Northwest Notes by Joseph Murphy (from JAZZ NOW Magazine)

Northwest Notes by Joseph Murphy (from JAZZ NOW Magazine) 

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These days Seattle multi-instrumentalist Jay Thomas is a busy man. Recently he might have been found preparing a quartet session for CD release, playing on big-band gigs in Seattle, taking a small group to Japan, or appearing with the University of Iowa band.

Born to a Jazz trumpeter-turned-pharmacist, he was nurtured by Seattle's professional Jazz community and went to Boston and Berklee School. Before he was twenty-one, he had confronted New York and the narcotics nemesis and played the Catskill circuit with Machito's band, gaining the experience of players twice his age. Now at age forty-five he lives in Seattle, where he has come out with an aptly titled CD, 360 Degrees. He stands at the point on the circle where he began, ready to go around again.

Jay has guested on over fifty recordings by other leaders, including James Moody and Herb Ellis. 360 Degrees marks only his third date as a leader. The previous ones included such luminaries as Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton on the Discovery release Easy Does It and Chuck Israels and Dave Peterson on the Gaillard tribute Blues for McVouty. This disc, however, showcases Thomas in the company of other longtime friends and musical associates.

360 Degrees, with contributions from over a dozen players and four arrangers, is a cutaway look at the current generation of emerging Northwest Jazz artists. That the sidemen often seem as prominent as their leader is a comment on Thomas's ability to unite diverse players through precise musicianship and an understated musical ego. As one player commented, "Playing with Jay is like having musical superglue. He binds the music together because he hears so well and is always willing to bend to make the music work."

Thomas's musical history explains much. He had a trumpeter father, Marvin Thomas, who played with Seattle bands as well as the L.A. based Jack Sheldon. Jay grew up in a home littered with charts and peopled by visiting musicians. "My dad had all the Down Beats, so I could rattle off players, dates and personnel as a teenager. I was hard to fool on blindfold tests. Plus he had Ornette Coleman as well as Ira Sullivan and Paul Gonsalves as well as Coltrane records, so I wasn't stylistically overinfluenced by one player. I came to appreciate the things they had in common as well as their differences. That's how my particular musical imagination developed."

Taking up the trumpet at age ten, Jay immediately had the benefit of private teachers, including the big toned Don Johnson, Seattle trumpet legend Floyd Standifer, and the late tenor saxophonist Freddie Greenwell. As a fifteen-year-old he was already sitting in around town, getting schooled by Seattle's finest players in standards, technique, and bebop form.

This immersion paid off during Thomas's senior year in high school when he was offered a one-year scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. From there it was off to New York City, where he encountered legendary trumpet teacher Carmen Caruso. "He was my trumpet guru. He offered the nuances of technique that allowed me to get the sound I was going after."

Asked about his sound, Thomas allows that he knew early on what he wanted to sound like but found the trumpet a touch taskmaster. "I like a wide, not overly bright sound. I loved those Blue Note players like Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan, who could sizzle but had a darker side to their playing. I was always going for that sound but couldn't get it right. For a long time it was a struggle to balance technique with sound."

The search for a sound as well as his diverse influences played a role in Thomas's development as a multi-instrumentalist whose personality is apparent on tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, flutes, fluegelhorn and trumpet. When it comes to his development as a reed player, Thomas admits that he got into doubling only because of a sudden whim. While most doublers start on clarinet and progress from there, Thomas did it backwards. "I was playing in dance bands that often had a tenor/trumpet front lines and was practicing regularly with a tenor player. One day we were copying solos, and I just said, 'Let me try your horn.' I was able to get a sound after about twenty minutes; within an hour, I was playing scales; within a month I was playing tenor on gigs."

While living in Boston, Thomas acquired a flute because he couldn't practice his horns in his apartment. Necessity combined with a virtuosic talent has played an important role in his search for a sound, giving him a deceptive depth and protean ability to fit in where more strident players set stylistic boundaries that limit their effectiveness.

Still, it is the trumpet that Thomas "gets to every day," as he puts it, and it provides his strongest vehicle of personal expression. On trumpet he accesses a musical imagination that draws on Slim Gaillard and Machito, with whom he played and who have provided him with personal and musical inspiration. He simultaneously reflects Gaillard's bop-infected sense of style on the bandstand ("Slim was the ultimate front man"} and Machito's polyrhythmic Latin fire. Tersely modulated, liquid, but peppered with molten flares, Thomas's quicksilver phrasing gives a sly nod to many players of the past while remaining unmistakably personal.

Again it comes back to history, I've been lucky. Though no fault or merit of my own, I've been exposed to a lot of things that have shaped my style," Thomas states, "That's my strength; I'm adaptable to the music. When I was in New York playing with Machito or lalter with Slim, I got that sense of connection to the beboppers as a living link. These guys both played with Bird, and he was still alive in them, and the...atmosphere that came from the individualism and style of the era just rubbed off on them. You could hear the echoes of an era, yet these guys had their own thing going."

While he indebted to the tradition, Jay Thomas is far from hidebound. Emerging as a modernist with roots, he is will ing to go where the music takes him.