Hot Jazz series brings US keyboardist Isaiah J. Thompson to Israel

Many foreign artists have performed in Israel with the Hot Jazz series

 ISAIAH J. THOMPSON: The black church is such an important part of the music. (photo credit: LAWERENCE SUMULONG/JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER)
ISAIAH J. THOMPSON: The black church is such an important part of the music.
(photo credit: LAWERENCE SUMULONG/JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER)

The Hot Jazz series has been running here, at various venues around the country, for many a year now. The foreign artists who have performed under its aegis include definitively entertaining acts and several from towards the upper regions of the artistic class register.

Isaiah J. Thompson certainly pertains to the latter category. At the age of just 24, the American pianist already displays rare talent, and an ability to deliver the so elusive X factor across a wide range of jazz styles.

Tenderness of years notwithstanding, Thompson’s keyboard work imparts a sense of a mature mind and soul, and a wisdom far beyond his relatively short time on terra firma to date.

Thompson will fly over here, in the company of trio members bassist Felix Moselholm and drummer Charles Goold, for six dates between March 7-12, starting at Zappa Jerusalem, through the club’s Herzliya branch, Hechal Hatarbut in Kfar Saba, and with a couple of gigs at the Tel Aviv Museum, before signing off at Abba Hushi House in Haifa.

When Thompson hits the keys rich, gospel-inflected and bluesy textures ooze out of his fingers. And the influence of Thelonious Monk is a crystal clear element in his artistic makeup. The young pianist is clearly in awe of his illustrious predecessor, who died in 1982, and carved out his singular path through the intricacies of modern jazz like no one else. 

Versatile violinist Katica Illenyi will perform six concerts in the Hot Jazz series. (credit: IKP)Versatile violinist Katica Illenyi will perform six concerts in the Hot Jazz series. (credit: IKP)

“Monk is… what isn’t he? He’s everything,” he adds with a chuckle. “He was someone who really took the history [of jazz] and played it in a modern context. Check out the way he played stride piano. It was very much in a modern context. And there’s his composition and he lived his artistry. That’s what I love about him so much.”

One thing is clear in any art form, if you don’t know where you are coming from you ain’t gonna make much headway. In jazz, that idiom translates into having an immersive knowledge of your forebears and how your discipline got to where it is today.

Thompson certainly got a good start there, even though he initially kicked against his religious and associated musical upbringing. “I grew up in church but I didn’t really play [music] in church,” he explains. Nonetheless, that put the youngster firmly in downtown gospel land. “I spent a lot of my childhood in church but when I got older I wasn’t involved in the church.” He gradually found his way back to the fold. “I just recently became more involved again. Actually, I was baptized a few weeks ago,” he chuckles.

Lengthy hiatus notwithstanding, Thompson’s musical DNA was set. “I think that played a big part, hearing that music from a young age, having an understanding, a Black understanding, Black certification and the Black church is such an important part of the music.”

That comes through in his work. You can tell by his touch on the piano keys that the music is integral to his being and the sounds he produces are inherent to who he is.

THAT GENETIC foundation has been augmented and enhanced by a number of important junctures along Thompson’s musical timeline, including gaining a master’s degree from the prestigious Juilliard School of the arts in New York.

And if he was looking for a mentor, to move him smoothly along his educational continuum, he could have done a lot worse than to hook up with feted trumpeter, composer, educator, and director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York, Wynton Marsalis. “I think I met Wynton when I was around 16,” says Thompson. “I have been lucky that he’s been around. He’s just been so inspiring and so helpful to me. He’s the busiest man I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” the pianist laughs. “But he always makes time for people, so many people. I really appreciate him.”

Marsalis is also a prime example of a jazz musician who knows the history of the art form, right back to its very inception. Those roots feel like they duly come across in Thompson’s musicianship. “Wynton is one of my favorite musicians of all time. I think one of the biggest reasons for that is not how rooted he is but how modern he is.” The same could be said for Thompson.

Jazz grew out of the blues, and the base discipline is palpable in Thompson’s work. For him that’s a given and indispensable to the core of his craft. “The blues is an essential part of the music,” he states, adding that there appear to be some political or sociopolitical spanners in the jazz works. “A lot of times I’ve found that it is not being prioritized, at least in the current climate of jazz. I think there is a racial connotation to why that is being taken out of the music. I just think it is so important. I don’t think you can have jazz without blues.” Thompson is determined to keep the bluesy fires well and truly stoked. “I do my best to play that as honestly as possible.”

Sincerity is, of course, a key factor in any artistic venture, regardless of your cultural baggage or creative intent. “I think anyone can play the [jazz] music. I think that if someone has a resistance to playing the blues, when they’re playing jazz, I think there might be a racial connotation, even if it’s not on purpose.”

Naturally, if someone wants to make political capital out of a situation, in music or any walk of life, they are going to channel “the truth” to further their own objectives. Sadly, jazz seems to also get caught up in the politicizing mire. “Most Americans don’t even understand that jazz is their own music, and I think that’s been kept from them for a reason. I don’t blame the people, I blame the culture.”

The Hot Jazz patrons can rest assured that Thompson isn’t going to keep much from us next week with his trio.

He fully expects to come away from his first foray to this part of the world with plenty of musical, cultural and emotional baggage to fuel his future endeavors. “I am very excited to be coming to Israel. The history there is so profound. I feel I will be a changed person after my experience in Israel.”

It should be interesting to see what sort of imprint that leaves on Thompson’s personal and creative evolution down the line.

For tickets and more information, contact: (03) 573-3001 and http://eng.hotjazz.co.il.