The Future of Jazz Piano: Micah Thomas at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Micah Thomas, the youngest of the three pianists selected by Fred Hersch for the jazz series hosted by Father Peter Kountz at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was featured on Thursday night, May 30th.
A shy young man, Thomas hardly looks at the keyboard when he plays. His lively mind comes up with so many ideas at once, he seems to be dividing his brain so that his left hand can doodle with a melody while his right begins to play series of sixths in such a complex harmonic weave that it would take a genius to untangle it.
Thomas, who has perfect pitch and seems capable of playing any number of ideas at once without losing track, does not fashion himself a genius. He recognizes that having perfect pitch helps, but concedes that it can also be an encumbrance. His ability to play by ear has been with him as long as he can remember.
But Thomas is not happy just to play piano. As a current student at Julliard, he contemplates the nature of an interval – how much tension it holds and where a specific interval can be used to the greatest effect. As he played in the church, you could feel him measuring his very subtle dynamic changes, too, as he would push the envelope on percussive effects and harmonies only to take a quick dive into deliciously soft chords, perhaps influenced by his studies of Barry Harris harmony.
For one part of the program, Thomas launched into a free improvisation but it took a while for him to settle in. Perhaps he had already completed his experimentation with his unadorned “In the still of the night” by Cole Porter, which he played in a pure and distilled version.
Thomas will soon finish his studies at Julliard, but he will always be analyzing music. His mental reach is as great as his musical aspirations. For him, studying the great pianists like Art Tatum and Bud Powell is not enough – he has to know where they found their ideas. This led him to analyzing the styles of Coltrane, Gillespie, and Parker – putting a fresh spin on his music every time he sees a new facet of these great artists.
Hearing the variety and invention he puts into his interpretations of Bud Powell’s “Celia” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” makes them sound new, and his ability to jump without pause from one piece to another is impressive. His piano chops are great – and for most of the concert he hardly glanced at the keyboard. His soft finger legato in “Tenderly” wowed me until he surpassed it with a surprisingly faithful performance of Johannes Brahms Intermezzo in A major, Opus 118, No. 2. Everything was there, connected chords and flowing lines ending in gracefully tapered phrase endings. Thomas detoured in the middle of the first section with a very respectful extension of the Brahms – not too jazzy, but just enough of a harmonic change to make this Brahms fan think of Brahms’ own harmonization of Händel songs. And, suddenly, he continued to the middle section just as Brahms wrote it, delicate and serene.
I would say after hearing the three artists chosen for this series – Glen Zaleski, Sullivan Fortner, and Micah Thomas –- that the Future of Jazz Piano is in good hands.
[St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 South Tenth Street, Philadelphia. The final concert of The Future of Jazz Piano presenting Micah Thomas, May 30, 2019, 7:00. For tickets and information see http://www.ststephensphl.org]