Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.
19 June 2020
Micah Thomas is a young pianist from Columbus, Ohio who is now making a mark in New York, playing on some terrific records with serious players. On the recent In Common 2 by Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens, he is a powerful voice amidst a killer rhythm section with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Nate Smith, who are ten and 20 years older than he is, respectively. In his short opportunities there, Thomas is a head-turner.
Tide is his debut as a leader, recorded last year with a straight-ahead trio that plays creative music with vigor and daring. Dean Torrey is the bassist, and Kyle Benford is on drums—and I'm guessing you don't know either name. Neither do I. But they have been playing with Thomas for a few years—they launched the trio at the Jazz Gallery in New York when Thomas and Benford were still at Julliard. And the rapport across eight Thomas originals is clear. The recording was made live at New York's Kitano Hotel in front of a barely-heard crowd. This is simply a working New York jazz piano trio. But the kid at the helm may well be someone special.
It is always good news when a young improviser combines technical prowess with artistry and restraint. The sweep of Tide shows us both sides of Thomas. Moreover, he is perfectly generous in featuring his sidemen as soloists and in collective conversation throughout. Torrey plays an important role in matching Thomas melodically on most of the performances. And, while Benford gets fewer moments to assert himself, he is up to the challenge of placing this trio in the contemporary conversation about how swing rhythms and groove rhythms are becoming co-mingled in the new jazz of this century.
The complicated stuff is rarely merely complex. The opener, "Tornado", is a devilishly tricky tune with cascades of Coltrane-esque chords and flashy melody that is made most exiting by sets of written runs for Thomas' left hand and Torrey's acoustic bass. It opens as stately solo piano and reveals its ferocious attack when Benford brings the groove, firing on all cylinders. For all the tune's precision and detail, though, the trio attacks it with a sense of instinct and happy imprecision. It's not that they don't hit all the right notes but that they surround their clarity with a shaggy sense of emotion and risk. Clearly, they have been playing these tunes for a while, and they trust the guardrails enough to bump up against them. And it makes the ride more exciting.
The title track gives Thomas more of a chance to stretch out, built as it is on a mid-tempo frame that is reminiscent of some of the more quizzical Bill Evans compositions or perhaps one of those Wayne Shorter tunes that seem to circle on itself repeatedly. Torrey moves in and out of time and swing—giving way to a real bass solo that suggests that he knows both his Scott LaFaro and his Ron Carter, at one point "soloing" in Carter-ian walking quarter notes. The real juice, however, is the long Thomas solo that follows. A series of Monki-ian fragments come out of a dialogue with the bass, developing into a fluid single-note line with Hancock-style excitement, only to further move outside into gestures that allow both hands to crash and massage in a wonderful call-and-response. It is an improvisation of genuine excitement and shape, both.
The trio plays the pretty stuff very well. The mournful "The Day After" allows Thomas to share a gentle, affecting melody with Torrey's bowed bass. Thomas cedes the improvising to his rhythm section: Torrey sounding free and yearning, Benford sounding like a New Orleans parade got into him—with no return to the melody to end the performance. "Across My Path" is a beautiful ballad in a minor mode that takes its time, leaving silences between the phrases that the piano and bass play either together or in counterpoint. Thomas is given an unaccompanied outro that is delicate and whispered, seeming to run out in a slow glide of delicacy.
Also sumptuous is "Vänta"—a frothy but mournful theme for solo piano. Thomas plays ornamental runs across waves of beautiful harmonies. His touch here calls to mind the solo playing of Chick Corea, perhaps more than any other solo pianist, combining a romantic use of arpeggios and a sharp right hand that improvises melodies that ripple and cut. It is also full of space—pauses in the flow, little moments of silence that demonstrate that Thomas is a young pianist of confidence: unafraid of some exposure, some vulnerability, some quiet here and there.
While it seems unfair to reduce a young musician to his influences, Thomas checks another box with "Grounds", which sounds a good bit like Keith Jarrett in his gospel-country mode. A repeated riff keeps bringing the listener home, then spinning off into new flights of melody just on the head. Thomas' solo launches over a swinging four-to-the-floor by Torrey and Benford, but there are occasional suspensions of the flow that keep you guessing. The piano doesn't overplay on its solo, using a single-note line without almost any accompanying chords, right-hand clusters, or two-handed interplay for a long stretch. That results in terrific suspense because a player like Thomas, tasteful though he is, is not defined by his continual restraint. Soon enough, the dam breaks, but not into pure individual virtuosity but a busy conversation in which drums and piano joust, each sounding like several musicians at once.
There are two performances here that point forward more fully. "The Game" is the longest track on Tide, a shapeshifter of a composition that moves from great romanticism to mid-tempo modern jazz to a rushing uptempo section to something much more fragmented and vanguard that nevertheless lives squarely in the tradition. What marks it as "new" is not wild harmony or any other huge freedom but more a vigorous sense of play that allows the trio to flip from gaudy, raggy conversation to a slapping rock rhythm, or from a sense of flowing swing to slippery, avant-garde phrasing. In the last two minutes, Thomas leads the trio into a freely improvised section that owes some debt to Matthew Shipp.
Then "Wanderer" may be Tide's most complete and mature performance. The lush solo piano introduction brings in a mid-tempo theme that is minimal and gestural, inviting nuanced solos that shift from insistent swing to a more broken-up feel and then back again. With few histrionics, the trio holds attention for over nine minutes, building to a climax premised not on volume or frenzy but on contained swing—Thomas playing a set of block-chord syncopations as if the ghost of Wynton Kelly had occupied his arms and elbows.
There are lots of traditions coursing through the blood of this trio, and nearly all are used with care, not mere mimicry. Micah Thomas deserves mention in the same sentence with vibraphonist Joel Ross—a young player who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream" sense, which means comfort in abstraction as well as tonality, in freedom as well as technical complexity.