4 1/2 STARS
Jay Thomas has lived the jazz life. He has endured, overcome, and continued to artistically thrive through all the ruminations of a path chosen by few. While much of his life may form a parallel story to those of many, Thomas' version, his personal adjunct to its litany, is a story of artistic triumph that opened doors seldom walked through. It is a musical legacy in Seattle, unmatched in the colorful history of jazz in his hometown, documented by a number of recordings on several small labels. He as well is among the few musicians in jazz to be featured on both trumpet and saxophone, and in his case, play them both with virtuosity. His skills are as well applied fondly to the flute, and clarinet.
In recent times, he has spent much time in Japan, releasing recordings for the Japanese C.U.G. label, including Lowdown Hoedown (CUG, 2017) with baritone saxophone great, Gary Smulyan. Still there was a large portion of the jazz universe yet to be introduced to the this northwest legend.
Thomas decided to release a recording on the Seattle based Origin label, whose well regarded distribution model would assure a worldwide listenership, and gift to the jazz world a long overdue re-introduction to a remarkable musician. He at last decided on a format, a ballads based album with arrangements by German composer/arranger Oliver Groenewald . Thomas had forged a friendship with Groenewald after the composer moved to Orcas Island in Washington State. His lush, colorful arrangements of classic ballads would seem to be the perfect harmonic canvas for Thomas to be featured on five instruments. The band would be recorded in open space, without isolation or overdubs.
"It's the slower tracks where the sound and inflections become 'the thing,' says Thomas. Indeed, they are challenging and deep. Those with lyrics express a mood, whether they are expressed by voice or instrument.
The first three tracks directly introduce us to the talents of Thomas, being featured on trumpet, tenor and soprano saxophones. The opening salvo is a deeply emotive take on Lee Morgan's "Yama." Thomas' original, lyrical sound is front and center on any instrument, but trumpet was where the journey began for him, and there seems to be a fluid stream of consciousness to his solos on that instrument. Pianist John Hansen's work is as well strong, and free flowing.
Dexter Gordon's "Ernie's Tune" features a very eloquent Thomas on tenor saxophone, with a tone that is large and spacious. He tends to lag just a bit behind the beat much like Gordon himself, defining points with vibrato beautifully articulated.
The title track is penned by Groenewald, and features Thomas on soprano saxophone interspersing melodic interludes between a multi-layered harmonic structure, centered on the rhythm section of pianist Hansen, bassist Michael Glynn, and drummer Adam Kessler. Thomas expresses a mood of romanticism and melancholy, with ardent tonality and graceful cadence.
Thomas' alto work on the Billy Strayhorn piece, "Ballad For The Very Tired And Very Sad Lotus Eaters," and the beautiful Tadd Dameron classic, "Soultrane" speaks volumes about the blue soul of his playing style, and the original voice that has grown out of it. One gets the sense that he would be as comfortable in the 1920's as he would roaming the clubs of 52nd St. in the mid 1940's. His sound, his entire jazz persona would jive perfectly with the hard bop movement of the 1950's, as it has in a post bop modern sense throughout his half century in the music.
I Always Knew is a testament, a thesis, a telling tale of a jazz life and the enormous accomplishments it has entailed. It is a sounding board of a career now in its sixth decade, encapsulated in one beautiful rush of colorful arrangements embellished by the eloquence and grace of Thomas' playing. It is a nuanced and virtuostic way of saying, "Here I am, and isn't it about time?"