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A Tribute To Don Thompson

The Art of Jazz - Spring Festival

A Tribute To Don Thompson May 19, 2006 - 9:30 PM The Distillery Historic District - Toronto On., Canada

By: Paul J. Youngman, Jazz Advocate

What better way to kick off the inaugural Art of Jazz Toronto Spring Jazz Festival than with a tribute to an icon of the Canadian jazz scene. Don Thompson, award winning multi instrumentalist, (piano, bass, vibraphone and percussion) composer and educator, was born in Powell River, British Columbia, Canada on January 18th, 1940.

How do you put together a tribute band? You take close friends, associates who have worked with one another over the course of your career and your peers, who admire what you have done for the state of jazz. A very brief biography of Don Thompson follows and offers an insight as to the musicians whom form the band for this evening’s tribute performance.

Don Thompson moved to the city of Vancouver in 1960 and began working as a freelance musician. During this period of time, Thompson would develop his talents on bass, vibes and piano, playing at local clubs like the Cellar and Flat Five. In 1965 at the Flat Five, he was a sideman for John Handy, one of the many international jazz artists that he worked with during this time. Handy invited Thompson and Canadian drummer Terry Clarke to join him in San Francisco for some work.

In 1965, he and Clarke joined the now legendary John Handy Quintet recording two albums for the Columbia label. One of these, John Handy Live At The Monterey Jazz Festival, became one of the most popular jazz albums of the time.

Thompson returned to Toronto in 1967 and shortly thereafter became a regular performer at two of the popular jazz clubs of the time, George’s and Bourbon Street. He worked and recorded with a vast array of top jazz artist’s from Jim Hall, Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, James Moody, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, to name just but a few of the top jazz artists on the scene, this would continue right up until 1974.

He became a member of guitarist Jim Hall's trio in 1974 traveling to Europe and Japan as well as touring the United States and Canada. A must have recording of this period is Jim Hall Live, recorded in Toronto at the jazz club George’s Spaghetti House in 1975, featuring Jim Hall guitar, Don Thompson bass and Terry Clarke drums.

In 1982, Thompson joined pianist George Shearing and stayed for a five-year period. During this time, he would travel throughout Europe and the United States performing at every major jazz venue.

In the 90s, he was invited to teach at the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts, Banff, Alberta. As Don tells it, he had heard of and shared festivals with Dave Holland but had never had the opportunity to work with Holland. The organizers asked the faculty to put on a show for the attendees, only Dave Holland and Don Thompson were available this particular evening, they performed a duet concert and a bond of mutual respect and admiration was created.

Katie Malloch host of CBC Radio’s Jazz Beat program opened the show with a warm welcome to the audience and also a thankful one, as the house was packed. Malloch quoted an old cliché, those who can, do and those who can’t teach, but when it comes to jazz throw that in the garbage, the best jazz teachers are the ones who have done it all and Don Thompson is at the top of the list.

Malloch introduced the band while the audience stood and applauded, John Handy, alto saxophone, Terry Clarke, drums, Dave Holland, bass, Jim Hall, guitar, Phil Dwyer, tenor saxophone and piano, and the man of the night. Don Thompson, vibraphone, bass and piano.

Thompson started the concert playing on vibes with relaxed mastery, as the concert progressed, he would delight the audience with his skillful bass playing and his exceptional piano playing. Thompson would play the perfect host of his tribute concert; he invited the audience into his life, sharing intimate moments of a career that has spanned four decades.

The first song, Bird Bath, composed by Don Thompson featured John Handy, a beautiful song dedicated to Bird and played with an incredible sensitivity by all members of the band. John Handy has some of the sweetest phrases that you will ever hear; he was right on the money at this evening’s performance.

Phil Dwyer is an award-winning composer, saxophonist, pianist and educator. He has recorded on over fifty CD’s with numerous Canadian and International artists. Dwyer played piano for the first song and would later play tenor saxophone for the remainder of the concert. Phil Dwyer is a long time associate of Thompson’s having recorded and played with him on numerous occasions. Dwyer played tenor sax with incredible intensity on Sonny Rollins’ Without a Song from the classic album The Bridge (Bluebird 1962). As a huge Rollins fan I thought he nailed the solo, judging by the applause the rest of the audience agreed.

There were many high lights to the concert, the third song featured Dave Holland solo, I have heard Holland play solo on numerous occasions, I have never heard a more touching, sentimental and heartfelt performance than the performance he gave in dedication to his friend Don Thompson at this evenings performance. The song named Pass It On and dedicated to Thompson in Honor of his love and dedication to wards music education and appreciation was simply inspirational.

Can you imagine Jim Hall and Dave Holland playing a duet? The next song was just that, a classic jazz standard (Skylark) interpreted by these two masters’ whom had always wanted to play together. The set up for the concert seating was interesting as two rows of seats were at the rear of the stage. The rest of the band members who were not playing were sitting on stage, enjoying the duet as much as the rest of the audience. The interaction between Jim Hall and Dave Holland was incredibly fluid, with each player complimenting the other through statements of tonal elegance. These are two of the most sensitive players on the planet and I cannot believe they came together in Toronto, how fortunate we are.

The opening of the second set had Jim Hall reunited with his trio of the 70’s, I was transported back in time to a memorable occasion at George’s jazz club where I first saw Jim Hall, Don Thompson and Terry Clarke. The playing at this evening’s performance had a different feel to it, motivated by the much more confident and louder drumming of jazz master Terry Clarke.

Since that appearance at Georges’, Terry Clarke has recorded on over 300 CD’s for practically every major jazz artist. Clarke is also a well-respected educator, he is also an award-winning drummer, winning the title of Best Drummer at the National Jazz Awards since it’s inception in 2002. Terry Clarke has an individual style that is dynamic, sensitive and driving. Since the very first time I witnessed his playing I made note of the awesome left hand independence that he displays. A strong driving swinging right hand on the ride cymbal and a left hand that is performing rudiments, five stroke rolls, flams and filling in with double paradiddles. Terry Clarke a master who has taken from the best in tradition and made it his own. One of Canada’s National Living Treasures.

The performance ended all too soon, Don Thompson was joined on stage by his band mates, for one final song. They played wonderfully and each musician performed a solo to the delight of the audience. The concert was incredible and fortunately was recorded by CBC radio for future broadcast. I will update this article as to the date when the shows broadcast becomes known. This is an event that must not be missed.

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Don Thompson
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