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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, October 26th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present pianist Micah Thomas’s debut on our stage. An undergraduate at Juilliard, Thomas has already made a name for himself outside of the classroom, playing with the likes of guitarist Lage Lund, saxophonist Stacey Dillard, and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. At the Gallery, Thomas will convene his current working trio, featuring Dean Torrey on bass and Kyle Benford on drums. We caught up with Thomas to talk about his musical upbringing, his current technical pursuits, and getting out of one’s critical mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: Where are you from?

Micah Thomas: I’m from Columbus, Ohio.

TJG: How’s the music scene there?

MT: For a city that’s not a major jazz hub like New York or Philly, I’d say it’s really good.

TJG: Were you gigging there early on?

MT: I wasn’t really part of the scene, but I had gigs with Byron Stripling, who was the director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and Christian Howes, who’s a jazz violinist from there.

TJG: And piano’s always been your instrument.  When did you start playing?

MT: Since age 2. I think either the theme from Bob the Builder or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was playing on TV and I played it on the piano by ear, and my parents said, “Let’s get this kid some lessons.”

TJG: So you have perfect pitch?

MT: Yeah.

TJG: How is that? Blessing or curse?

MT: I think I’ve actually lost a little bit of it because of how annoying it can be at times.  But it’s definitely helpful—certainly for music.

TJG: There’s this crazy video of this young kid online where he can piece out these extremely dissonant chords-

MT: I know exactly what you’re talking about—where the guy is just playing random notes on the piano. Yeah, that kid’s pretty crazy. He’s working with something different than I am.

TJG: Do you think perfect pitch lends itself to musicality? Will having that gift help him in the long run?

MT: If he wants to be a musician then definitely.

TJG: I sort of associate perfect pitch as more informational than musical. What has your ear training education been like?

MT: Well my ear has always been pretty strong tonally. I would practice listening to records and hearing what they’re soloing and playing, and that’s helped. Rhythm is of course a whole other category.

TJG: Right—I assume you just hear the notes as they’re coming.

MT: Yeah, I hear the notes like you might hear English. When I started studying basic harmony and counterpoint with a guy named Kendall Briggs at Juilliard, I started really learning what each interval actually means, which gave the notes a whole other level of meaning.

TJG: How so?

MT: I started learning mathematically how much tension and resolution there are in any interval, whether it be octave, seventh, third, second—now those are all my grammar. It’s a descriptor of what we hear, so it’s not really a theory—it’s mathematically what’s going on.

TJG: How do you balance a mathematical approach to playing with an emotional approach?

MT: The way for me to transition from mathematical to emotional is to internalize the math. So just practice the same thing over and over, and practice one little concept. Just pick one little concept—mathematical or theoretical, that I don’t quite hear naturally yet. And then I apply it to as many tunes as I can, apply it to all keys, modulate it—just spend weeks on it until it eventually becomes what I hear and I’m not thinking about it anymore.

TJG: Sounds pretty disciplined.

MT: Yeah, it takes a lot of time, which is hard in New York.

TJG: What do they have you working on mostly at Juilliard?

MT: I develop my own path. Juilliard is good for people who have their own direction.

TJG: What’s your direction? Is there a place you want to get to?

MT: I have a few ideas. I’ve been working on applying Barry Harris harmony to what I do in my own kind of way. And I’ve been working on Charlie Parker—some tricks that he’s been doing for a while, and I have some ideas on what I want to study after that.

TJG: What comes next?

M: Probably working on Trane—there were some ideas that he was consistently using throughout the ‘60s, and in the end I think they’re probably pretty simple.

TJG: So a lot of study of classic saxophonists. Are you trying to break new ground by applying the study to the piano?

MT: No, if you listen to Charlie Parker’s playing, he’s often arpeggiating what he would hear someone like Art Tatum playing.  And pianists like Bud Powell have been transferring what Charlie Parker did to the piano—so there’s always been this transferal.

TJG: So why study Parker and Trane rather than Powell and Tatum?

MT: Well I’m also studying Tatum, but with these guys, they just came to a level of focus—they mastered what they were doing with such precision that they’re the textbook examples of the music. In my opinion, Charlie Parker is the model example of what to study for bebop—not Bud Powell.  Bud Powell took it and made it his own, but Charlie Parker is the source for me anyway.

TJG: I saw you posted a link on Facebook of you playing the Jelly Roll Morton tribute with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  How was that experience?

MT: It was very fun. Monday through Wednesday were full band rehearsals with everyone, so I was hanging out there from 10:30am to 5:30pm. The other pianists were Joel Wenhardt, who’s also a student at Juilliard, Aaron Diehl, and Sullivan Fortner, and Dan Nimmer who plays with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. So the five of us were hanging out all week and we got along very well.

TJG: That must’ve been a whole lot of piano talk.

MT: Not really, actually. There was definitely some but all of us have studied very different things and are going in different directions.  Sullivan Fortner has been my mentor for a while now, but even with him I’m going in a different direction. And we’re also friends. Joel and I have gotten close at Juilliard, Sullivan and I are good friends, and Aaron Diehl and I are both from Columbus, Ohio.

TJG: Putting Columbus on the map.

MT: Yeah man, that’s my job [laughs]. It was nice, we all talked about anything.

TJG: Awesome, and the solo you played with the orchestra—classic sounding solo from that era.  How did you prepare for that?  Was that of different mind than your usual approach to a gig?

MT: I’ve dealt with stride mostly for fun because I usually don’t have to apply it. It’s usually not appropriate to really apply real stride.  But the level of technical mastery that Fats Waller and Willie “Lion” Smith and James B. Johnson were working on—very few jazz pianists can come close to.

TJG: It was really cool to see you play in that style. But thinking through the modern jazz piano approach and after seeing you the other week playing with Immanuel Wilkins, I’m wondering where the connection lies. 

MT: I think the main connection between the two styles is rhythmic. It’s a rhythmic language. The voicings that certain stride pianists were using—people like Bud Powell would take them and he would break it up and change the rhythm a little, and then pianists after Bud Powell would change the voicings around. It kind of reminds me of that game, “telephone,” where the concept would change little-by-little as it passed hands. But if you trace it back, the original message is always there.

TJG: So you don’t feel like you’re communicating something wholly different?

MT: No, especially in terms of melodic rhythm, you’re dealing with the same type of language.

TJG: So with your upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery, what kind of music will you be playing?  Will it be traditional jazz?

MT: It’s interesting—the stuff at The Jazz Gallery is usually what people argue about being “Jazz” or not. My stuff is kind of in the middle of everything. We’re doing a bunch of stuff.  Some originals, some tunes, and some rearrangements of tunes by people that I wanted to play. Some of it’s swinging, some is in the more traditional vein, some is in a more modern-swing vain, and some is just not swinging at all. Some tunes will be really hard and some will be really easy and simple.  I wrote everything from 16 bar melodies to compositions that are 5-10 pages long.  I’m looking forward to trying it all out.  The common denominator is the trio and how we approach it.

TJG: What will that approach be like?

MT: We haven’t planned anything out, at least verbally. We know who we are musically. We have a similar loopy, stream-of-consciousness way of approaching the music. We’ve all been playing together for a while now.

TJG: How new is this trio?

MT: It’s a new trio. But I’ve been hiring Dean for a while now—I hired Dean for my show at Dizzy’s a few months ago. And I’ve been playing with Kyle since he got to Juilliard. And all three of us would be at Small’s jamming until 4am, you know?  So this doesn’t feel really new.

TJG: How does stream-of-consciousness fit into your approach?  I associate stream-of-consciousness with more free playing.

MT: I’ve been listening to “Chasin’ the Trane” a lot lately—classic track from the 1961 Village Vanguard sessions. If you’re going to take a 16 minute solo on the blues, you have to get into some sort of spiritual place. And that involves letting go of a very perfectionist, detail-oriented mindset, which I think a lot of jazz is today. And I’m all for that—I do those types of gigs. But it’s different than an approach that’s dealing with long forms and longer movements, and that’s something that Kyle and Dean really do and I like to do as well.

TJG: Do you find that they free you?

MT: Yeah man, they can get me almost entirely out of my critical mind, which is very rare for me.

TJG: What does your critical mind consist of?  What are they getting you out of?

MT: They’re getting me out of always keeping track of what’s going on theoretically consciously. They get me out of a mindset of certain choices being good or bad. And because, we’re all very flexible, and we’re all always listening, there’s some safety. Things are going to get messy, but it will be fine.

TJG: Do you find it’s more fun to play that way?

MT: Yeah. It’s almost not a musical thing, but it’s definitely a “thank god I don’t have to worry” thing for a neurotic person like myself.

TJG: Do you ever get to play like that on sideman gigs?

MT: I’m learning how to but ultimately you have to communicate with people in the way that they’re comfortable with—that they understand. With some people, I have to be more detail-oriented and moment-to-moment. Well, there’s always a moment-to-moment awareness, but the right answer with Kyle Benford and Dean Torrey when I’m playing with them is not always as specific and concrete as the right answer with other bands.

TJG: Who are you playing for in these scenarios? Are you playing for them? Are you playing for you?

MT: I play what I want to hear and I listen to what they’re playing, and I’ll interpret what they’re playing through my lense, which is naturally what I want to hear. Jean-Michel Pilc talks a lot about listening to your fellow bandmates as if they are you, because ultimately there is not three people creating three different sounds; there’s three people creating one sound. So really getting yourself in what they’re playing, so it’s not like, “he’s going one place and I’m going here,” or interpreting what’s going on as one thing while your bandmates see it differently. That kind of cohesion doesn’t happen all the time but I do think it is the ideal. I think in that moment you’ve let go of your individual ego.

TJG: I guess in order to get to that point, you have to play with people a bunch.  I suppose the goal would be to be able to play that way with anyone.

MT: Well the good thing about jazz today is that there’s so much to listen to, and Kyle and I have listened to the same stuff, and Dean and I have listened to a lot of the same stuff, so that gave us an advantage when we met. When I listened to them, I was like “OK, this is where they’re coming from.” And then we developed from there. So there’s history that we can draw back from. It’s not like we’re going at this with nothing beforehand.

The Micah Thomas Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. The group features Mr. Thomas on piano, Dean Torrey on bass, and Kyle Benford on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.