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Gary Thomas: Till We Have Faces

John Kelman By

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Gary Thomas—Till We Have FacesGary Thomas
Till We Have Faces

It was sometime in 1992 when I came across today's Rediscovery. I was walking by a record store (remember those?) in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada when I suddenly heard this staggering guitarist playing over what sounded like a standard I thought I knew but couldn't place. His tone was gritty, but his lines sounded familiar as he ran incendiary line after incendiary line, supported by an equally fiery drummer and a bassist who was truly swinging mightily. I ran inside the store to find out who this guy was, only to learn that I was listening to an album not by the guitarist but by a saxophonist I'd known from drummer Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition group on 1987's Irresistible Forces and even better Audio- Visualscapes from the following year, both on Impulse! Records: saxophonist/flautist Gary Thomas. The album was Till We Have Faces, originally released that year on JMT and later reissued by Winter & Winter.

The guitarist? Well, listening to more of the album after seeing the cover in the "Now Playing" box on the cash counter, it became clear that I was listening to one of my favorites, Pat Metheny. But, barring his own extraordinary collaboration with free jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman, Song X (Geffen, 1985, reissued in expanded, remixed and remastered form by Nonesuch, 2005), I'd never heard him play like this—and even then, it was significantly different because of the demands of Coleman's music...and his own. And while his tone was not unlike that used on Pat Metheny Group pianist Lyle Mays' album-atypical "Are We There Yet?," from the band's Letter From Home (Geffen, 1989)—a new texture for the guitarist: tart, angular and overdriven—I repeat: I'd never heard him like this before...aggressive and as far from polite as he'd ever been.

Metheny was, of course, no stranger to jazz standards or the Great American Songbook, having dabbled with them occasionally on his own records including 1985's trio date with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, Rejoicing (ECM) and his 1989 set with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes, Question and Answer (Geffen), where he mixed original music with well-known material from Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein...and, of course, plenty of Coleman.

But he'd never done an album of all-standards. Till We Have Faces wasn't Thomas' first record of all-standards either; that would be 1990's While the Gate is Open, also on JMT and reissued on Winter & Winter in 2003. But, if it was anything, it was a spit in the face to the 1980s neocons, who'd set the progression of jazz back significantly by reasserting the tradition as the only real jazz.

I'd not heard While the Gate is Open (still haven't...something I plan to rectify real soon)—nor, in fact, had I heard any of Thomas' solo albums at the time, but while the anti-neocon in me (since mellowed) rankled at the idea of any all-standards records, Till We Have Faces was a refreshing reminder that it wasn't the material that was dated, it was the work of those who felt that the only way to play it was in a completely reverent, respectful fashion.

Of course, Keith Jarrett had already well-established his standards trio by then, having released a slew of records following his first two from 1983, collected in ECM's Old & New Masters Edition box, Setting Standards: New York Sessions (2008). But even Jarrett's stream of-consciousness approach to reinterpreting well-worn material in new ways with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette seemed somehow more polite...a word you'd be hard-pressed to apply to Till We Have Faces—even on the Latinesque reading of Horace Silver's "Peace," where Thomas' mellifluous flute is contrasted by Metheny's gritty tone.

Beyond Thomas and Metheny, much of this has to do with the rhythm section. Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington—heir apparent to Tony Williams if ever there was one—had already begun to garner attention for her work on albums by Robin Eubanks, Thomas' Special Edition frontline mate Greg Osby, John Scofield and Wayne Shorter, for her ability to match intuitive firepower with anyone while, at the same time being capable of elegance and delicacy, should the need arise.


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