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Oluyemi Thomas: Positive Knowledge


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Oluyemi ThomasOluyemi Thomas, the sage-like reedman from Oakland, California, is heading to town this month and will be playing in a duo setting with New York drummer and percussionist Michael Wimberley, whom he describes as both "creative-minded and creative-spirited." It's the spiritual sphere—however this is defined, impossible to nail down—that appears to guide much of Thomas' journey. In recent times, there's been much talk of spiritual jazz as a genre unto itself and if such a musical category exists, then surely Thomas is one of its prime exponents.

Following the specific faith of Baha'i, rather than any nebulous notion of general spirituality, Thomas views music as an active expression of human nature, rejecting definitions and separations between so-called composition and improvisation, time and free form, in and out, Motown and AACM. Indeed, Thomas insists on ignoring the potential separation of African, Middle Eastern and Asian music as 'other.' This is not to say that he's oblivious to their innate 'exoticness,' but he's insistent on their role in the evolving human continuum, possessing similarities as well as differences.

Thomas' July, 2008 gigs will be at the Brecht Forum and Zebulon, on consecutive days, following the informal pattern of Thomas visiting New York on a roughly annual basis. "In 1998, I was talking with [saxophonist] Charles Gayle by phone about coming to New York to do a couple of performances," says Thomas, "and if he could recommend a good drummer to hit with Positive Knowledge. Michael Wimberley's name came up and I had heard him with Mr. Gayle here in Oakland and San Francisco. Mr. Wimberley and I feel, think and live in a creative and similar way, in terms of translating life-realities in inventive structure formats. Michael is a remarkable person, friend and spiritually aware artist. He places his statements in the right order, all the time. Even his silent moments are on the point."

When Thomas performs, his aim is to reach up towards the ceiling, to gauge the nature of the room, in terms of its acoustics and its human inhabitants. Although he moves through a broad range of instruments, including saxophones, musette, flute and various percussion pieces, it's the bass clarinet that occupies most of his concentration. "My main and great spirit guide on the bass clarinet has been, and still is, Eric Dolphy," he says. "His tone is so sweet, poetic, meaningful, soulful and clear. Listening to Mr. Dolphy at first made me want to find my own vocabulary system as he did, but Eric showed me it can be done emphatically. Bass clarinet and saxophone, I love them both because they both speak and sing the ancient/modern language-tunes. But the bass clarinet has that floor-of-the-ocean tone that I really adore."

No matter which performance context Thomas finds himself in, the overwhelming aura is one of invocatory ritual, in the tradition of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and beyond. In his early days, Oluyemi was listening to a funkier form of jazz (this still remains so), but revelation came when the likes of Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman passed through the city.

This ritual approach is often refined into a sparse duo setting, as in the albums featuring collaborations with bassists Alan Silva (1999's Eremite disc, Transmissions) and Henry Grimes (2007's Not Two release, The Power Of Light). "I've been composing new optional fragments within several compositions that have and are bringing me a great release of joy as I practice and perform, hearing the pieces develop. These are the compositions, in the sense that real life unveils itself in the pre-moment and moment. As we breathe through a day of handling our business, our learning has this longing to be whole again. Whether I am engaged in music, dressing selection, dancing, drawing or praying, it's a collective centering thing, that is what attracts my focus."

Although living in Oakland, Thomas was born in Detroit, migrating way back in 1974. This was largely due to where his work as a mechanical engineer took him and although Thomas is now completely immersed in music, he certainly doesn't reject his old days on the technical front. In fact, he appreciates the parallels between mathematics and abstract music-making, believing that similar elements are at play.

Thomas appears to have been particularly active in recent times. "I performed at an International Spring Festival, UC Berkeley and at the San Francisco Baha'i Center with the wonderful Ijeoma Thomas," says Thomas. It's the long-running Positive Knowledge band, with his wife Ijeoma on 'poetic vocals,' that Thomas still considers as his main conduit. "I've worked in San Diego, Los Angeles and more recently, in May, with legendary artist Henry Grimes and Ijeoma in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The trio dates in New Mexico were so positive, enlightening and inventively embracing; they were a complete pleasure. I've also led a powerful workshop in my Creative Music class in the Oakland Public School system, with Rasaki Aladokun, a talking drums master. I've been a student of African music for several decades now. African music arrives on 'the one' from another angle than Western music, so I love it and find the tales that are being told connects with my rewarding and humbling-of-the-heart experiences during my travels in Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana.

"I'm a world citizen," Thomas concludes, "and conscious of it. I approach all my music from that standpoint. I believe that music comes from the world of the beyond, as a precious gift to each people and culture, to convey collective reality about the world inside the community and to celebrate life together."

With his brother Kenn, Oluyemi used to play games and then invent new games. They're still doing the same thing today, on a musical level and this is surely the spirit that infuses Thomas' workshop sessions. "A few days ago, I shared some of my music with a group of diverse seniors here in Oakland: the eldest person was 98 years young! I loved it, along with all of them. The wonderful seniors joined me by listening dearly, closely and whole-heartedly. Their eyes tell a tale in themselves, very pure and receptive. I shared my world music systems, similarly, as with other sessions. Sometimes, I'm a little more patient with the construction of my pieces, but I still get to the thickets of the music because it's for our learning and growth about being human."

Besides Positive Knowledge, Thomas also works with his African drum units and in various trio, duo and solo settings. He's also assembling material for a new album that he hopes will be released early next year. "My exciting new works for the new disc projects will feature solo works of mine, duets with Ijeoma Thomas, Wimberley and Kenn. The music-vocal systems will continue to explore and consolidate new tonal joys, along with inner clarity."

Selected Discography

Oluyemi Thomas/Henry Grimes, The Power of Light (Not Two, 2006)

Positive Knowledge, First Ones (Charles Lester Music, 2005)

Sunny Murray, Perles Noires, Vol. 2 (Eremite, 2003)

Positive Knowledge, Live in New York (Edgetone, 1999)

Alan Silva/Oluyemi Thomas, Transmissions (Eremite, 1999)

Oluyemi Thomas/Gino Robair, Unity in Multiplicity (Rastascan, 1995)

Photo Credit

Frank Rubolino

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