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Jay Thomas Quartet: Upside

Paul Rauch By

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Jay Thomas Quartet: Upside
Seattle-based musician Jay Thomas may be considered the oddest of ducks in the jazz universe. By that, I am referring to his fierce musicality expressed both on trumpet and saxophone, as well as most members of the brass and woodwind families. Inspired early in his career by the like minded veteran Ira Sullivan, Thomas in a single night will drift from trumpet to tenor, from flugelhorn to alto, and then double back on flute and soprano. He may as well play a melody in elegant style on tenor, and solo on trumpet and flute within the context of a single tune. While the demands of embouchure for each of these instruments makes Thomas' methodology remarkable in itself, the fact that he performs with equal world-class virtuosity on each makes him, well, the oddest of ducks in the jazz universe.

Thomas received inspiration and mentorship home in Seattle, from veteran Floyd Standifer. A Seattle jazz icon, Standifer was first and foremost a trumpet player, but he doubled well on tenor saxophone, and could sing a bit as well. Trying to attach a "main" instrument to Thomas is a little more complicated. A listener may well refer to Thomas as a saxophonist one night, and a pure trumpeter the next. While he has failed at times to take advantage of opportunities of a more international scope, Thomas is a cornerstone of jazz in Seattle, with a resume in town that stretches back to when he was just a teenager, some 55 years ago. The ever changing personnel in his quartet has been flush with the finest talent the city has had to offer over the years.

Thomas recently came across this live recording on an old hard drive, a live recording by jazz radio legend Jim Wilkie for Earshot jazz, as a part of their "Art of Jazz" series at the Seattle Art Museum. Wilke recorded the date to replay on his weekly radio program on KPLU-FM, "Jazz Northwest." It features veteran bassist Buddy Catlett, drummer Jon Wikan, and pianist John Hansen playing a straight-ahead set of originals and standards in fine fashion. Entitled Upside (McVouty, 2020), the album is a welcome addition to a year that has been challenging for musicians to say the least. It gives us a glimpse of what we all have been missing, and had been taken for granted in the past-world class jazz musicians playing live for its hometown, close-knit audience.

Wilke has been recording jazz sets in Seattle since 1962, when as a host at KING-FM in Seattle, he would broadcast the first set from the Penthouse Jazz Club in Seattle live every Thursday evening. In 1965, his work yielded John Coltrane's Live in Seattle (Impulse, 1971), documenting Coltrane's only stop in the Emerald City. Recent years have seen him releasing dates with Ernestine Anderson, Cannonball Adderly, and Eddie Lockjaw Davis squaring off with Johnny Griffin. This date is relatively modern in that sense, recorded in 1997. Wilke continues to record dates around town to share on his show, and archive the history of the vibrant jazz scene in Seattle.

The late Catlett was 64 at the time of this recording, and playing in prime form. His life in jazz had seen him record and perform prominently with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Quincy Jones and Griffin among others. He had spent some time with Thomas, touring together with Slim Gaillard in the past. His presence in the session brings a sense of chemistry with it, with Catlett never venturing out of his personal groove. Hansen, who Wilkie often refers to as being underappreciated, is in his finest form, as is dynamic drummer Wikan. In several places during the set, Wikan pushes the music in a different direction with polyrhythms and full force of will. The stage was certainly set for Thomas to shine.

Thomas' original title track swings hard from the outset, with Thomas taking the band in with his elegant tenor. His approach, steeped in the hard -bop tradition blazed by notables Dexter Gordon and Harold Land, features a languid tone that swings ever so gently through the changes. Catlett leaves wide intervals for Hansen to enter the fray, offering fluid harmonic voicings while both soloing and comping. Hansen's broad sense of community as a player is ever present throughout this session, acting as the catalyst for his mates to play off of. Thomas' "Blues For McVouty" is a blues shuffle with the bandleader switching over to alto. The rhythm section most certainly is captured by Catlett's steady, swinging walk down, with Thomas weaving darting lines in between the wide open space dynamically nailed down by Wikan. Catlett's deep understanding of the blues really cuts through here.

John Lewis' "Afternoon in Paris," finds Thomas playing the melody in on trumpet. His first instrument of choice, Thomas exhibits his strong, deep resonance on the horn in his own way of hanging just behind the chords, hitting all the tonal highlights along the way. Trumpet was the ticket that afforded a young Thomas to play nightclubs in Seattle at the tender age of sixteen, playing at the legendary Jackson St. haunt, The Black and Tan. His playing on his original, "Sequoia," features the trademarks of his playing that have brought him acclaim for half a century. His approach to improvisation is pure melodic adventurism, emboldened by an ardent tonality featuring long, blues drenched tones, and lightning quick runs that always make sense within the context of the melody itself. This tune offers the finest playing of the set, with Hansen and Wikan featured prominently.

Thomas' 2019 release on Origin Records, I Always Knew (Origin, 2019) with composer arranger Oliver Groenewald was career defining in that it brought his genius to an international audience. Upside brings the listener closer to the artist, by experiencing what you might encounter from Thomas on a typical club date in his hometown, surrounded by the best of both young and veteran musicians. In these times when so many releases reflect a social or multi-themed narrative, Upside offers the Jay Thomas Quartet literally playing jazz for the people. It is a stop on a Thursday evening, when our world included gathering in the light and fellowship of music. It is a reference to our rich history, but as well, a reminder of what we have to look forward to once again down the road.

Track Listing

Afternoon In Paris; Upside; Blues For McVouty; Summer Serenade; Sequoia; Darn That Dream; Dr. Scramble

Personnel

Jay Thomas: multi-instrumentalist; John Hansen: piano; Buddy Catlett: bass, acoustic; Jon Wikan: drums.

Album information

Title: Upside | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: McVouty Records

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