Bob Thompson to perform Tuesday at OUS
The Ohio University Southern Community Concert Series on Tuesday presents nationally acclaimed contemporary jazz funk pianist Bob Thompson.
The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in Ohio University Southern’s Collins Center Bowman Auditorium. Thompson will be joined by members of his combo, the Bob Thompson Unit.
The concert is free and open to the public.
During a professional career spanning more than 40 years, Thompson has communicated with audiences through his music around the globe.
From his early days with the Modern Jazz Interpreters to an acclaimed series of solo albums on labels such as Capitol and Ichiban, to his latest work with his five-member Bob Thompson Unit, he has won the respect and praise of jazz critics and fans alike. With appearances on BET, the internationally broadcast public radio show Mountain Stage and several tours abroad, he’s been a visible presence in the jazz world for more than 40 years. For the past 11 years his holiday jazz show, “Joy To The World,” has been broadcast nationally on Public Radio International.
Homeland, the Bob Thompson Unit’s latest release on colortones.com, is a collection of contemporary pieces written by Thompson and drummer Tim Courts. This new CD, which also contains a soulful rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” was tracked live at Legends in Charleston, West Virginia, where the band performs every Tuesday night when in town.
“I wanted to capture the live energy of this group on a recording,” Thompson said. “There is a special magic that occurs when we are playing for a live audience in an intimate setting.”
Charleston is home for the members of the Bob Thompson Unit. In addition to Tim Courts on drums, the band includes saxophonist Doug Payne, bassist Chris Allen and guitarist Ryan Kennedy.
Thompson’s music has always been as warm and inviting as a cup of cocoa on a winter day without leaving too sweet of an aftertaste. His solo piano album titled “I’ll Take Romance” is proof, with its lovely, lyrical renderings of jazz standards like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Laura.” But after hearing Thompson’s piano prowess on I’ll Take Romance — or on any of his numerous other recordings — one might be surprised to learn how hard Thompson tried to avoid the keyboard as a kid. Though there was always a piano in his home in Jamaica, New York, Thompson had little interest in learning how to play it.
“When I was in junior high school, I had a piano teacher who came to my house to give me lessons. He thought I had some talent. So, one summer, he told my mom he’d teach me for free,” Thompson said. “I said, ‘No way,’” he added with a chuckle. “I wasn’t going to spend my summer taking piano lessons.”
Instead, Thompson picked up the trumpet, playing in various school bands. And when the budding music major arrived on the campus of West Virginia State College, he was determined to join the highly regarded student jazz band. There was only one problem: a trumpeter named Mitchell Lee.
“He was great,” Thompson said. “I started playing piano just so I could be in the band with him.”
It was a switch that stuck and Thompson absorbed the lessons of pianists like Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell and Bill Evans, leaving trumpet behind to hone his keyboard skills.
While a student at West Virginia State College, Thompson formed the Modern Jazz Interpreters, a piano, bass and drums trio, which appeared at the prestigious Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1964. Shortly thereafter, Thompson received a valuable lesson from another performer, Chicago saxophonist Bunky Green, who joined the band on a state department tour to Algiers.
“He’s the person that really inspired me to give my life to music,” Thompson said. “He used to tell me, ‘When you sit down to play your instrument, play as though it might be the last time. So don’t fool around, don’t jive. Go ahead and say what you’ve got to say.’”
That’s advice Thompson has followed throughout his professional career. While on his own in the 1970s through 1980s, Thompson released a series of widely acclaimed solo albums, recording first for his own Rainbow Records and then for the majors, on Capitol’s Intima jazz label. Guests such as violinist John Blake, drummer Omar Hakim, guitarists Larry Coryell and Kevin Eubanks and bassist Gerald Veasley helped breathe life into Thompson originals on albums like “7 In 7 Out,” “Brother’s Keeper” and “Wilderness.” Hakim even produced Thompson’s 1986 album “Say What You Want.”
These recordings garnered strong airplay on radio stations nationwide and by the end of the decade Thompson had raised his profile even higher by becoming the house pianist for Mountain Stage, an eclectic, Charleston-based weekly music broadcast on Public Radio International that’s featured everyone from R.E.M. to K.D. Lang to The Neville Brothers. The show is now also seen on public television stations across the country.
“I’ve just fallen in love with Mountain Stage,” Thompson, who’s still a featured performer and part of the house band, said. “It’s gotten my music out to a more diverse audience.”
Meanwhile, Thompson moved to Atlanta-based Ichiban International Records to release the albums “Love Dance,” “The Magic In Your Heart,” “Ev’ry Time I Feel The Spirit,” and “Lady First.”
“Ev’ry Time I Feel The Spirit,” which is a collection of spirituals performed in Thompson’s unique contemporary jazz style, was re-released in 2003 on DM Records. Thompson has now formed his own label, colortones.com.
“I really wanted to have control over my music and build a business myself,” Thompson said.
Between national and international touring, Thompson can still be found playing clubs in Charleston — something he said keeps him close to his musical roots. “When I’m on a big stage I just treat it like I’m in a bar somewhere,” he said. “The kind of connection with the audience I like happens a lot when we’re playing in a small club, and that carries over when we get into a larger venue.”
Music education is also very important to Thompson. He continues doing workshops at colleges and public schools.
“I love teaching because it gives me an opportunity to pass along the help that many have given to me along the way,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to be able to spend my life doing something I truly love.”