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Stringing together a new take on Don Thompson’s music

The dean of jazz musicians has new arrangements for a May 3 concert with the Penderecki String Quartet


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A professional musician for the better part of 60 years, Don Thompson still loves to get up on stage an perform, especially when he’s excited to get to play with other great musicians. He’ll be doing just that May 3 when he comes to Kitchener’s Registry Theatre.

Along with guitar virtuoso and long-time collaborator Reg Schwager, the show will feature a unique pairing with the Penderecki String Quartet.

He’s written special arrangements of his own compositions to take advantage of the quartet’s sound.

“I’m really excited by this. They’re master musicians, really world class,” he says of the local group during a call from his Toronto home. “I can’t tell you what a big deal it is.”

That’s high praise from someone known as the dean of Canadian jazz musicians. The multi-instrumentalist, multi-JUNO Award winner has set the standard for decades with his melodic, swinging style, and immaculate technique.

Thompson began his professional career in Vancouver in 1960. In 1965 he joined the now legendary John Handy Quintet and moved to San Francisco for a two-year stay. During that time the quintet performed extensively throughout the United States and Canada and recorded two albums for Columbia Records. One of these, John Handy Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, became one of the most popular jazz albums of the 1960s. While living in San Francisco he also performed with Maynard Ferguson, Frank Rosolino, George Duke and Denny Zeitlin.

He eventually settled in Toronto in 1969, making it his home base ever since. He played with groups fronted by the likes of Rob McConnell, Moe Koffman’s group and George Shearing, taking part in scores of recordings, including many of his own compositions. He’s also taught generations of students.

The first half of next week’s concert will feature Thompson on piano and Schwager on guitar doing the popular musical numbers and Broadway hits of the likes of Cole Porter, Richards Rogers and Jerome Kern. The second half will feature his own music arranged specifically for the Penderecki String Quartet (Jerzy Kaplanek and Jeremy Bell on violins, Christine Vlajk on viola, and Katie Schlaikjer on cello).

“In the first part, they get to hear some wonderful stuff that they’ve heard before,” he said of the classic tunes to be offered up to the audience. “And the second half will be music they’ve never heard – no one has, because it’s all new. I haven’t even heard it, because we’re doing full rehearsals next week.”

Thompson adds he’s eager to hear the sound of piano, guitar and strings.

“It’s all music that I’ve written, some of it a long time ago,” he laughs. “I can hear it my head, but I’m eager to rehearse it.”

He’s no stranger to classical music, but is looking forward to adding the chamber music feel to his songbook.

And he’s no stranger to the sound of music running through his head.

In fact, he learned all kinds of music before playing it. Having grown up in Powell River, BC, a remote logging village, there was little chance to learn formally. In reality, there were few people he could even play with. To get his fix, he listened to the radio and recordings, committing them to memory before he first picked up an instrument – bass guitar would be his introduction, joined later by the piano and vibraphone.

“I learned every note – I knew it in my head.”

Having started listening to music intently as a child and then working to become a musician himself, Thompson notes he learned all kinds of music before he even thought about writing it.

“I played for a long time before I started writing,” he says, attributing the years of learning to love and appreciate music in helping to develop the perspective needed to write it down.

It’s an effort that paid off. In 2007, Thompson was winner of the National Jazz Award Instrumentalist of the Year and, for the second consecutive year, Musician of the Year. In 2009 Don was honoured by the National Jazz Awards with three wins: Record of the Year, Small Jazz Group of the Year and Composer of the Year. An Officer of the Order of Canada, he received the Oscar Peterson Award from the Montreal Jazz Festival.

His career has allowed him to play with some of the genre’s finest musicians, parlaying what he’d picked up in his early years, when he essentially taught himself, into a style that would make him Canadian jazz royalty.

“I played with some fantastic musicians. They never gave me any formal lessons, but I learned tons and tons from them,” he says.

Don Thompson and Reg Schwager, with special guests the Penderecki String Quartet, bring the “It Might as Well be Spring” show to The Registry Theatre on May at  8 p.m. Tickets are $30, available by calling 519-578-1570, online or at the door.

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