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Thomas Marriott: Balance in Life and Music

Paul Rauch By

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If one should by chance be curious of what is happening with jazz in the city of Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest, one would do well to check out what trumpeter Thomas Marriott is up to. Thomas has established himself as one the most exciting artists to emerge on the national jazz scene in the past decade, in part by releasing eleven albums as a leader on the Origin Records label, and with his riveting live performances on stage with the best musicians the region has to offer. His insight into the music, those who perform it, and the Seattle jazz scene in general, is informed, enlightened, and valued. As a musician, he has certainly paid his dues, performing with some of the top names in jazz both nationally and locally, including Joe Locke, Maynard Ferguson, Brian Lynch, Kenny Kirkland, Orrin Evans, George Colligan, and scores of others. After a period spent in New York, Thomas returned to Seattle with a standard that has raised the bar ever higher here in Seattle for all musicians on the scene. He can be seen frequently at his performances, and at jam sessions around town. Equally adept as a composer, he has earned the respect of both veteran and young musicians, and understands fully his place and responsibilities as an artist of note, in a city that has produced a historically significant amount of talent and impacted jazz music in America in an unique and meaningful way. I sat down with Thomas at Caffe Fiore in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, and thoroughly enjoyed our time chatting about his career, and more importantly, about the continually evolving jazz scene in Seattle.

All About Jazz: Let's start at the beginning, when did jazz music come to your attention?

Thomas Marriott: My Dad had a jazz radio program, and he was always a collector of jazz records, so he had thousands of jazz records in our basement, which when we were kids, my brother and I , were off limits, don't touch Dad's records, so of course we did! He had Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, and we would go down there and play his records and listen to them. My uncle and my Dad were huge fans and collectors, and my grandfather was, I would hesitate to call him a jazz pianist, but his music almost predates jazz. He was born in 1910, so he was coming up learning to play music, as a teenager in '26, so that would be the period of time of the Hot Fives, he certainly was always a fan of Louis Armstrong, he played popular music in a certain stride style. How much improvising he did, was he down with the blues, I'm not really sure, but he knew a million tunes and he was a professional musician, he played many, many instruments. His favorite band was Jimmie Lunceford. So my upbringing was always music. My uncle used to blindfold test us, as kids of 10 or 11, he had this tape we used to play, "the bop quiz,"and it had Sonny Stitt on it, and Barry Harris, it had some hip music. He would bring it up and there would be a little questionnaire to fill out-my brother and I grew up with blindfold tests! Those were some of my earliest recollections of hearing the music. And they would drag us to see music. My Dad would took me to see all kinds of people, Art Blakey. His friends were piano players, he worked the late night shift when he was working in radio, he'd get off work at four in the morning and go to the jazz club, they were open back then, or he'd go to the places where the jazz musicians were hanging out, he had a lot of friends who were musicians.

AAJ: You chose trumpet, and your brother David, trombone, how did that come to be?

TM:We both started playing piano, and we had a bunch of these instruments, and my grandfather had a bunch of instruments, because he played all these instruments, so starting at three or four years old, Thanksgiving would be, "Come upstairs and play the tuba,"or "Come upstairs and horse around with the trumpet or trombone," so we always had access and exposure to the instruments. My Dad played trumpet and my uncle played trombone, so we had a trumpet and trombone in the house, and so when it came time to sign up for school band, we had already been fooling around. We actually both started playing trumpet, but then my brother's band director said, "We need a trombone player!" So he started playing trombone. Dave actually continued with piano, and is an accomplished pianist, sight reading on the piano, knows tunes on the piano. He could work as a pianist if he wanted to, but he decided not to....I cannot play anything on the piano!

AAJ: I did not know that about him! You went to New York for some time, and learned your craft playing with veteran players on gigs,and at jam sessions. Seems younger players are more now heading to New York, and elsewhere, to go to school to learn their craft. How do you see the role of education in music today, and achieving balance with experience, the traditional way, on the bandstand? TM: That was true when I went there too. I was on Maynard Ferguson's band, and when I gave notice I moved to New York and had a day job lined up, and apartment lined up, a place to stay. When I joined Maynard's band, I basically gave up my apartment, and put the few things that I had at my mother's house, and just lived out of a suitcase. When there was time off, I would go to New York, and stay with a friend, and look for an apartment, and all that stuff, so by the time I gave notice, I was ready to move full time. I went there to learn, and try to pay some dues, be challenged by the music scene. I had already gone to music school, which I didn't want to do in the first place, but I got a really affordable education at the University of Washington, at the time. Music school, especially in New York, can be good for helping you build community. My brother did that, he went to music school there, and a lot of the people he went to music school with are now huge, cover of Downbeat magazine and what not. So it helps to build community, but you can do that without music school, for sure. The idea was always was to try to pay dues, to try to be a sideman with some of the masters, or just be on the bandstand with them as much as possible. I think that at the time when I moved there, that was a thing. You would go out and see Mulgrew Miller, or you would see McCoy Tyner,or Elvin Jones, out playing on the scene, or even just hanging out at the bar. That's something that kind of stopped, during the time that I was there. There was less of a presence of the masters. They were still there, Eddie Henderson was out, George Coleman, you would see him, there were plenty of masters out there, but it wasn't like it used to be, from what I could tell.

AAJ: You are also a noted composer, take me through your writing process.

TM: I generally am always writing for a particular project, an album or a show. Even when writing music for a record, I'm always thinking about the live show. That's primarily what I do. I might think, "We need something that captures this vibe," in terms of needing something fast, or something pretty, or I need something that's bluesy, or I need something that's feeling different metered to break up the flow of the show from this tune to that tune. I need something on the gig I can call, that's going to be functionally easy for people to read and access the emotional content immediately. I do a lot of gigs where I travel and just use a rhythm section in another place, so I don't want them looking at the music the whole time, and want it to be relatively simple so that we can explore the vibe a little farther. Certainly there are things that I write that are more complicated, that require more rehearsal, those are for other kinds of projects. I'm always thinking more about the functionality of what I'm trying to write.What do I need to have written. And then, sometimes I'm just walking around Green Lake, and an idea will just stick in my head that I like, and I'll sing it into my phone, and then later on, go back and try to expand on it.

AAJ: You have recently been in the studio with pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. When will we see the result of that session on the market?

TM: It's probably going to be a bit. That was a fun session, it came about primarily as a way to keep that trio busy while they were here. But, I have something in the works that is first in terms of time frame. My process in the studio lately has been to go in with some ideas, and some not really formed ideas and just play, then take it all, and edit, overdub, add this, add that, bring in some other people, and sort of get in there with the digital tools, and sometimes make the music that way. And not to have too much of an agenda, because I feel like on the bandstand, that's what I like, the unpredictability. It's good to have a plan and have structure, and all that too, but with that particular session, we just went in and played a few things, and about half the tunes were great first takes, wouldn't do anything to change them, put them out just like that after I mix them, and some are pieces of tunes where I might try to put one together with another one, maybe with an improvisation in between. Or next time they come through, I might do another session, I'm actually not sure. There's a lot of really good raw material to work with. I'm also thinking about putting it out on vinyl, as just three songs on one side and two on the other. I have five awesome tracks. But it's going to be awhile only because I have another project that is a little more monumental for me, it's bigger budget for sure. I've been trying to make this record for almost ten years, and I've been in the studio on a couple different sessions trying to make it. It's a little hard to put into words, but, essentially, if you can picture an album that's more about melody, than it is about improvisation, kind of like a with strings record, but not with strings, although there may be some strings on it. So not a with strings record, but a record where I'm the singer, and it's sort of treated that way where it's not about burning interplay between the cats, as much as it is a statement of giving. I've tried to do this before, in one of the sessions that was an attempt, one track from that session made it onto the end of the album Flexicon, it's the Elvis Costello tune, Almost Blue. So if you've heard that tune, and can imagine a whole album sort of like that, or like the last tune on Individuation, which is called Returning, but better, more arranged, and more produced, if that makes sense. So this has been a long time in the making, and we're shooting for March to record. It's been a lot of figuring out what the material is going to be, there's been as much planning that I've done as any project I've ever done, maybe ever. Part of it is I feel there is a place for me to make that statement, not trying to make a killing jazz album, not trying to make a statement about anything political with this particular album, I'm not trying to show off any particular aspect of my musical ability, I just want to make it about beauty, because I feel like that's what people really need to hear. If you think of being a musician as in a sense somebody who tries to uplift people during a show, either through a funky groove, or through a long exploration of an idea, whatever it is to take people on a trip on a journey to help them feel better, to perk up their spirit, help them get on with their day. I think that if that is a goal, then I think that by putting something out that is just about melody and beauty, can be more effective to more people.
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