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Album Review

Isaiah J. Thompson: The Power of the Spirit


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Isaiah J. Thompson: The Power of the Spirit
Isaiah J. Thompson is one of the leading pianists of his generation. In 2023, 25-year-old has a background that is already hugely impressive. This includes his debut album as a leader, Isaiah J. Thompson Plays the Music of Buddy Montgomery (WJ3), in 2020. His accolades have included earning the 2018 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, second place in the 2018 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition, and he has worked on the Golden Globe nominated soundtrack for Motherless Brooklyn. Thompson has played with some exalted company including Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Ron Carter, John Pizzarelli and Buster Williams. This live album, The Power of the Spirit will certainly put him on an even steeper trajectory as a performer, composer and bandleader.

The album was recorded at the Lincoln Center's jazz lounge, Dizzy's Club in New York City. It is a quartet session with bass, drums and tenor sax alongside Thompson's piano. All compositions are by Thompson and have a depth and variety that allows the quartet to show their full musical virtuosity. The material has gospel inflections and Thompson shows influences such as Phineas Newborn, Jr., Billy Taylor and Cedar Walton, although the path here is clearly his own.

After a brief spoken introduction, the quartet launch into the 10-minute "The IT Department." The title being both a play on the pianist's initials and a tribute to his father. This track sets the scene with a 1960s soulful feel. It features Julian Lee on tenor saxophone. Lee is a powerhouse performer in his own right and is superb throughout this set. He is certainly one to watch. Phillip Norris on bass is excellent and with TJ Reddick on drums moves the changing rhythms around with controlled power. Thompson shows original solos, smart comping and the versatility to move the tempos up to red hot before cooling them smoothly and efficiently. This is a quartet at the absolute top of their game that just deliver.

The "Soul Messenger" allows Thompson, Norris and Reddick to set the soul-jazz melody and rolling rhythm. This allows Lee to take his opportunity to let loose with some blistering breaks. Norris starts "For Phineas" with a dazzling pizzicato solo. The track is a salute to Newborn Jr. The band, this time with Domo Branch on drums, then join with unlimited freedom and speed. Branch's solo is barely restrained, with the rest of the band matching his intensity before a fiery finish.

If one track is good enough to stands above its peers then it is the 11-minute "Tales of the Elephant and the Butterfly." This features an evolving melody with Thompson's arpeggios over a gentle rolling rhythm. Lee delivers a soulful run before breaking into a freer passage. The instrumental pacing, textures and dynamics here are just right. "Good Intentions (Learn our names, Say them right)" involves two angular piano breaks from Thompson, separated by melodic passages from Lee. After all this frenetic energy, the ballad "Thank You Betsy" slows things down perfectly. It demonstrates Thompson's deftness with slower speeds before Lee joins with some absolutely sumptuous saxophone playing. The Betsy of the title that provokes this warm ballad? It was Thompson's mum's Volvo.

Drummer Reddick returns for the closing 15-minute title track. This concludes the album with each of the quartet playing with considerable freedom and showing their powerful swing abilities.

This is an impressive album for lovers of soul-jazz played in a contemporary style. The set is high-powered but played with the skill and control that is sometimes needed on live recordings. Thompson's star is certainly in the ascendant. He is a compelling composer and a powerhouse performer. This is a superb live set and highly recommended.

Track Listing

Welcome; The IT Department; The Soul Messenger; For Phineas (Intro); For Phineas; Tales of the Elephant and Butterfly; Good Intentions (learn our names, say them right); Thank You Betsy; The Power of the Spirit.


Isaiah J. Thompson: piano; Julian Lee: saxophone; Phillip Norris: bass, acoustic; TJ Reddick: drums; Domo Branch: drums.

Album information

Title: The Power of the Spirit | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Blue Engine Records

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