Michael Thomas’ “Event Horizon”


AwardEVENT HORIZON / THOMAS: Distance. Drift. Bass Intro. Dr. Teeth. Framework. Sax Intro. Chant. Underground. Drum Intro. Event Horizon. Fox and Cat / Michael Thomas, a-sax; Jason Palmer, tpt; Hans Glauwischnig, bs; Jonathan Blake, dm / Giant Step Arts GSA 005 (live: New York City, August 14-15, 2019)

Alto saxist Michael Thomas apparently won a Grammy for his first release from 2011, The Long Way. He also played on the Terraza Big Band album, but this disc, scheduled for release on May 8, is his first as a leader in nine years.

The title, Event Horizon, refers to an astrological point of no return, generally the edge of a black hole. For this project, Thomas has solicited the services of the outstanding trumpeter Jason Palmer, whose work I have raved about on this blog, as well as Miguel Zenon’s usual bassist and drummer, Hans Glauwischnig and Jonathan Blake. The 2-CD set was recorded live for an extra kick.

Despite his prior experience, this is the first time I’ve heard Thomas play. His tone and style owe something to both Paul Desmond (that “dry martini” tone) and Ornette Coleman (a more harmonically adventurous style), although I give him credit for trying to create his own persona. Unlike both Desmond and Coleman, Thomas also employs many overblown high notes, going outside the tonality as he progresses. Having Palmer in the band is a definite plus: his duets with the saxist, even the written passages (as in the opener, Distance), are interesting, and of course Palmer’s solos are a treat to hear in any circumstance. Glauwuschnig and Blake roil happily in the background, the drummer constantly breaking up the rhythm even as the bassist adheres to it.

As Thomas’ solo in Distance becomes more complex, one also hears the influences of John Coltrane and Arthur Blythe. One wonders what he might sound like playing free-form jazz with the likes of Ivo Perelman…he’s that good. Not only are his improvisations startlingly original, but they have an inner logic that captivates the listener and holds him fast. In such company, Palmer’s more tonal-based, Clifford Brown-like lines come as a stark contrast to Thomas, yet are captivating in their own way. I don’t know why, but I just can’t get enough of Palmer’s playing. He even surprised me on this track with some outside playing of his own yet, as in the case of Brownie, everything is logically structured even in the heat of invention. Best jazz trumpeter I’ve heard in more than 30 years. Only one thing surprised me, and that was the anemic sound of the audience when it was finished. How many people turned out to hear this utterly brilliant music? Twelve? Fifteen? Then just think of the thousands who turn out to hear the idiotic music of pop rock bands. Culture is definitely dying in America.

Drift begins at a nice, moderate walking tempo, but then slows down even more as Thomas plays a very Desmond-like solo with bass underpinning. Here he uses alternating eighth-note and triplet figures, staying within the confines of the harmony which in this case is fairly simple. Blake then joins them as the solo continues, becoming a bit more Coleman-like. Glauwuschnig then follows with an excellent solo of his own, after which the tempo slows down even further. Thomas plays a half-chorus, after which he and Palmer play in duet for a time, sometimes in thirds and sometimes in unison, and the tempo ebbs and flows. The crown of 15 then applaud.

Leading into Dr. Teeth is a two-minute bass intro, one of three such pieces (the other two are for alto sax and drums) on the album. The tune itself is an attractive-but-quirky line using widely-spaced intervals within an extended chord, and this time Palmer is up first, playing his usual creative yet structured type of solo, eventually expanding on it and including some widely-spaced intervals of his own. Thomas apparently heard this as a challenge, because when he enters he picks up on some of the things that Palmer had just played and expands on them in his own manner. This solo so inspires the rhythm section that they increase their intensity as Thomas does, raising the musical temperature to blistering hot. When it’s finished, the crowd seems to have swelled from 15 to 25 people for the applause.

Framework has a quirky tempo that seems to be trying to sound Latin in the opening bars but not quite making it. It’s a very irregular meter for sure, possibly 9/8 or something like that. (Pulses of this type are difficult to discern, particularly when played by a band that keeps the meter moving forward in such a way that it all blends together in the listener’s ear.) Eventually, during Thomas’ extended solo, we reach a point where the meter seems to have coalesced at 4/4, driven almost to the breaking point by the saxist and the rhythm section. When Palmer enters, he sounds as if his rockets are already at blast-off level, as he takes almost no time to start hitting heights of his own. And yet, after all this excitement, Thomas and Palmer end the piece playing a nice, polite series of figures together in thirds.

The leader then plays a nearly-four-minute a capella intro to Chant, using a number of fast triplet figures in quick succession. After a pause, the tune proper begins, with a sort of 5/4 beat divided unevenly as the two horns play the theme in unison. Thomas’ first solo repeats many of the same rapid triplet licks from the intro, eventually moving on to upper harmonics in a staccato chorus of tremendous brilliance. Palmer, again, is primed and ready when he enters, yet occasionally balances his wildest phrases with judiciously-placed notes. The rhythm section keeps spurring him on, however, with the bassist switching to double time, until his playing is almost manic. The two horns then engage in a sort of hocket-style duet, alternating the same two licks over and over as they hurtle towards the end.

The remainder of the album contains similar delights and surprises, particularly in the surprisingly lovely second theme of Underground, played in unison by the two horns, as well as Thomas’ surprisingly relaxed, almost tubular-sounding first chorus on this one. But verbal descriptions always have their limitations. Unless one is willing to start notating the actual music and solos (and I certainly don’t have the time to do so), the listening experience will be much richer than just reading what I have to say about it. Suffice it to say that Event Horizon should be a breakout album for Michael Thomas as well as adding another feather in the cap of Jason Palmer. Together, they are a duo of incredible invention, and I hope they can record together again soon.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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