Thollem McDonas: The Beauty of Never Going Back Home

Dave Wayne By

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What is often forgotten about improvised music is that it can come from anywhere. Though its history is inextricably intertwined with jazz, improvisation is part and parcel of a myriad of musical cultures. Pianist and composer Thollem McDonas is not just aware of this fact, it is part of his daily existence. About 10 years ago, McDonas burst on to the improvised music scene; fully formed and with a sound all his own—one that owes surprisingly little to jazz-piano- as-we-know-it. Yet, McDonas is not disdainful or insecure about his relationship to jazz. If anything, jazz is just one of many streams from which the forty-something pianist takes a measure of creative nourishment.

The sheer energy with which McDonas plays is equaled only by that with which he approaches his musical career. Possibly the most prolific improvising pianist to come down the pike since Satoko Fujii, McDonas has released approximately 30 full length albums since 2005. It's worth mentioning that most of these recordings are critically acclaimed, and that most of them are co-operative projects on small indie labels with musicians whose backgrounds span the worlds of classical, jazz, indie rock, experimental, and electronic music. Like Fujii, McDonas maintains several longstanding creative partnerships—those with the Italian rock group Tsigoti, the Italian classical contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio [now deceased], Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, and saxophonist Rent Romus stand out—while constantly forming new alliances with musicians as diverse as singer-songwriter Jad Fair, guitarist Nels Cline, and bassist William Parker.

McDonas is also known for his rapturous solo piano work which, again, transgresses genre boundaries as much as it transcends them. And while his solo piano oeuvre is remarkable for its stylistic breadth and depth, McDonas has more pure technical ability than most musicians would know what to do with. Yet technique is not his focus: he sees it as a tool to extract ideas using his instrument of choice, the acoustic piano. Interestingly, McDonas has started experimenting with electronic keyboards of various sorts, primarily—as he points out—to find "technological solutions to musical ideas that can't be solved using an acoustic instrument." The electronic work, in turn, informs the acoustic work, and so on.

A committed social activist, McDonas is, at this point in his life, in a state of perpetual travel. Possibly one of the hardest-working improvisational musicians around today, he is constantly in motion, playing solo concerts, concerts with various groups—both established and ad hoc—and leading workshops and clinics. The sheer number of deep and lasting musical relationships he's formed over the past decade is mind-boggling, and the quality of music that emerges from these groups is stunning.

Thollem McDonas: OK, so tell me a little bit about yourself...

All About Jazz: [laughing]...you know far too much already! So, this is your first interview for All About Jazz, and I'd like to discuss your development as an artist and get a sense of your musical history, and how that intertwines with your personal history— particularly the time you spent as a social activist; so, the first record you made came out in 2005. It is really great, yet I never knew about it.

TM: Few do... [laughing]

AAJ: The drummer, Rick Rivera, is great; and you were obviously already playing at an incredibly high level.

TM: Thanks; that was my first album that was officially released. And it got some press... all really good.

AAJ: It's beautifully crafted music... it's clearly not completely improvised.

TM: Yeah, those are all compositions of mine, specifically written for a piano and drums duo. I wrote the lyrics as well.

AAJ: Just out of curiosity: what is Rick Rivera doing now?

TM: He's primarily a straight-ahead jazz drummer, and we met in Pacifica, where I was living at the time. We became friends and he became interested in my music—it was a good challenge for him at the time—and we made that album, plus another. So there are two albums of Rick and I playing.

AAJ: You're from the Bay Area, and you started playing piano as a child...

TM: Well, my mother forced me to play the piano, actually [laughs]. I had to play the piano. It was required.

AAJ: So, she was a musician—were both your parents musicians?

TM: Yeah, my mom was a piano teacher. And my dad played the piano; mostly in piano bars. My mother forced me to play up until I was about 13, and that's when I began to make the piano my own. And then I had this epiphany. I literally woke up and realized that I had all of these ideas, and a lot of technical ability, and a broad knowledge of the last 400 years or so of music history...

AAJ: Did that knowledge base include jazz? Or was it purely European classical music?

TM: I was studying purely classical music. But I did listen to a lot of jazz, and we lived pretty close to Kuumbwa [Jazz Center] in Santa Cruz. They had a tradition of Monday night concerts. Touring jazz musicians who played in San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley on the weekends; they would play at Kuumbwa on Monday nights. It was just a tiny little place back then. It's much bigger now. It's still great, but it's way bigger these days, but back then, it seated maybe 35 people. And we all sat on these aluminum bleacher seats right up against the stage. You were so close to the artists... I literally got sweated on by these guys. I saw players like McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders there. So hearing that, and being in that environment, was incredibly important for me, even though I was exclusively studying classical at the time. I never studied jazz per se, though I listened to tons of it.

AAJ: And this ties into one of your new releases on the Wild Silence label, Dear Future. It's an archival release comprised mostly of recordings from when you were a teenager. Were some of them from cassettes?

TM: It's all from cassette tapes...

AAJ: I was amazed to hear experimenting with prepared piano. It seems you were familiar with people like John Cage very early on. Was your early awareness of the avant-garde also from your mother's influence?

TM: Yeah, through my mom. And while Cage wasn't at the forefront of my musical education, he was in there. I had a really well-rounded musical education, from the Renaissance and everything up to and including the 20th Century. So Cage was in there, and as soon as I understood that there was 20th Century music, which was different from 19th Century music, which was different from 18th Century music, and so on... I was fascinated.

I had always played around with the inside of the piano, long before I'd even heard of prepared piano or John Cage. And people ask me "When did you start composing?" or "When did you start improvising?" and the answer is: "I never stopped." Some of my earliest memories were crawling up into the piano...
About Thollem McDonas
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