a quartet soar through seven Thompson-arranged African-American spirituals. We know spirituals from their glorious invitations, such as “Wade in the Water” and their abject horror in “Motherless Children.” The tender melodies, the plagal cadences, the pentatonic scales, in Thompson’s reworking, give way to a thrumming progression over which soloists etch their personal signature. Underneath all that flair, the spiritual has, which Thompson accented in an interview, an “undeniable inner strength that reaches people” who “may not know why or how it reaches them, but it certainly does.”

From the stage, Thompson called his “musical meditations” “quirky.” Each tune reharmonizes and extends the spiritual from sister-swaying church hymn to high-voltage club rant. Much like Horace Silver’s 1950s/1960s gospel-infused quintet style, the tenor sax and trumpet state the tune in bebop bursts, at times, in unison, or else spaced in open fourths. Often, they freely substitute chromatic harmony against the pentatonic confines. Still emphatic, however, is the spiritual itself, echoing its thrall from the back benches or else strutting anew up the aisle.

In essence, Thompson, a composer, pianist, and educator, has already dissolved the spiritual’s folksiness and thrown it, willy-nilly, into a kind of hard bop/soul jazz form on which the soloists pitch responses to Thompson’s plucky gambles. Best of that cast is the slatternly voice of trumpeter Derek Cannon and the adventuresome pug, still a kid, bassist Mack Leighton. Thompson easily shoulders the comp or rhythm-man role. As he goes, he flows compulsively. At times, he dominates, his choruses hammering in their block-chord pulses and extended voicings. He pirouettes into Ellington-like arpeggios the length of the keyboard. His harmonic language shifts its tonal color like a sneaky Herbie Hancock. And his big two-handedness reminds me of McCoy Tyner who, dining in the Dorian café, co-drove those 1960s oceanic John Coltrane recordings.

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Reimagining the spiritual is just one element of Thompson’s eclecticism. His sensibility—and subsequent creations—range from antsy to settled, rabbity to laid-back, raw to refined. While he’s anchored among San Diego’s sparse jazz fleet (our few clubs, pickup groups, teaching venues), he’s rarely commissioned as a composer. Indeed, that part of his career pokes along glacially. Teaching takes the bulk of his time, leaving little room to write new work, which he tells me his restless mind, nonetheless, keeps shaping and editing.

For lunch at an East African restaurant, Thompson arrives in a dashiki, Sunday relaxed for what will be an extended solo. An easy wind lifts his sail as he tacks his way through a South Pacific of topics: the child prodigy with perfect pitch; his piano facility with classical music and jazz; his Scotland-New-York-San-Diego sojourn; a biographical précis on the incandescent, tubercular life of the black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar; the “incipient madness” of Othello; detailed memories of his musical mentors; and a few deep dives into composers like Duke Ellington and Michael Tippett we both love.

Sixty-three years ago, Thompson was born in London to Jamaican parents and spent his youth in Scotland. The offspring of a trumpeter father who played in big bands, Thompson tried the horn but soon was enthralled by the piano. Roused by his dad’s record collection, he remembers hearing, at age four, Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” and “Bouncing with Bud.” Today, these tunes are classics, but then they sparked his key-board precocity “with the sound of all those glittering notes.” Despite Powell’s energy, he applied himself, buoyed by his mother’s insistence, to years of classical lessons, diminished scales, and Beethoven’s Opus 2 sonatas, culminating in a music degree from Edinburgh University and further “Eurocentric” study in Milan.

When Thompson came to America, the jazz flame rekindled; he heard Max Roach (him again!) live and relished his “very modern music,” a far cry from his dad’s groove. He soon held a jazz diploma from Boston’s Berklee School of Music, formed a jazz quartet in Brooklyn, and studied with Kenny Barron at Rutgers University, gigging as the man’s teaching assistant. Of that piano giant’s virtuosity, Thompson was lit: “The sound, the touch, the lines, the feel—that was it for me.” In 2001, Thompson came to San Diego State where he teaches jazz history, theory, improvisation, and piano.

Here’s some of his fat resume, a list no more than a few hundred American composer-players—say, a Gunther Schuller or a Wynton Marsalis—ever achieve. An off-Broadway review, In Walks Bud, for which he was hired to play “like” Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk but, as the producer said, “Whatever you do, don’t play any of their tunes because they’ll sue me for royalties”; a song cycle, Dream Variations, based on poems by Langston Hughes; a Concerto Grosso for Jazz Quartet and String Orchestra; Legend of the Moors, “a musical depiction of the presence and influence of the Moors in Spain,” which won an Individual Artist Award from the Brooklyn Arts Council; three film scores; a symphonic poem, The Mask in the Mirror, and an opera of the same title, premiered in 2012 by Trilogy Opera in Newark, New Jersey, based on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life; a commissioned piece for bass singer and small orchestra on soliloquies from Othello; and Freedom, a mini-oratorio, premiered last February at the College Avenue Baptist Church on texts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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I’m drawn to Thompson’s Piano Preludes (1994) and his art-song cycle, The Shadow of Dawn, on five poems of Dunbar. On a recent program with KUSC’s mellowest of radio voices, Jim Svejda, Svejda noted that Thompson’s preludes sound like nothing other than themselves. High praise but not quite sustainable. Though seldom heard, notable American composers have also penned bluesy preludes—Leo Ornstein, George Gershwin, Morton Gould, and the spectral impressions Bernard Herrmann wrote for the movies.

The original idea of the prelude (think of Bach) was to introduce or unleash the key, the form, and the emotional gravity of an ensuing larger work. But with Chopin the prelude became a mood piece, a tight epigrammatic gesture. A grad school teacher told Thompson one day that despite his piano brilliance, he was “really a composer.” He responded by taking the first few bars of a Debussy prelude and extending its theme for “ten minutes of improvisation, just going off into my world.” From it his own impressionistic forays came: “In a way [the tunes are] written-out jazz but with a classical form.”

I find two musical shapes for Thompson’s little piano tone poems: the orchestral pageantry of a piano preluder like Johannes Brahms combined with Thompson’s variable harmonic palette, the temper stubbornly rhapsodic. For example, in the Piano Prelude #6 (the CD is “Poetry Prelude,” Albany Records), where Thompson develops a melodic kernel buried in and emerging from sweeping, prairie-wide arpeggiations. Other preludes reverse this idea. I also hear Thompson pin his moods to an arch or cyclic form with short story-like turns of high harmonic drama.

Preludes are best when you feel the composer create and resist the urge to wander.

As for the Dunbar songs, two of the five reflect, using the old term, Negro identity. First is “We Wear the Mask.” This calls up the double-consciousness explored in W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks (1903). The idea is that black Americans once regarded themselves via the subjugating view of whites. Dunbar’s people were seen by whites as black, a minority or “less than,” but by themselves as Americans. Second is “Sympathy” with its claustrophobic line, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

Indeed, there’s an air of entrapment in Thompson’s settings. (This may be, in part, because of his lifelong asthma.) Whether the piano is assertively scored and dominant, or felicitously attuned, the songs feel dire, the melodies clock-wound tight, circling within a gated community of notes in which the tune feels roped in. Thompson’s art songs often turn back to melodic phrases he’s hurried past and wants to further explore. Which, of course, echoes Dunbar’s aviary prison: “When he beats his bars and he would be free…/ a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— / I know why the caged bird sings.”

Thompson says that he once believed he was “too instrumental [a composer] to set words.” But his affinity for verse surprised him. “If you set words honestly,” he tells me, “pretty much everything grows out of the text—the form, the rhythm, the harmony, the complexity, or the lack of complexity. If you’re being totally honest in expressing the words of the text, all the choices you make and all levels of composing express the meaning of the words as you see them.”

To my ear, his piano voice for the Dunbar tunes is rife with agitated authority, which, though the texture may arise from the words, the keyboard sound is orchestrally dominant not adjunctive. That he is communicating the message of the poem pianistically is clear. But Thompson remarks that his songs often end with an “emotional summary” in music of that message. The words are crucial because the music is powerless to depict an experience, a memory, or a dream. That’s what words are for.

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Every year February arrives, with its designation, Black History Month. To jazz lovers—whom music critic Albert Murray calls “Omni-Americans”—every month is Black History month. If joy is our conveyance, what time of the year do we not celebrate the African-American genius of blues, jazz, and soul?

Still, it’s true that February ramps up the voice of black composers. Such was the case with the recent Thompson premiere, Freedom, for symphony orchestra, jazz combo, three choirs as one, and soloists on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In a four-part oratorio, Thompson, setting King’s sharply shaped texts, bookends choral settings either side of dramatically elegant solos for soprano and tenor on Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem” (“What happens to a dream deferred?”) and, adding the choir, on the spiritual “Go Down Moses.”

The narrative push of Freedom, at a tidy 20 minutes, occurs via contrasting the command “let”: Let my people go and Let freedom ring. The former refers to the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt where Moses is instructed to “tell ole pharaoh” to release an enslaved people. The latter lamplights the ongoing oppression of African-Americans in King’s fiery and hopeful rhetoric. Whether revolutionary demand or celebratory clamor, this piece, in Thompson’s vision, reasserts how freedom works: not by marketing or fiat but by seizure.

Part of our lunch talk lingers on the compactness of his setting. Thompson wanted the piece short, poignant, uncluttered. He admires how TV shows like The Practice waste nothing—characters are developed but cannot escape the 50-minute time slot. An evening-long opera is too sluggish for Thompson: “I played 20 minutes of Wagner’s Tristan for my students the other day and not a damn thing happens” in the music. “Even if the composition is strong, people get bored.”

King’s speech offers a new way to marry text and tune. Freedom’s familiar words and racial associations, 50 years after the great man’s death, grounds Thompson’s wide emotional gambit. The living tropes of the freedom struggle, say Black Lives Matter, are as resilient and historically relevant as they are necessary and unresolved. Irresolution begets their currency. It’s all like jazz itself, which Thompson defines as a music that must always “challenge listeners.”

Thompson opens the work (100-plus performers on stage) with a kind of roiling movie-music overture, boats tossing on angry seas. The tone is sinewy romantic but also edging on angst. The roughness quiets until the words “Free at Last” issue from each choral section in falling fifths, their bottom tones held. The phrase repeats, or is inverted, and the momentum recharges, soon declaiming, on a pentatonic, bluesy riff, “I have a dream today.” Thompson develops the falling fifth motives with the brass and winds, lifting the music with sudden gusts, letting the tenor loose and seating us at the “table of brotherhood.”

In the first section, Thompson stretches out the narrative progress—pings from the glockenspiel and the choir demand, “all men are created equal.” Here the pulsing imprint of a falling third snaps us awake. But it’s a short-lived drama. We’re soon back to the tenor’s melismas (a bevy of notes sung on one syllable) that punctuate King’s prose-like claims. All this harnesses Thompson’s many temperaments, expect one: His tricky contrasts and eclectic contours dodge any sticky sentiment. Proof comes with the sudden entrance of a four-piece combo, vamping 32 bars of a ghostly jazz tune over which tenor and soprano freestyle. More bald disparity—Thompson’s Verdi-like grandeur turns into a verse/chorus for improvisation.

A brooding texture returns for Hughes’ poetic complaint. More short, operatic perorations from the soloists and pounded periods from the orchestra. Then a retreat into thin winds and transparent textures from which the plaintive oboe introduces the “Go Down Moses” theme. Again, Thompson can’t keep his peripatetic pen still. He pearls the pentatonic tune with chromatic deviations, or he rouses, asymmetrically, choir, soloists, and orchestra to quarrel like members of the Iowa Caucuses. A fitful despair prevails; we feel the piece bottoming out in a farrago of collective sorrow.

But Thompson revives. His imbricated transitions are velvety, but also fast-paddle from contemplation to controlled chaos in under a minute. Urgency reigns. The tenor declaims again the hallowed lines about the “content of our character” and a gorgeous a capella statement from the choir asserts, self-consciously: “With this faith, we will transform the jangling discord of our nation… into a beautiful symphony.” Speak of the devil.

And once more, Thompson launches the choir into a triumphal “let freedom ring,” this time scored for the “free at last” falling fifths of the opening. And then, with one last iteration of “I have a dream today,” the van laden with faith stops. Suddenly. We can almost smell the skid marks. The future is tardy in the abrupt incompletion of now.

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