“I remember the first time I bought an Anthony Braxton record…It had the most bizarre cover I had ever seen – a black guy in a pullover with a pipe hanging out of his mouth. I just thought this could either be the worst record I ever heard or the best record I’m gonna hear.” – Pat Thomas
Photo courtesy of http://www.siobhanbradshaw.co.uk/
Since I last sat down with Mr Pat Thomas on behalf of ukvibe.org in 2014 a lot has happened on a global scale and health-wise to both of us. But with myself being taken off the scene for most of 2015 (now fully recovered) and more recently Pat himself suffering a seemingly career stunting stroke in 2020. But the power of positive thinking, a strong resolve and obviously good genes has seen a near one hundred percent recovery in Mr Thomas’ health. This being said the volume of work Pat Thomas has been pumping out during the lockdown period and beyond has been astonishing. And with two live performances upcoming at the renowned Moers Festival in Germany, Michael J Edwards had to return to get the lowdown on the seasoned piano and electronics guru’s present and future plans as well as getting to grips with the medium of Zoom during these extraordinary times.
Michael J Edwards: How has your outlook on life and subsequently your music changed since your stroke; if at all?
Pat Thomas: I’m still quite optimistic for the future of my music; for instance on May 22nd and 24th I will do my first gigs of the year at the Moers Festival in Germany. They’ve been going for 50 years as a festival. I’m performing with the group Ahmed on the 22nd and I’m going to perform a classical piece with a group called Meeting Point on the 24th. After such a long break I would have preferred something a little easier; you know what I mean, a bit of a lighter gig (laughs).
Yesterday, I did my first bit of teaching, which was really nice. I did a workshop for Max Reinhardt in Sidcup, Kent… I did it via ZOOM. Musically, slowly things have been improving.
Michael J Edwards: in your view, what has been the effect of lockdown on the music industry, your peers and of course yourself?
Pat Thomas: It’s been difficult for a lot of people, especially performers… As a performer your lifeblood is the audience; you’re used to playing in front of people. Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of things whereby people have been making videos and live streaming. I myself have not really been involved so much in these ZOOM events and stuff. As I mentioned earlier, I’m playing at a festival but it’s going to be very strange because we’re not too sure if there’s going to be a live audience. So everything will be streamed, so it will all be on TV live-streamed.
Michael J Edwards: So will there be anybody in the audience?
Pat Thomas: We don’t know yet, because who knows what’s going to happen. But the festival is all set up so if they can’t have a live public audience there it will be live-streamed. So that will be interesting and obviously, it’s going to be different. They’ll have all the protocols in place, such as social distancing and what not. In a way, it’s like musicians are playing sessions as opposed to live gigs…There’s a difference between playing in front of an audience with that live responsive feedback and performing only via live stream.
Michael J Edwards: You mean the immediacy?
Pat Thomas: Yes, hopefully, it will all go well in Germany and who knows, things can change dramatically, but at the moment it looks like it will go ahead and even if there isn’t an audience they’ll be live streaming. There are lots of great people performing; David Murray is performing, Han Bennink and there are lots of orchestral things. I haven’t done any gigs in a while and it will be my first time out of the country for a while.
Michael J Edwards: Are you apprehensive?
Pat Thomas: I am a bit. Obviously, you need to check these watch lists to check what you need to do before you fly out… Also, you need to keep checking the government’s websites. I’ve got to have a negative Covid test two days before I fly; then as long as I get that I don’t need to worry about quarantine… So there’s a whole host of things you’ve got to think about, you didn’t need to think about before you travel to the gig… So it’s very different, then when you get there you don’t even know if you’re going to be playing to an audience.
Michael J Edwards: How has it been regarding practising piano and getting your chops back in working order, as it were?
Photo courtesy of http://www.siobhanbradshaw.co.uk/
Pat Thomas: I’ve been doing a bit, but it’s very different, very different. My chops will be okay, but to be honest with you, you never know until you actually perform. I know I’m going to be able to play the music and stuff, but how well – you just don’t know until you actually get a chance to play out there. The only way you can know for certain is by playing. Given the circumstances, it would have been great to have some sort of warm-up gig before I did the bigger gigs. So just playing at home in a solitary basis is very different. Audiences are why you like to perform because they inspire you. You can only do the best you can, but the vibe will be different from there being an audience and not having an audience.
I heard somebody talking about how they were working out for the Olympics. They can do all they can, but obviously, for athletes, the audience or the crowd make a big difference – it gives you that extra lift, doesn’t it… That’s the difference between getting across the line energised or just making it. One of the beautiful things about this music, especially with the innovation within jazz and that; you can practice all day and you still don’t know exactly how the performance is going to be until you actually do it.
Michael J Edwards: Aside from you on piano who are the other members of this particular band, ‘Ahmed’ that you will be playing with?
Pat Thomas: Well, the group Ahmed for the uninformed acquired their name from the renowned American jazz double-bassist, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and the band consists of Seymour Wright on Alto saxophone, and then there’s Joel Grip on double bass and Antonin Gerbal on drums. So it’s like a European international band. And then the classically themed gig with Meeting Point Ensemble on the 24th May, I will be on solo piano alongside Joe McPhee who’ll be playing saxophone and others. We’ll be playing a piece by a young composer. So that’s two separate gigs there and there’s a lot to get done. I’ll be performing on the 22nd May with Ahmed and rehearsing the piece for the ensemble up until the 24th when we perform.
Michael J Edwards: How long have you been a part of that Ahmed set-up?
Pat Thomas: Crikey! Well, Ahmed we’ve been going for about five years now. This will be our third album, which is coming out and Astral Spirits called ‘Nights on Saturn’. Funnily enough, I’ve known Seymour (Wright) since he was about 17/18 years old because his dad was a jazz promoter in Derby. His name was Jeff Wright, a lovely guy. People who were visiting Derby were allowed to stay over in Seymour’s room if he was away… And I’ve known Joel (Grip) and Antonin (Gerbal) for a while as we used to play in a trio for maybe five or six years. That’s a group that’s ongoing, so we know each other well. Obviously, it’s going to be different because people won’t be able to hang out in the same way.
The other project (Meeting Point), I know Joe McPhee is a great saxophone player and one of our heroes. We are the soloists for a young composer called Julius Von Lorentz, you may have heard of him, he’s a wonder kid aged around 18 or 19; he’s a young classical composer. He’s written this piece and he wants me and Joe as soloists – improvising soloists to be exact. So it’s like a classical ensemble with me and Joe as improvising soloists. So I’m looking forward to that as it’s quite a fresh and progressive project for the festival.
Michael J Edwards: Well it’s great that this festival is going ahead.
Pat Thomas: I think because of the sheer size of this festival and being its 50th anniversary they’re able to do things that most festivals couldn’t do; because a lot of other festivals have cancelled. And like a lot of musicians in theory I’ve got a lot of things happening next year. But like a lot of musicians last year they had a lot of things happening this year that never came to fruition (laughs wryly). I’ve noticed that the venues like Ronnie Scott’s have been doing things and trying to get people to donate.
Michael J Edwards: Will your gigs in Germany be recorded for later viewing, or only live, as it happens?
Pat Thomas: Obviously people in Germany will be seeing it live-streamed and maybe it will be streamed later on the net. I’m not quite sure how they do it. But it will be on TV in Germany. As we were discussing the vibe can be so different as there may not be a live audience. I don’t know if we’ll be whisked into the venue to do our thing and then whisked back to our hotel after the event. You know what the vibe’s like usually at festivals with people hanging out all night and checking out things, I don’t think it’s going to be like that. It’s going to be very different. I’m really looking forward to performing, I’m really looking forward to playing but at the same time you’re aware it’s very different. I recently did my first workshop using the Zoom Meeting App. It’s so much different to the way one is accustomed to doing things, but it worked really well and I enjoyed it and the class went very well. But it still very different to how you do things if you’re actually there in person.
Photo courtesy of http://www.siobhanbradshaw.co.uk/
Michael J Edwards: So let’s broach the subject then, what would you say are the pros and cons of using such platforms?
Pat Thomas: It all depends – say for instance somebody says they decided to play the piano as a beginner, I don’t think it’s a good time for them. So someone is a complete beginner, I personally don’t think it works… Because things like that you need to be sitting next to the person in order to correct what they’re doing… I think if you’re an advanced student then it could work. For instance, these were all M. A. Students that I did the workshop with so they were all pretty experienced students. However, if you’re dealing with absolute beginners and depending on what the instrument is and what the course is I don’t think it’s that effective. Especially with musical instruments, you need to be able to sit down with your teacher and watch what they’re doing and they’re looking at you trying to correct you and get you into a groove. Sometimes just getting to sit down properly at the piano – posture and things like that. You can’t really do that on Zoom. I think this technology works better with advanced students; it’s problematic if it’s an absolute beginner. If someone said to me they would like to start to play the piano, I would say wait until when the teacher and the pupil can be in the same room together. I wouldn’t say to somebody. “Oh yeah, just go on Zoom!” I personally wouldn’t tell them that.
Michael J Edwards: And that applies to all instruments, not just the piano?
Pat Thomas: I can’t say for all instruments, it depends, but I know for the piano. I personally wouldn’t recommend anybody try to learn the piano from scratch via Zoom. It’s not my thing, from my experience, and how I was taught as a beginner, which is really old school. No one does that anymore, but you need to be sat down with the person and see how their hand positioning is. You can’t really see that on Zoom; you need a couple of camera angles at least just to get that. I understand that the guitar could be more flexible, but with the piano, I don’t think that works.
Michael J Edwards: What albums or projects are forthcoming?
Pat Thomas: The Ahmed record is on Astral Spirits and that has just come out – that’s called Nights on Saturn. There’s another album that’s just come out; it’s a group featuring Dave Tucker (guitar), Thurston Moore (guitar), Mark Saunders (drums and percussion) and myself (piano). The record is called Educated Guess Volume 1 and that’s coming out on 577 Records which is an American Label.
Then there is a record called Black Top Presents: Hamid Drake (percussion), Elaine Mitcherner (vocals), William Parker (bass), and Black Top (Orphy Robinson – marimba & vibes; Pat Thomas – lo-fi samples & electronics) which was recorded at Cafe Oto and that record is called Some Good News. That has just come out on OTO Records, Cafe Oto’s record label.
There’s also a record that’s come out this year (2021) on a label called Discus Music. It took a while to come out because it took 14 years for this record to be agreed by a group called The Locals and it just came out this year. It’s called Pat Thomas/The Locals Play the Music of Anthony Braxton
Michael J Edwards: So that was recorded way back in 2006. Why such a delay on the release?
Pat Thomas: It just happens! Sometimes even a quick turnaround can be a year and a half or a couple of years. For some reason, it took a long while for them to get the label sorted. Fortunately, in some ways, I’m grateful to the lockdown and Martin Archer, who runs the label. He was asking me if I’d got anything in the archives that I would really have loved to have come out that hasn’t come out yet. And I just happened to be listening to that at the time and I said to him, “Well this is something I would have loved to come out; it’s quite old now.” He listened to it and put it out relatively quick. It’s funny, it came out within a year of Martin (Archer) getting it and it’s done quite well. Yeah! It took 14 years before somebody put it out! (Chuckles)
It happens; I had one record, which was one of my first groups from 1989 and it took about 25 years for that record to be released. And then, with Educated Guess Vol 1 that actually was the last gig I did before lockdown! So that was recorded in March last year (2020) and it’s out this year (2021). Generally, a record takes about a year and a half; you go back and forth depending on how many people are in the band and to do the mixes and everything. Then there was another record that came out last year on Cafe OTO’s OKOROKU record label called The Truth with Matana Roberts, the Alto saxophone player which is a duo record. So there’s a fair few things that have been released.
Michael J Edwards: With regards to the Discus Music album release ‘…Playing the music of Anthony Braxton, just to inform our readership, why did you want to pay homage to Anthony Braxton and his music through this recording?
Pat Thomas: He is someone that is one of my musical heroes. I remember the first time I bought an Anthony Braxton record. I didn’t know much about him but I saw this record for 99p in Virgin Records. It had the most bizarre cover I had ever seen – a black guy in a pullover with a pipe hanging out of his mouth. I just thought this could either be the worst record I ever heard or the best record I’m gonna hear. Fortunately, the guy was an amazing composer. The way I put this band together, I just wanted to give it a fresh approach; because he’s still alive and he’s a great composer and had some great bands; I just wanted to give it a different perspective. The album has the great Alex Ward on clarinet, Dominick Lash on electric bass, my brother, Evan Thomas on guitar and a young drummer called Darren Hassen-Davis. It took a long time. But the reviews have been really great. It got ‘Pick of the Week’ in the Avant Music News and got a 5 Star review in the Free Jazz Blog.
In some ways it’s funny, there are so many things coming out…like I said ‘Educated Guess Vol 1’ came out pretty quickly; we did that last March (2020) and it came out in April this year (2021) and that’s pretty quick. The normal time is about a year and a half to two years – you’ve done the recording then someone is interested in it. There might have to be some track selection; what tracks to put on, what tracks to leave out, followed by mixing and such. The thing about the Educated Guess album was that it was one gig and the performance was well recorded and everybody was happy with it. Some good cover art came in. So it just happened very quickly, but that’s not always the case. So as you can appreciate 14 years for the Anthony Braxton album to be released is an unusual one. So I’m really grateful to Martin (Archer) for putting that out.
That has happened before; some records get reissued. In fact, my first solo record is going to be re-issued hopefully – it’s called ‘New Jazz Jungle: Remembering’. It was on a Hawaiian label run by Joe Gallivan, bless him. He put it out on his label called New Jazz. And that was in ’97; that was my first solo record which was about 25 years ago. (Laughs). Apparently, a young record label owner called Conal Blake heard this record; someone was playing it and he now wants to put it out on his label. His label is called Feedback Moves. So it’s a new label and he said he would like to re-release it on vinyl.
Michael J Edwards: Good things come to those who wait.
Pat Thomas: That’s the thing I never thought that anybody would want to re-release or re-issue that album 25 years later! It’s just so strange.
Michael J Edwards: It proves that the quality of the music stands the test of time.
Pat Thomas: I must confess it still sounds quite fresh.
Michael J Edwards: Are they re-mastering the album, or just putting it out, as is?
Pat Thomas: I think there might need to be a bit of re-mastering for the vinyl release. The main reason for the re-release was putting out on vinyl. It only came out on CD originally, so it will most probably be on double vinyl because the running time is about 60 minutes.
Michael J Edwards: Well, that would be a collector’s item.
Pat Thomas: So Conal Blake has got in touch with the original label, which is great. Because the cover art was a fantastic painting by Alicia Payne… Yeah, it’ll be quite weird having that on vinyl. It was my first release, and I was really glad for it to come out and then to have Joe Gallivan, who was like one of my mentors, it was really great that he came and put it out. When you’re doing the music you don’t think that this would be great to be re-released in 20 years time, you’re just thinking about getting it out. It’s nice that people have an ear for the music; he says he loves it and he would like to re-issue it. So my first record was like my take on Jungle; Avant Jungle I suppose you can call it (laughs).
Michael J Edwards: So you had discovered the electronic options within music by then hadn’t you?
Photo courtesy of http://www.siobhanbradshaw.co.uk/
Pat Thomas: Yes, it was recorded in Oxford, and I was playing with a local band called Tones of Life. Which is a classic late nineties name for a band I would have said (laughs). It was a good band, it was a good band. So in between recording their first album, I did those two electronic tracks.
Michael J Edwards: Basically, you seem to have a lot going on and are in more demand than ever, given the fact that we had been in lockdown for so long.
Pat Thomas: I’m not sure when it’s coming out. But I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by Jazz times – they did a feature on me. And then someone from All About Jazz wanted to interview me, because of the Moers Festival, because it’s such a big festival and I’m playing there with Ahmed. Well, I’ve only been around for 40 years (laughs). Like you said, it takes its time (laughs).
Michael J Edwards: What’s nice is that people are still discovering you, like that teenage composer you mentioned earlier, Julius Von Lorenz.
Pat Thomas: Honestly, this guy is definitely one to watch; he’s a wonder kid. He’s not even 20, yet, and the stuff he is writing within the contemporary classical field is amazing! I think he won some young composer of the year competition, and they all heard him and said that “We’ve got to feature him in this year’s Festival.” Apparently, he wanted to do a thing with improvisers, so I agreed to do it as well as the great American saxophone player Joe McPhee – so we’ll see what happens. I feel because he wants to do a piece featuring improvisation, he wants to write a piece for improvisers, and I think that’s great. That’s great for the future as we have a contemporary classical composer who wants to write pieces that include improvisers.
Michael J Edwards: With this in mind, do you think the next crop of upcoming musicians and composers are ready to fill the gap that will inevitably be left by the existing but not getting any younger trailblazers?
Pat Thomas: There’s a couple of young jazz musicians who won the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year for the past two years. One young man Xhosa Cole, a tenor saxophone player from Birmingham won it in 2018.
Then last year in 2020 Deschanel Gordon, a young pianist won the award. It’s good to see that there are some young players coming around. One of the things that the lockdown has shown is that interest in the minority labels and things like Bandcamp has increased. People are buying the stuff, which shows you that people are really missing live performances and that because they’re buying what they can. All these labels wouldn’t be putting stuff out if people weren’t buying it; so that’s encouraging. If you recall, in London people would take it for granted. You could go out on any random day and have a good night. Now there’s been nothing whatsoever, so people really are desperate for music; so all these labels are doing well, they’re selling their stuff via Bandcamp and related outlets. Let’s hope that the next time I see you it’s at a live concert and we can hang out properly.
Michael J Edwards: I definitely look forward to that.
New Jazz Jungle: Remembering (New Jazz 1997; re-issue Feedback Moves 2021)
Ahmed – Nights on Saturn (Astral Spirits)
Educated Guess Vol 1
Pat Thomas/The Locals Play the Music of Anthony Braxton (Discus Music)
Matana Roberts & Pat Thomas – The Truth (OTOROKU Record Label)
Essential Festival: Moers Festival, Germany – https://moers-festival.de/en/festival21/schedule