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Music Review: Rich Thompson – ‘Less is More’

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Less is More, Rich Thompson’s sequel to last year’s trio album Generations, has the drummer following the same general formula in the choice of material, but now working with a larger ensemble. Straightforward modern harmonies, driven by dynamic percussion, applied to a mixed repertoire of jazz classics interspersed with a few original pieces is the recipe. Like they say, if it’s not broken, don’t mess with it.

Less_is_More_coverThompson, a music educator who teaches at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, has played with the Count Basie Orchestra,  Marion McPartland, and Tito Puente. For this new album he has put together a cohesive group filled with high-octane talent that can hold its own with the best ensembles working today. Terell Stafford, who pianist McCoy Tyner called “one of the great players of our time,” plays trumpet and a little flugelhorn. When listening to his work, it is easy to see what Tyner was talking about. Gary Versace, voted “rising star” on the Hammond organ in the last three Downbeat critics’ polls, plays piano and organ. Fellow Eastman colleagues saxophonist Doug Stone and bassist Jeff Campbell round out the quintet.

They rework some of the jazz monuments of the past and what they come up with makes it clear why they were monuments in the first place. Tunes like Ornette Coleman’s “Invisible” and Wayne Shorter’s “This is for Albert” breathe with new life. Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom,” which opens the album, gives Stafford the opportunity to blossom right from the start. Indeed he and Versace make themselves felt on nearly every one of the album’s 10 tracks. One solo sounds great, the next one tops it.

Their solo work on the albums’ title song, a Thompson original, takes the album to another level. These are talented musicians with chops that command attention. “Hoot Gibson,” a Campbell composition, opens with a funky bass line joined by Versace on the organ, then adds some down and dirty blues from Stafford. Neither of the songs pales in comparison with the better-known material, a problem which often dogs original compositions. These are tunes that belong with the best of them, at least as these guys play them.

Well known (if not quite well worn) songs like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” add a familiar touch. Stafford introduces the melody of the latter over Thompson’s brushes and then he takes off. At something over eight minutes, it’s the longest piece on the album. They close with saxophonist Joe Henderson’s “Step Lightly,” handled with care by Stone.

Fine music played with inventive style, Less is More is jazz the way it ought to be.

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