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With 'The Power of the Spirit,’ Isaiah J. Thompson is representing the past, present and future

Isaiah J. Thompson by Paolo Soriani
Paolo Soriani
Isaiah J. Thompson

Welcome to WBGO Studios. The focus, brothers and sisters, is the book of Isaiah…not the Old Testament, but rather the testament of Isaiah…pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, who, by his mid-twenties, had performed or recorded with Ron Carter, Christian McBride and Steve Turre; had a role in the film Motherless Brooklyn; and recorded his own tribute to the music of pianist Buddy Montgomery. The Power of the Spirit is Isaiah’s brand new album, released March 17 on Blue Engine Records. He talks about that recording and other things ahead in his exciting musical life.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker: The power of the spirit is something that for you started with your family, didn't it?

Isaiah J. Thompson: Well, in the beginning, it's kind of like you are looking within yourself to try to find or overcome something. As I got older, it became looking to something else to overcome including whatever it is I needed to get through. It has definitely evolved as I've matured.

And you had help specifically from your mother and father?

Exactly. My parents instilled so many things in me. They've always just been there for me. A lot of the tunes are about things that they've said to me or ways that we interacted while I was growing up. They influenced me as a young adult.

I had the chance to see you when you were part of the Jazz House Kids program. Then later, the Jazz for Teens program. You stopped through in the morning on your way to Juilliard, where you received a Bachelor's and a Master's degree.  Some of those spirits that empowered you and your travels along the way included some of those great people that you ran into at Jazz House kids.

Yeah, I had some extraordinary teachers. Obviously, it's run by Melissa Walker and Christian McBride, but everyone there—from Ted Chubb to Lisa Williams, Oscar Perez and Mike Lee—all are amazing people. I was able to learn from all of them and my peers from such a young age. I remember starting there and realizing I had a very short amount of time to learn a lot.

One of those peers shows up on this recording with you and it's like you guys are connected at the hip and for the hip.  I'm talking about saxophonist Julian Lee who was I think a year ahead of you, but yet inspired you. How did he inspire you as you were coming up?

Julian is actually two years older than me. It's funny, growing up there's a big difference between 14 and 16 than like 25 and 27 for whatever reason. When you're younger, there's much more of a gap, you know? So I didn't even know him very much when we were younger. He was always just so good and a little bit older, so we didn't really interact. It's really special now that he plays in my band. I laugh about it, because it’s kind of funny to end up in this situation.

The Power of the Spirit is a collection of performances, a collection of compositions, that you yourself wrote and brought to the table. It's not the only time you've done that, but how was that process for you? You enjoy writing, don't you?

I do. It takes a long time for me to complete a lot of these compositions. I should have done this a long time ago. Some of the things I've written, such as “IT Department” and things like that, I have voice memos on my phone from 2015 and for some of them I'm still like, “Oh, I could still fix it, you know?” So, I think it's just an ongoing process.

You mentioned the tune that you wrote, “IT Department,” goes all the way back to the family because when people would ask your dad, “Well, what is it about your son?  What is it about that musicality that he possesses at a very young age?”  And he'd go, “Oh, no man, that's IT's department.

Exactly. My parents, they just wanted me to do something. They didn't really care what it was. Just do something and be serious about it.

Isaiah J. Thompson - The IT Department Single Release (The Power of the Spirit)

You've had the chance to play with Ron Carter. You've had the chance to play with John Pizzarelli and Buster Williams, in addition to Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  Some of those things along the way also inform the creative process for you outside of the classroom or outside of the formal education process. How do some of these things happen?

That's a really good point. I grew up in the time where I was one of the first generations to go through all the jazz programming, which is great. I learned so much. I would not be who I am without it. There is something to say about learning in an institution and also outside of it. I think my generation has to navigate that more so than maybe others. Like knowing that there's certain things you learn in the classroom, certain things you can’t.

I'm just blessed and so fortunate that I was able to meet some of these people—some in an institution and some on the bandstand. Some, I'd see them in both settings and to be able to learn from them in two different ways. And it's really expanded my viewpoint on the music.

It also seems to be an ongoing process for you. For example, you could go back and, say, ring up Bill Charlap and say, “Give me some pointers on accompaniment,” as you were getting ready to go out on the road and do some dates with John Pizzarelli, for example.

What can I say about Bill Charlap? He’s not only another genius and but is also just somebody who is gracious enough to pick up the phone and be willing to talk to me. I've been lucky that there have been a few mentors that have done that for me and are willing to do that for many others.

Even beyond that, because you must have imparted some information, and some elder musicians must have really seen in you the abilities that you possess. I'm thinking of Steve Turre on his latest recording Generations, where you are side by side with Steve, Buster Williams and Lenny White.

I think sometimes it's not always just about the playing, but it's also a care thing. If they notice that you care about it, since jazz is not always the most popular art form. If you show that you care about it, it's more than just the music. It's also a lifestyle. It's a thing that you live every day. I think when Mr. Turre saw me, he saw that I cared about it. I think that maybe carried weight in his heart like this was somebody that I could play with.

Cover of Isaiah J. Thompson's album "The Power of the Spirit"
Cover of Isaiah J. Thompson's album "The Power of the Spirit"

I referenced the power of the soul, but the recording is called The Power of the Spirit. The tune that really inspired me as I was listening to this recording that comes out on March 17 is a piece that you wrote called “Soul Messengers.” It has almost a Latin feel to it, but yet not. Talk about how that tune came together for you.

Honestly, I wrote that maybe the day, or the day after I heard of Harold Mabern’s passing. The way that he navigates around minor tunes and how he had his block chords and his own way of doing that, resolving very quickly at the end of phrases and that kind of sound. I took it upon myself to try to incorporate that kind of sound, but also a soulful sound. It reminded me of the vibe he had, the essence he had is somebody that was just super soulful.

You would feel good after dealing with somebody, whether it's somebody you know. I had a security guard who I knew, or a deacon or just somebody that you know in your community that can have that kind of impact on you. I dedicated that tune to him. And also to all the soul messengers that people can encounter in their life.

I'm thinking as we talk about Harold Mabern that there must be something in the water there in Memphis. You also dedicated a tune to Phineas Newborn on this new recording.  He was another special guy that came out of Memphis, right?

Phineas Newborn, it's unbelievable when you listen to him, thinking, “How is that possible?” First, it’s the virtuosic thing, but then it's also that kind of soulful thing that you can't even learn. You have to experience that somehow.

That's important man. There's no way to learn that soulfulness, that churchiness. You still go to church on a regular basis, right?

I grew up that way. I always talk about this that I grew up going that way, but then I didn't go for a long time until about maybe two or three years ago. I've had a bit of a different experience with it. Coming back to it has been amazing.

You've had the opportunity to work with Wynton Marsalis on stage at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but also in film. You were part of the soundtrack for Motherless Brooklyn, Ed Norton's film. How was that experience?

Oh, man, it was it was hilarious. I didn't think I would end up in that situation. Just the next day we're on set with Ed Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Just to be able to do the soundtrack with Wynton Marsalis. What else can I ask for? It was really special. I hadn't worked on a soundtrack in that capacity, so that was a special experience.

You've had a longtime relationship with the bassist Phillip Norris. He was on your salute to Buddy Montgomery. He's also on this new record as well. How did the two of you meet?

I met Phillip when we did Jazz at Lincoln Center’s first camp together. I would've just been going into school and he was a year behind me in school. I noticed him because it was very obvious that he would play. He has just a natural knack for the music and for the bass. I was like, “Okay, I definitely want to play with somebody of that caliber.”

The tune where he actually starts out on the bass and does a pretty extended introduction, “For Phineas,” he does a three-and-a-half minute introduction and it's wonderful. There's a churchiness and a spiritualness that's in this new recording, The Power of the Spirit. When I hear the bass or when I hear your piano playing, it's almost like it's a tambourine with keys.  The way it flies along.

I didn't think about it like that, but I would hope so. I was talking to some students the other day and I just said, “I would hope that I wouldn't always play for jazz musicians.” You play for people and they don't know what chords you're playing and all those things. They just know what it makes them feel like. Someone comes up to me at the end and says, “You know what? The way you play the piano, you sounded like I was in church and it was sounded like a tambourine.” I'm like, ”Great, that's the best compliment I could ever receive.”

When Wynton Marsalis came out with his suite called, “In this House on this Morning” I went to see him perform it live at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.  I ran into him a few weeks later. I said, “Man, I really enjoyed that performance.”  His response to me was, “Yeah, we had a good night, but that was a church full of jazz people.” He said, “We took it on the road and you should have heard it and seen it when it was a church full of church people.”  That piece, “For Phineas” kind of reminded me of that piece that's in that suite of Wynton's, “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” It’s got that feel to make you give up all your money by the end of that tune. If he was to pass the plate, you'd be out of business.

I can't take all the credit for that tune because most of it is something I took from what Phineas played and a shout chorus that he plays on his recording of “Oleo.” I took the shout chorus and it became most of the melody.

So you were inspired directly by Phineas Newborn. Who's Betsy?

Betsy was a car. Betsy was my mom's black Volvo that is now gone. The importance of Betsy is that it got me to fencing practices, to school, to music lessons, performances, all these different places. Because of both my parents and Betsy it enabled me to experience so many things. My childhood is tied to that car. Probably not the answer you thought.

That was great. Betsy's a car and a gorgeous ballad. It's just beautiful.  So much can be said with just single notes and you certainly showed it on that one. Then Julian comes in there and plays some of the most gorgeous tenor work I think I've heard in a long time.

Yeah, he’s special, for sure.

Isaiah J. Thompson
Lawrence Sumulong
Isaiah J. Thompson

What can people expect when they show up at Dizzy's on the 16th and 17th? I know you're going to be doing some music from this recording, but you probably have some other stuff in store as well.

That's a good question. I think you can expect some things from Spirit and some things that are new. Some of these pieces, I've worked on for a long time. It's kind of like a diary of what I've been doing for the past few years. Some of them I don't even play anymore. Some of them reflect what I sound like now, and some of them are what I sound like back then. Some things you'll hear from the recording, some things you'll hear what I'm doing now. I think it'll be a nice mixture of things and hopefully you'll see some growth. You'll see the past, present, and future all represented.

Past, present and future self, outside of self and how you deal with some of those things is the subject that is addressed in the title track, “The Power of the Spirit,” in that first part.  Adversity that comes when you play those 20 Questions with yourself, and you try to come up with the answers to stuff.

The power of the spirit. I think it was something that I was going through at the time and just going through the different realities of what struggle can look like. The first is dealing with yourself. The internal struggle, sometimes the mind that plays tricks on itself. Deception, we see it sometimes going on into the world, battling with external forces with other people, with other things. Realizing that you're in control of your reaction more so than you are of that actual thing that happened. Then how you overcome that through the power of the spirit, and what you learn from that. Finally, it’s the new kind of terrain or the situation you find yourself in once you have attained that awareness after having dealt with those things.

Struggle is part of the creative process.  Your good friend Christian Sands calls it “facing dragons.”  But you've obviously faced yours in a really fine way.  I also want to acknowledge that next month you’re in Indianapolis, Indiana.  As J.J. Johnson would say “Why Indianapolis? Why not Indianapolis?”  It is where the 2023 American Pianists Awards finals are being held and you are one of the five finalists.

I was talking to somebody the other day and I said, “I think Isaiah's got the edge.” And he said, “Why is that?” I said, “He did a whole recording of the music of Buddy Montgomery. That's got to count for something.”  Buddy Montgomery and his brother Wes from Indianapolis, Indiana. Let me ask you, how did you come to embrace the music of Buddy Montgomery?

I can't lie and say that I was the one that was fully in front of the project. I knew Willie Jones III loved the music. Don Sickler loved his music. They're like, “We should do this.” People ask me, “Oh, did you purposefully make this your debut recording?” It wasn't on purpose. That's just what ended up happening. They were like, “Do you want to make this recording?” I said, “Yeah, I love his music.” I think more people need to know about him because I didn't know anything. It just happened to be my first recording. That’s just kind of how it happened that way.

You know, I never got to see Buddy Montgomery live, but Rufus Reid told me a story. He was part of a recording for Bobby Hutcherson in the early 1980s, called Cruisin’ with the Bird.   And at 11 o'clock the night before the studio date out on the West Coast, the pianist called and said, “I'm sorry man, I can't make the date.” And they said, “What?”  They're scrambling around trying to find somebody.  It's the 11th hour plus.  They got in touch with Buddy Montgomery and he says, “Well, yeah, okay.” And Bobby says, “Well come by the studio tomorrow.”  Rufus said, “Buddy Montgomery walked in, took one look at the music and he sat down at the piano and it was flawless all the way through. It was kind of like he had been there before.”

What a genius from the things that I've heard about him. What a genius.

This top prize as I understand it for the American Pianists Awards is almost $200,000.  Let me ask you something. Should you win the $200,000, besides taking me to dinner a couple times, what would you do with that kind of money from a creative standpoint?

I think the first thing that I would do is I would pray about it. I would think about it and I'd pray about it. Anytime you receive a grand sum of anything, whether it be money or any sort of gift, think about “What can I do with this? How can I help other people? How can I help people that brought me up?” I can't actually give you a straight answer to tell you exactly what I would do with something like that.

Or even winning, what that means, you know? I tell people all the time, I support anything that supports the music. It's not about competitions for me. When I think about what it means to win, I would be very appreciative. But does that mean I'm the best jazz pianist? No. It may mean that in that moment, maybe I would be, or whoever wins. We're all receiving a prize already. I'm already in that process of thinking about what I can do to better where I come from, the people I'm surrounded, by and also what I can do creatively with this. That’s the best straight answer I can give you, but I can give you that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.