Like stones polished by the sea, some ideas take time to wash ashore. The thought of a ballads project had been riding the waves of Jay Thomas' brain for years. A melodic and introspective multi-instrumentalist, Thomas has always been drawn to the great balladeers of jazz. It wasn't until collaborating with fellow trumpeter and arranger, Oliver Groenewald, that the idea caught its break. I Always Knew is the glistening gem—a dazzling collage of sounds from 10 heavy hitters in the Seattle scene.
For the project, Thomas selected 12 works for Groenewald to arrange. Groenewald arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2013 from his native Germany and made quick work of bringing together the region's finest with his NewNet. Not quite large, not quite small, the "little big-band" is fertile ground for Groenewald to mine with his arrangements.
Fans familiar with Thomas' oeuvre will recognize the rhythm section of Michael Glynn (bass), Adam Kessler (drums), and John Hansen (piano) from his band, The Cantaloupes. Rooted in a harmony that blooms from years of collaboration, the three musicians provide a foundation for the rich textures and timbres from Thomas (trumpet, flugelhorn, alto, tenor, & soprano saxes), Groenewald (trumpet, flugelhorn), Brad Allison (lead trumpet, flugelhorn), Dan Marcus (trombone, flugabone), Travis Ranney (alto sax, flute, clarinet), Pete Gallio (tenor sax, flute), and Greg Sinibaldi (baritone sax, bass clarinet) to emerge.
The first track, "Yama," demonstrates the nimble space within Groenewald's arrangements, setting the tone for the album with a swinging intro showcasing Thomas and Hansen that crescendos into a revelrous chorus of horns. Groenewald's original piece, title track "I Always Knew," taps into the complex and sustained emotion of a ballad with an almost cinematic quality, as wide swathes of tonal color are painted together by solos. The harmonic writing of Groenewald's arrangements throughout the album gives plenty of room for the soloists to stretch, and Thomas, in particular, displays his dexterity as he plays all five of his instruments with equal measure restraint and ease. From its pensive introspection to its spurts of joy, I Always Knew is a lyrical album we'll be plumbing the depths of for a long time to come.