JJ 03/91: Gary Thomas – analysis and interview

The Baltimore-born saxophonist, flautist and composer played London in November 1990 and spoke to Mark Gilbert after the concert. First published in Jazz Journal March 1991

Gary Thomas at the Half Moon Theatre, Mile End, London, November 1990. Photo © Derick A. Thomas, from JJ Archive

Grim, grotesque, grave, gloomy – there seems to be no shortage of words beginning with ‘g’ to describe the music of this Gary from Baltimore. But the man is approach­able, affable, quick to smile and ready to help. ‘Most people see me and they think I’m a pretty serene person, but I like to hear some sort of excitement created in the music. I guess the writing is dark and I guess I pre­fer music like that ’cause it creates a ten­sion.’

Interested observers will have been aware of Gary Thomas’s ability to create tension and excitement in music since his international debut with Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition in 1986. Many more will have seen him when he toured briefly with Miles Davis in 1986 and 1987. Others will have noted his commanding presence as a soloist – superficially in the Coltrane/Shorter mode – on a number of straightahead sessions led by Wallace Roney and others, or on his own 1990 hard bop date, While The Gate Is Open, where he essayed such standards as Chelsea Bridge, Invitation and Star Eyes. However, it is as leader and chief composer in his group Sev­enth Quadrant that Thomas has made his greatest strides.

His association with the M-Base collective of Brooklyn gives some hint of his style, but on the evidence of his 1988 album By Any Means Necessary the freshness and scope of his musical conception set him apart from most of that group. Though he has none of the vocal militancy of fellow saxophonist Steve Coleman, the nominal founder and spokesman of the M-Base, Thomas has developed a richly eloquent and expressive musical language that says more than any amount of radical posturing.

The later Seventh Quadrant music paints a picture of a dark and challenging world. It is brooding and lugubrious, its textures dense and heavy, its harmonies richly dissonant, its rhythms asymmetric. Thomas colours the scene with a full orchestral sound, some­thing he conjures up by subtly augmenting the typical line-up of horn, bass, keyboard and drums with sparely deployed synthesis­ers. Like Greg Osby, Chico Freeman and, more recently, Dave Binney, he uses the Pitchrider MIDI interface to drive a synthe­siser that either doubles or harmonises his tenor saxophone line. The result is the kind of dark majesty heard on the title track of By Any Music Necessary. On other occasions, notably on Sybase on Code Violations, the sound of double bass is fleshed out by the use of a harmoniser.

If Thomas’s compositions and instrumen­tation suggest influences beyond the modern mainstream, the soloists in his groups seem firmly rooted in the jazz of the 1960s and later. By Any Means Necessary features extended father-and-son like solos from gui­tarist Mick Goodrick and John Scofield and allows ample room for Geri Allen’s rumina­tive piano work, while Code Violations is brightened by a good helping of generic 1960s piano from Tim Murphy.

At first Thomas’s antecedents seem clear too. Not surprisingly, he is no stranger to compar­isons with Coltrane, Shorter and Brecker. However, he is quick to deny any causal connection between his style and theirs. Per­haps by accident or indirectly he seems to share certain traits with them, but he has a number of distinguishing marks, most notably a singular volatility of tone and phrase and a strongly idiosyncratic sense of development. Like Shorter and Brecker he is a masterly storyteller, well able to build dra­matic tension in his line, but he is more inclined than either of them towards sudden shifts of shape and velocity, his solos erupt­ing like a dormant volcano from smoulder­ing menace into voluble activity.

Gary Thomas’s talent has flowered from inauspicious beginnings. He was born into a distinctly unmusical family in Baltimore, Maryland on June 10, 1961.

‘No-one down the line, in the family tree or whatever, plays any instrument or sings or anything else. But I studied at a conservatory when I was 13 or 14 for three years or so. This was at Baltimore, Maryland, at the Peabody Conservatory.

‘For the longest time, when I was in junior high school, I played classical music. I played in concert bands and orchestras and things. Also, before I played the saxophone, I played a lot of other instruments – the flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon. I started playing saxophone maybe in my last year at high school. I transferred from a technical high school that didn’t have a music programme to one that did and they had a jazz band. I heard some of the guys playing saxophone. I mean they weren’t good players, but I just wanted to play the saxophone so I told the teacher I played saxophone just so he’d give me one.’

And that’s where you first encountered jazz?

‘I guess for as much as you could call it jazz. They were a lot of young players who didn’t really know too much about the music.’

I am interested in how you write your pieces. Do you compose at the piano?

‘I compose from the piano. But as much as I can I use the computer now. I don’t have, like, piano chops, therefore I write the stuff very slowly at the keyboard and I usually start from figured bass.’

It’s interesting, the way you use the bass in this band. It’s a groove setting, funk if you like, with backbeats on the drums, but you’re using acoustic bass.

‘Sometimes you have a set of changes, but it just restricts the musicians. It’s almost like when you’re a little kid, you get punished and you have to stay in the house; everything you do gotta be inside the house’

‘I just like the sound of the acoustic bass. It’s so warm, as opposed to the electric bass. A lot of times the electric bass has a little bit of a ring and I like … if you notice, a lot of my music is really bottom heavy, and I don’t want a real loud edgy bottom sound. The acoustic bass provides the right sound. The drums are real heavy also. Like I say, I like everything heavy from the bottom up, and it gives me a real solid foundation to do what I do.

‘There’s pretty much a basic harmonic structure to all the tunes, but then there’s room for everyone to open up on them. Sometimes you have a set of changes, but it just restricts the musicians. It’s almost like when you’re a little kid, you get punished and you have to stay in the house; everything you do gotta be inside the house. I don’t wanna lock the musicians into that, being locked into the changes. The changes are there to suggest a mood or whatever, and then from that point you move on.’

It seems like you have changes in the theme or the head, but when you’re soloing, the changes aren’t really evident.

‘There are changes there. Sometimes they could be played loosely, but the changes are there.’

What kind of changes would they be?

‘There are a lot of polychords.’

Do you give the bass player any particular directions or guidelines as to how he should play when the improvisations are happen­ing?

‘Well see, I like a loping feel in the bass. Actually, if you changed the drummer, and the drummer was playing swing it would be almost like a two-feel, a jazz two-feel. I always like that. With a lot of funk things, the bass player plays a real static kind of groove, and it makes the music sound a little bit jumpy or herky-jerky or whatever. I like the music to lay and flow a little bit, so with the bass playing that way, it doesn’t make the music like an out and out funk thing. It does sound funky in a way, but it also flows a little.’

The bass is moving at a different speed than it would in a funk context…

‘Yeah, and the notes are longer.’

Do you ask the bassist to stay in the bot­tom register a lot?

‘I don’t have to ask the players to do too much because I try to get players that do what I like. If I play in a band, I don’t expect anybody to tell me how to play, so I don’t do that in my band, I get people that I like and people that I don’t have to tell how to play music.’

Can you think of any particular inspira­tions for the compositions, any particular players or schools of music?

‘Well, at this point I listen to a lot of themes from movies, more like dramas and sci-fi. I really like big, orchestrated sounds.’

Is that coming out of the classical side of things?

‘I never really lis­tened to Trane or Wayne much for solo influence. I listened to Billy Harper, Woody Shaw, Eddie Harris – I listened to a lot of Eddie Harris’

‘Some of it is – but I listen to a lot of music right now. Matter of fact, in here I got a whole case of rap tapes. The next record that I do, I’m gonna do some rap music and fuse it with the type of music I’m doing right here.’

When you’re soloing, are you inspired by any particular soloists? Coltrane, Wayne Shorter?

‘Not right now. I never really … Those are two great players, but I never really lis­tened to Trane or Wayne much for solo influence. I listened to Billy Harper, Woody Shaw, Eddie Harris – I listened to a lot of Eddie Harris. I guess people don’t hear much of Eddie Harris now, but if you heard Eddie Harris you might say “Yeah, I can hear a lit­tle bit of that influence.”‘

Michael Brecker?

‘No. A lot of people think that too, but when players play angular, they sometimes sound similar to other people. People say Steve Coleman and Greg Osby sound alike, but to me they don’t sound alike, they just both have angular styles. That’s where the similarities end.’

Records as leader
Seventh Quadrant (Enja 5047); Code Violations (Enja 5085); By Any Means Necessary (JMT 834 432-2); While The Gate Is Open (JMT 834 439-2)
Records as sideman
Wallace Roney: Verses (Muse); Wallace Roney: The Standard Bearer (Vogue 651 600622); Wallace Roney: Intuition (Vogue 651 600607); Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition: Irre­sistible Forces (MCA/Impulse); Jack DeJohnette’s SE: Audio-Visualscapes (MCA/Impulse); Steve Coleman & Five Elements: Sine Die (Pangaea); Cassandra Wilson: Jumpworld (JMT 834 434-2); Cecil Brooks III: The Collective (Vogue 651 60062 8)