Jazz Maestro
(Profile of multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson)

Don Thompson playing bass

Pianist, bassist and vibraphonist Don Thompson

Performance magazine, Winter 2005
By Stewart Hoffman

“Instruments, to a degree, dictate what you can play,” says Don Thompson, who is sitting in a music room filled with them. Along with his baby grand piano, there is a vibraphone, a set of drums, and a pair of double basses – a blonde French one and a dark German one. “I hear a musical sound, a melody, in my head, but as soon as I touch the bass, I realize the limitations of the instrument. I can play stuff on the piano in my sleep that I can’t come close to on the vibes, and the bass is so much harder than either one of them, that to play anything at all on it is a miracle.”

Few can speak with greater authority on the challenges of playing musical instruments than Don Thompson.

He was a good enough drummer to play in guitarist Lenny Breau’s band in the early ’70s, but his most extraordinary accomplishments are on bass, piano and vibraphone. He could have had a stellar career playing any one of them.

To illustrate that point, you need look no further than a few recent performances, at which he’s played bass at Toronto’s Montreal Bistro with pianist Junior Mance, bass and piano at the Monterey Jazz Festival with the John Handy Quintet, vibraphone at the Salzburg Jazz Festival – the lone Canadian featured in a sextet of stellar European jazzmen – and, vibraphone again at a concert entitled Good Vibes, which showcased the country’s best performers on that instrument.

When Don Thompson moves effortlessly from one instrument to the other – a feat he performed regularly on bass and piano for the five years he toured with pianist George Shearing – even musicians’ jaws drop. Saxophonist Paul Desmond, best known for his work with Dave Brubeck’s quartet, referred to Thompson as “a walking miracle.”

His recent CD, Ask Me Later, is a marvelous recording of Thompson originals on which he performs on piano and vibraphone – producing the most opulent sound you’ll ever hear on that instrument.

Not to suggest that performing feats is of any interest to him. Soft spoken and self-effacing, he frequently points out his perceived limitations – that his playing “falls short in all kinds of areas,” and that working with Shearing was “like being in school.” For the 65-year old Thompson, the learning never stops and the music is all that counts.

His instruments provide an entry into the music from very different vantage points. “Piano is a whole orchestra”, he says. “Here are the saxophones, this is a trombone section, these are trumpets, these are woodwinds – in my mind I hear all the sounds when I’m playing piano.

“With vibes, I can be a pretend horn player. I have a vibrato, and I can hold my notes.”

Playing bass gives him, “an opportunity to create the bottom melody, a counterpoint to the one on top. It’s like you’re soloing all the time. You’re trying to make the bass line as melodic, creative and pretty as can be.”

Which is exactly what Thompson does in his duo with guitarist Reg Schwager.

At Mezzetta Restaurant on St. Clair Avenue West, an intimate venue where they’ve performed frequently over the years, the small, after-dinner crowd is there to listen. The musicians never discuss what they’ll play before stepping onto the bandstand; while Thompson sometimes introduces a tune, more often than not one of them tosses off a few introductory notes, leaving the other to slide his way in. Thompson occasionally closes his eyes when he plays, but mostly he gazes straight ahead, focused on a horizon line just above the heads at the back of the room. Indeed, if you were to just zoom in on his face, you might not think he was playing at all – but for the fact that his hands are flying up and down the fingerboard spinning melodic solos that wouldn’t sound out of place pouring out of a trumpet. “When he solos,” says drummer Terry Clarke, Thompson’s friend and close musical partner for over forty years, “he’s continuously playing melodies. There’s an overabundance of ideas.”

It seems Don Thompson has forever been spinning melodies. His older brother, who played excellent classical piano, taught him little tunes “for as long as I can remember.”

Thompson took some formal lessons, but got hooked on jazz in high school listening to friends’ records. “I’d just put on a record and play along on the piano. I’d figure out exactly what Oscar [Peterson] was playing – as best I could at least – and then just play along as though I was in the band with him. If the tempos weren’t too fast I was okay.”

He learned every instrument he could get his hands on at school, then, after hearing Terry Gibbs play vibraphone on a recording, ordered one from a store in Vancouver.

By the time Thompson got around to playing bass, it didn’t appear to be much of a challenge. “I thought, ‘this is so easy, it’s almost like cheating. If all you have to do is play four notes to the bar, I couldn’t possibly miss.'”

His move to Vancouver in 1960 provided lots of opportunities to hone his musical skills. That’s also where he met Clarke, who credits Thompson with broadening his own musical development. “Don is such a listening player,” he says. “He was the one that taught me to start listening to the piano, to learn the relationship to all the parts. I became a more musical player.”

When saxophonist John Handy, who had played with Thompson and Clarke at The Cellar in Vancouver, invited them to join his band in San Francisco in 1965, “all of a sudden we were in the big time,” says Thompson. “To be 24-years old and playing with one of the greatest musicians in the world was ridiculous.” Plus, Haight-Ashbury in the heyday of protests, hippies and flower power was “jazz heaven. One had twenty-four hour jazz, six bands playing four hours each, non-stop!”

Not to mention the fact that he was playing in one of the hottest jazz bands in the country. Their live recording at the Monterey Jazz Festival quickly became a jazz classic.

In 1969 Thompson finally moved to Toronto. He became a fixture in the studios and jazz clubs of the day, and a regular in the Boss Brass and the bands of Moe Koffman, Sonny Greenwich and Lennie Breau. At clubs like Bourbon Street, which paired the biggest names in jazz with a local rhythm section, he performed with the likes of saxophonists Lee Konitz and James Moody – and especially vibraphonist Milt Jackson, an enormous influence on Thompson’s own vibraphone playing. “When he plays,” says Thompson, “it’s like you’re in church. Every night was probably the most perfectly beautiful music you ever heard.”

He met guitarist Jim Hall at a party thrown by fellow guitarist Ed Bickert. “We took our instruments,” says Thompson, “and had a big [jam] session. It was like I’d been playing with him for about 30 years. His harmony, his choice of tunes, his time feel, the spaces he leaves – every aspect of his playing was absolutely perfect for me.” They remained a band for the next seven or eight years. For Clarke, their music represented the essence of jazz, “a three-way conversation” rather than bass and drum support for a star soloist. The trio can still be heard on the luminous Jim Hall Live!, the 1975 recording engineered by Thompson himself at Bourbon Street.

After five years with Shearing in the ’80s, Thompson decided to take on a variety of endeavours that would keep him closer to the mid-town Toronto bungalow that he shares with his wife of thirty-nine years, Norma.

Writing is one of them. He’s currently working on arrangements for a twenty-seven piece orchestra plus jazz band headed by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and singer Norma Winstone that will be performing at Glenn Gould Studio in March.

And teaching is another. At Humber College, along with his composition class, he directs a “killer” ensemble. But Thompson notes that while students never tire of talking about scales, chords and practice routines, the deeper questions related to their art remain unexplored. “They never ask, ‘Why is this music beautiful to me?’ I try to get across that they have to decide what they like and what they don’t like and why they like it and why they don’t and what they perceive to be beautiful. If a John Coltrane solo is really beautiful, what makes it beautiful? I think this is the most important part, and it’s never addressed. You can teach polyrhythms and metric modulations, but you can’t teach how you play a beautiful melody.”

Maybe so, but listening to Thompson and Schwager play duets together, as they did at Mezzetta, is about as close as you’ll get to attending a master class on the subject.

Schwager weaves intricate lines with a warm tone and gentle forcefulness, and Thompson responds to every musical nuance. His rhythmic, walking bass both anchors and propels the music forward, though sometimes, when he plays in the upper register, you might imagine a pair of guitars is playing melodies in counterpoint. Their music is thoughtful, subtle, inventive, and eloquent – and it swings like crazy. As you step out into the midnight air, its warmth lingers like a fine cognac.

And it just doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.