Jay Thomas: We Always Knew

Paul Rauch By

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Being in Gotham, the center of the jazz universe was a revelation in terms of his professional and personal life. Thomas' pensive, melodic approach to playing had become an identifiable sound that appealed to a variety of bandleaders, and led to a steady flow of offers to record and tour. While he was certainly up to the task musically, the social constraints of his addiction was getting to a point so critical as to being life threatening. Career would soon be a secondary consideration to his own personal health, and the challenge to not succumb to this disease that had taken so many brilliant artists of the genre over the previous forty years.

"I went to NY and played sessions and things, and completely goofed up. I had some offers to play from Jack Walrath on tour. I got to the rehearsal late, and all kinds of things. I went to England with Slim Gaillard. We did an album, Jay McShann was on piano, and Buddy Tate was on tenor. The guys from Tubby Hayes' old band,"

It was 1982, and Thomas returned to Seattle to address his illness which had by this time completely dominated his life. His fate seemed to be tied to that which had taken so many of the greats that preceded him. He knew the stability of family, and familiar surroundings were important factors in finally staring his addiction down, and placing it firmly in his past.

"That was the end of the line where I went into a treatment facility, to get that part of my life handled," he recalls with a sigh. He would spend the next three years fighting this battle, until completely free of drugs in 1985.

November 1, 1985. That is the date, forever etched in his consciousness, the date from which to this present day, he has remained drug free. He found himself focused and energetic, anxious to move forward with a career that in a real sense, had been severely curtailed for some fifteen years. "I was this walking ball of energy, and didn't know which way to go. I was an emotional wreck, but busy trying to be employed all the time. At that point, things really changed," says Thomas. His dad Marvin arranged an opportunity to perform with Cedar Walton, Chuck Israels, and Billy Higgins that eventually that led to his first record Easy Does It (McVouty, 1989)

Blues For McVouty (Stash, 1993) followed, with Thomas using the Slim Gaillard McVouty tag for the title. He once again retained the services of Walton, Israels, and Higgins, and added Dave Peterson, a northwest guitarist with a beautiful sound and advanced sense of harmony. Recalls Thomas, "Albert Marx put it out. I signed it all away, and later on, one of the cuts was picked up by the Beastie Boys. It was on YouTube, they sampled it. They sped it up and put conga drums on it. You couldn't even hear Billy Higgins anymore, and they replaced my solo!"

Meanwhile, Thomas began to enhance his resume with impressive recording and performance credits. He teamed up to record with legends Ray Brown and Elvin Jones. He toured with the concert bands of Maria Schneider, Frank Wess, and Bill Holman. He played festivals with Rodney, Sullivan, and Herb Ellis, and again toured Great Britain with Gaillard.

Thomas was featured in a full page article in the Wall Street Journal by Nat Hentoff in April of 2000. It appeared that finally the jazz world would become fully cognizant of this master of the realm, sequestered in the great northwest. Stated Henthoff, "Mr. Thomas, at 51, is not a household name among many jazz listeners, although his recordings have been warmly reviewed in some of the jazz journals. He has appeared on more than 50 CDs, mostly as a sideman, and has a following in Japan, where he often plays. But his career reminds me of what Coleman Hawkins, the magisterial tenor saxophonist, once told me about hearing a very impressive player in Oklahoma. 'I told him that you've got it, but you'll never make it until you make it in New York.' Hawkins said. He could have also included Chicago or Los Angeles, but there are indeed formidable, largely hometown players around the country who never have broken through to the big time."

Still, despite being sober for fifteen years, Thomas' musical prowess did not translate to a keen business sense, and he flatly did not take advantage of the huge opening career wise the Hentoff article provided. States Thomas, "Huge! I had no snap in follow up."

Today Thomas is a member of one of Japan's leading big bands, CUG (Continued in the Underground Jazz Orchestra), and co-leads a sextet with Kohama Yasuhiro and Atsushi Ikeda. Jay records and performs in Japan several times a year, and is currently in the studio recording with Japanese piano/trumpet phenom, Yuki Hirate. In typical Thomas fashion, he came upon these opportunities by accident, or as he states, "I was looking for a good flute."

"The Japanese thing was an accident. I was over there working with Geoff Harper, Josh Wolfe, and Becca Duran, at a hotel. We played three half hour sets and we're done at 9 PM. I had been there a few times and never got hooked up. I was trying to buy a high grade Japanese flute," he says.

He went to a music store and flashed a custom mouthpiece that he might use as payment. The sax teacher teaching upstairs came down, attached the mouthpiece to his instrument and played. He was obviously a good jazz player. He gave Jay a card for the jazz club Star Eyes, and his gig there on Wednesday night, at 9 PM. The three of them walked to the club. It was Kohama. The connection was made, and the trio went out to eat together. They saw Jay's impressive resume, with so many greats in jazz history, and were very accommodating. He went over for a tour, and recorded, bringing along with him top Seattle players David Marriott, and Mark Taylor. A deep musical connection was made, and more importantly, a great friendship that crossed cultural and linguistic lines, steeped in the quintessential American art form so revered and respected in Japan. Thomas has attained iconic status there, an irony plain to see after the amazing trials and tribulations of his jazz life in America.

While most jazz talent arises from academia these days, finding most young players graduating from schools like Berklee, New School, and Manhattan School of Music, Thomas provides mentorship in the oral tradition much like his experiences as a teenage phenom in Seattle. He has held an adjunct professorship at Cornish College of the Arts, and works individually with students at the nationally renowned program at Garfield High School in Seattle. But those fortunate enough to study privately with him are treated to an individual approach that places an emphasis on ear training. Thomas has never forgotten the sage advice he received from his elders on the Seattle scene.

"I just remember like it was yesterday, asking everybody how they did things, and I would get a lot of different answers. All of them were correct," he recalls. He adds, "The thing is to find what they're willing to do. I show them to not be afraid to test their ears. If they can match a note, I tell them,'Your ear is great, it's functioning fine.' The music has got to be in your head. Then we can do something with it on the instrument."

In what can be described as a career defining project, Thomas had it in mind to do a ballads album, something that could place firmly in center his beautiful tone, melodic approach to improvisation, and ability to produce a virtual kaleidoscope of sounds from five instruments. I Always Knew is essentially that, with Thomas soloing between the layers of harmonic color within the rich and adventurous arrangements of Oliver Groenewald.

Thomas and Groenewald developed a friendship and musical kinship upon Groenewald's arrival in the northwest from his native Germany. An ace trumpeter and skilled composer and arranger in the tradition of Gil Evans, Phil Woods, and Gerry Mulligan, Groenewald lives on Orcas Island with his family. From that remote outpost in the San Juan Islands, he creates broad pallets of tonal colors in his arrangements, and counts many of the top players in Seattle and surrounding areas in his Newnet.

Groenewald sent over some charts, and Thomas went about the business of putting a band together. He first grabbed the rhythm section from his band The Cantaloupes. Bassist Michael Glynn, drummer Adam Kessler, and pianist John Hansen became the harmonic center from which Groenewald's colorful arrangements could flourish. He then added alpha lead trumpeter Brad Allison to provide a melodic context.

The album is recorded without isolation, in one room collectively. The room itself has a beautiful sound, and Thomas wanted to utilize that without any encumbrances getting in the way of the natural communal sound.

"This was a labor of love, it had nothing to do with how I'm going to make anything back," states Thomas. Groenewald as well looked forward to the project, writing beautiful arrangements for compositions by a variety of composers such as Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, and Groenewald himself.

Thomas chose Origin Records to release this latest work, and for good reason. With trust being a huge factor in any creative endeavor, or for that matter, in any business transaction, Thomas' relationship with Origin principal John Bishop dates back more than 35 years. Their friendship has been developed largely on the bandstand and in the studio. A fine drummer with performance credits that include the groundbreaking Hal Galper Trio, Bishop has a firm understanding of Thomas' creative language, and what this recording means in terms of establishing his friend's legacy. While Thomas has appeared on many recordings, and has produced fine records of his own, Origin's stellar reputation and superior distribution model will put I Always Knew into the hands of radio stations, and jazz media on an international scale. In the age of digital media, the music of this jazz warrior will perhaps take its place among the top jazz artists of his era. It should call attention to the lyrical prose that is his signature, to the broad and pure sound that is his identity. The jazz public at large will at last become engaged with his unique sense of musicality, with the genius hidden within, the gift of ardent creativity, that which "we always knew" in the Pacific Northwest.
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