As the 1908s rolled into the 1990s, Jazz receded like a dying last wave, ebbing into the distance to seemingly meet the dying of the light near the horizon. Don Thompson remained steadfast in his fidelity to the music. Back in Toronto once again, He had begun a long residency with Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass, in 1969 and that stretched well into the 1990s. With McConnell, Thompson made a clutch of memorable recordings of which Brass is Sassy remains one of the most memorable. When he first joined the band, Thompson was hired as a percussionist, then played bass (1971) and between 1987 and 1993, he switched to piano and contributes mightily to the lush sound of the Boss Brass, his rhapsodic style seemed to fit like a glove into the plush arrangements that the band became well-known for. The year 1996 was a particularly capital year for Don Thompson. He was invited to be artist in residence at the Royal Academy of Music, London, England, and performed in a concert of all-Canadian music with fellow Canadians Kenny Wheeler and Hugh Fraser. The concert was hugely successful and capped a long and haunting musical relationship with another stellar Canadian musician: Kenny Wheeler. Thompson remembered his great friend with another piece of utterly beautiful music entitled ‘For Kenny Wheeler,’ which he turned into a monumental piece with a large strings ensemble. It is works such as these that continued to preoccupy Don Thompson and at the turn of the century in between recording and performing with musicians such as Pat La Barbera, and with his own music collective Jazz Musicians on the Go (JMOG) he was composing a lot more music for a devastating array of situations from Jazz to Classical. The self-taught boy genius from Powell River, British Colombia, had, indeed come a long way.
Almost fifty-six years have passed since Don Thompson left British Colombia to pursue his vocation in Toronto and effectively, in the rest of the world of Jazz as well. I have travelled the world, listening to and writing about Jazz and Classical music at some of the greatest venues in music. But I felt like a novice, amateur that I am when it comes to giants such as Thompson. We talked about this when we meet recently in Thompson’s basement in April of 2016. He told me that looking back on his early life in Powell River he wished that his teacher had taught him to read music. I was taken aback by this assessment of his early learning experience although I knew that this had given me an advantage over many colleagues writing about music over the years. It began to dawn on me that this fact must have made him a better teacher because of that. Looking wistfully as the sheet music in front of him – a large piece that he was composing for the magnificent cellist and friend Coenraad Bloemendal – he also lamented the fact that few of his students were like guitarist Reg Schwager, a duo partner over many recordings, or like the saxophonist and startlingly brilliant pianist Phil Dwyer, or like Diana Panton, one of Canada’s great young singers. No one wants to learn music anymore, he laments. Few of his students can transcribe music, or are bothered to acquire a repertoire of standards and or, worse, still, knowledge of the history of music – not just Jazz – but music in the widest possible sense of the art. Still Thompson gives his time to students at Humber College in Toronto and has been on the Faculty at Alberta’s Banff Centre where he discovered two of his most beloved musical partners – Phil Dwyer and Diana Panton.
I had come to meet Don Thompson in the full knowledge that he was one of the great figures in music, not just in Canada, but in the world. But then I remembered a song I had heard him play at that memorable Art of Jazz Festival in 2008 – ‘Egberto’ and I began to have an epiphany. I asked him to play for me another of my favourite Don Thompson pieces ‘For Kenny Wheeler’. I was captivated, speechless once again. Instead of coming to grips with the story I knew I wanted to write, I felt myself losing control of my emotions as if I were listening to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion . Thompson is playing music that he wrote for Duos for Cello and Bass a recording by the magnificent classical bassist Joel Quarrington and Bloemendal. The piece is a monumental suite entitled ‘In Memory of Glenn,’ written to honour the memory of Glenn Gould, whom Thompson had also worked with in broadcasts with Gould for CBC. The ambitious piece is one of the finest musical works I have heard from even someone with as prodigious a talent as Thompson. I don’t think I have heard it essayed with a greater combination of stylish teamwork, sinewy thrust and inevitability (the cadenzas, by the way, are riveting). I was left with the feeling of having just listened to something that has a shimmering, mystical quality and ambient glow, that was unutterably captivating. After a sultry and intoxicatingly poised opening movement, the central scherzo fairly crackles with wit and ear-pricking detail (how good it is, for instance, to have those harmonic overtones register so subtly in the soloists’ brief con legno passages just before the end.
Thompson continues to compose classical music. His most recent one is the piece for two cellos and piano, which will be premiered at Bloemendal’s birthday in May. Looking at the score for the cellos, I was wonderstruck by its beautiful complexity and could almost hear Bloemendal’s cello in my head. This piece and the one Thompson had composed for Quarrington and Bloemendal opened up a new dialogue with Don Thompson and me. I ask him about music for voices – more specifically for Norma Winstone, the great British avant-garde musician and singer who made a number of records with Kenny Wheeler for ECM. Thompson turned around to his computer again and played me a selection of music from tapes he’d made (and copied onto his desktop). They are stunning, to say the least. Winstone soars over our silence, her soprano flawlessly bright and clear, both accurate and expressive. The recordings have never been released. Geography prevents Winstone and Thompson getting together to make the home-stretch, taking the music to record. The same fate has befallen music that Don Thompson has written and arranged for another great artist, the soprano Désirée Till, the Dutch-born, Montreal-based diva. Performances by Till together with Thompson and Bloemendal exist and every one of them is magical an uplifting. Again, geography prevents release, only this time the story has an infuriatingly tragic twist: in order to obtain funding to produce the recording either Till must be a resident of Ontario, Canada, or Thompson must be a resident of Quebec, Canada. Living in different provinces disqualifies either from getting funding for the arts to take the tapes to disc.