At Last, Earma Thompson

At Last, Earma Thompson

by Rahsaan Clark Morris

copyright © 2004 Rahsaan Clark Morris

The venerable pianist Earma Thompson entertained mightily last weekend at Katarina's on west Irving Park as part of a CD release party for her new — and, surprisingly, first — recording as a leader. I say surprisingly, but let's face it: the old school, men's club idea of jazz musicians probably kept a lot of talented women and, combined with the pervasive racism, specifically, a lot of black women from stepping to the front. The disc, entitled Just In Time, is on The Sirens Records, a local independent label out of Highland Park.

With the accompaniment of veteran bassist and longtime friend John Whitfield, and both accompaniment and encouragement of tenor saxophonist John Brumbach — who also appears on two of the CD's eleven tracks — this most unsung pianist of the Chicago area offered assembled listeners both a relaxing and elegantly bluesy set. I can personally remember hearing Ms. Thompson at the old Alexander's Steak House on the south side, the annual tributes to Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson put on by Geraldine de Haas' Jazz Unites organization, and in innumerable sets at Andy's and other venues around town.

Her playing style will vary: at times, she uses Gospel-tinged chords to deliver her message. At other times, her stride piano work, as exemplified that night on her rendition of Jimmy Smith's "Back to the Chicken Shack," will indeed take you back to the early times of down-home blues club piano playing.

Ms Thompson has, up until this point, been the quintessential side man, if you will, comping with the best of them, only taking a self-effacing few measures for her solo space, but still filling the space with beautiful and original ideas, as on the Gene Ammons' gem, "Ger-ru." Brumbach's evocation of Ammons' work was remarkable to hear. Sitting in a corner of Katarina's with only the bassist going and her head down in concentration, Ms. Thompson, exemplifying dignified grace, spun some beautifully simple lines, while John Whitfield provided both bottom and a soft pulse on the tunes "Billie's Bounce," "After Hours," and "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise." Once again, as with other local pianists Willie Pickens and John Young, her music is infused with a blues sensibility. Maybe that could be a result of her coming up in the same neighborhood as vocalist Johnny Hartman and the late pianist Dorothy Donegan, and of course, her early church affiliation.

Just like her new disc, Ms. Thompson's set that night reminded one of the basics of this music — melody with a rhythmic swing, stripped of all excess and affectation. In other words, a breath of fresh air.


C o m m e n t s

Nice CD 1 of 1
Jack Rusnak July 25, 05

I'm glad to hear that Earma Thompson has a new CD out. John Brumbach was well recorded in his accompaniment of her. I would like to hear a CD of John Brumbach as the feature artist.

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