Releases November 1, 2023
- Don Thompson – Piano, Bass, Vibes
- Rob Piltch – Guitars
Magic has no jurisdiction or timetable. When it happens it happens. Such was the case when multi-instrumentalist-composer and seasoned jazz veteran Don Thompson got together 42 years ago in his Toronto home studio with a young fingerstyle guitarist named Rob Piltch. Luckily, Thompson, who also engineered the session, kept tape rolling. Because the results were pure magic.
“Rob and I definitely have a beautiful connection,” said Thompson. “We clicked right away when we did the original recording 42 years ago, and it’s still there to this day.”
The nine tracks they recorded together over three separate sessions four decades ago (Sept. 17 and Dec. 3, 1981, and Jan. 28, 1982) were released as Bells on the Toronto-based Umbrella label. Those same tracks have been remastered and reissued on Toronto-born bassist-composer Roberto Occhipinti’s Modica Music label, bookended by two new recordings — “Circles,” the Thompson composition which was the title track of Jim Hall’s 1981 trio album on the Concord label, and his “Days Gone By,” which was previously recorded by pianist George Shearing on his 1992 Telarc album, How Beautiful is Night. Both new recordings not only perfectly complement the original tracks, they continue the magic the two musicians felt in Thompson’s home studio 42 years ago.
“There’s a certain amount of telepathy between us when we play together,” said Thompson, now 83. “There’s only about four or five people in my whole life I’ve ever connected with like that. Sonny Greenwich was certainly one. Rob is another. And interestingly, we’re all Capricorns.”
A multi-instrumentalist and proud Capricorn, Thompson was a triple threat (piano, bass, vibraphone) on the Toronto studio and club scene during the late ‘60s as well as regular bassist in Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. He began touring with Jim Hall in 1974, later appearing on the guitar great’s 1975 album, Live!, a pivotal recording for aspiring jazz guitarists, working professionals and guitar aficionados alike that was engineered by Thompson himself at Toronto’s Bourbon Street club, where he had also backed visiting American musicians like saxophonists Lee Konitz and James Moody and vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
Thompson began playing in George Shearing’s quartet in 1982, touring and recording with the gifted pianist-composer for five years. He returned to the Boss Brass in 1987 and remained a fixture in the band (this time on piano) until 1993. He’s recorded over 20 albums as a leader or co-leader since then, including duet projects with guitarists Ed Bickert (1978’s Ed Bickert/Don Thompson on Sackville), John Abercrombie (1991’s Witchcraft on Justin Time) and Reg Schwager (2002’s Live at Mezzetta on Sackville and 2007’s One Take on Alma Records). Thompson’s 2008 outing, For Kenny Wheeler, reunited him with drummer Terry Clarke, whom he had played alongside in John Handy’s group in the mid-‘60s and in the Jim Hall Trio in the mid ‘70s. Clarke was also the one who introduced Thompson to Piltch back in 1975 when the guitarist was still a teenager.
“I think I was too young and stupid to be intimidated by playing with Don,” said Piltch, who was 24 at the time of his original hookup with Thompson. “But I was also very familiar with him because he was part of my formative years, in a way, from having heard him with the great Canadian guitarists Ed Bickert, Sonny Greenwich and Lenny Breau, all guys I grew up listening to. Plus, Don never had any kind of aura about him. He was always about just playing music. So I felt comfortable with him.”
Since Thompson confessed to not having played his upright bass in three or four years, he is heard solely on piano on the two new tracks, though he moves effortlessly from bass to piano to vibes throughout the original sessions from four decades ago.
The delicate “Circles,” which opens this collection, begins with some gorgeous solo guitar by Piltch, a fingerstyle player all his career who only recently switched to playing with a pick. Trumpeter Mike Malone’s “Caribe” is a buoyant islands-flavored romp that may remind guitar aficionados of Jim Hall’s many interpretations of the Sonny Rollins classic, “St. Thomas.” Piltch’s percussive downstrokes with his thumb adds some rhythmic thrust on this lively calypso number while Thompson digs into his upright bass with the kind of humungous tone and unerring time feel that place him firmly in the ranks of his own bass heroes like Red Mitchell, Dave Holland and George Mraz.
Thompson switches to piano on his lyrical gem “September,” revealing a crystalline touch alongside Piltch’s cleanly articulated fingerstyle lines. Thompson’s energized romp, “Stratford Stomp,” named for the Stratford Summer Music Festival that he and Piltch had played earlier that year, features guitar and piano executing some challenging unisons over daring intervallic leaps and angular lines before engaging in some freewheeling call-and-response exchanges. Don comps forcefully behind Rob’s fluid, bop-inspired solo, then the guitarist proceeds to walk insistent bass lines behind Thompson’s swinging, Oscar Peterson-like flurries on the piano. And “Bells” is a patient solo piano showcase by the composer.
The remaining five tracks of Bells, which took up the entire Side Two of the original vinyl album, comprise a suite of tunes. “Kyoto” finds Thompson carrying the melody and unleashing his considerable chops on upright bass against driving accompaniment by Piltch. “Moon Dance” is a brief interlude by Piltch playing Lenny Breau-styled ringing harmonics, creating a hypnotic soundscape before Thompson enters with gentle single note playing on piano. The calming “Red Dragonfly,” a poignant traditional Japanese number, finds Piltch utilizing a volume pedal to haunting effect. “Nexus” opens with another stirring guitar improvisation by Piltch utilizing his volume pedal to swell richly evocative chord voicings. By the time Thompson enters at the 1:43 mark, the duo heads into some rather adventurous free territory, conversing on guitar and vibes in tones ranging from spiky and dissonant to compelling and dreamy.
The final track on the original collection, Piltch’s “Chant,” is a sparse, entrancing number that develops patiently and gradually with Thompson playing the delicate melody on vibes while the guitarist comps gently with ethereal chordal swells.
The updated closer, “Days Gone By,” opens with a brilliant solo piano by Thompson before Piltch joins in with patient, warm-toned elegance on the gorgeous melody. Their empathy and sensitivity in comping for each other’s solos is uncanny. It’s the kind of magic that prevails over time. “There’s a continuity in the way that we relate to each other,” said Piltch. “We never talk about what we’re going to play, we just play.” — Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a longtime contributor to Downbeat and Guitar Player magazines. He is also the author of Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker and co-author of Here And Now! The Autobiography of Pat Martino (both on Backbeat Books).