Album reviews

Joel Quarrington – ‘The Music of Don Thompson’

Joel Quarrington – The Music of Don Thompson

(Modica Music. Album review by Lavender Sutton)

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Joel Quarrington, is best known as a classical double bassist. For over forty years, he has served as the Principal Double Bassist of many ensembles including the Canadian Opera Company, The Toronto Symphony and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and most recently, the London Symphony Orchestra.

His relationship with jazz double bassist, pianist and vibraphonist, Don Thompson (b.1940), is described as a unique meeting of musicians from jazz and classical backgrounds. Thompson, considerably one of the best jazz musicians in Canada, speaks of Quarrington’s playing with great fondness, writing in the liner notes for this album: “I thought to myself that this guy would be the greatest jazz bass player of all time, if he ever decided to do it.”

In 1989, Quarrington commissioned Thompson to write a bass quartet for a concert at the conservatory where he was teaching. Thompson didn’t feel confident writing a traditionally ‘classical’ quartet piece, so he composed something that would feature himself playing pizzicato bass (jazz bass style). The piece was so much fun and a topic of conversation on the bass circuit enough that it spurred on the idea for Quarrington to record a whole album of Thompson’s tunes. Joel Quarrington – The Music of Don Thompson was born 35 years later. 

This time, Roberto Occhipinti was asked to feature the part that Thompson had originally performed and along with Travis Harrison and Joe Phillips, the piece Quartet 89 was recorded for the first time. 

A pizzicato solo opens the piece as Occhipinti introduces the melody. The rest of the group join, bowing long, sad phrases that almost breathe together. When the piece finds its groove about a third of the way through, it comes to life. Harrison, Phillips and Quarington weave amongst each other, painting the backdrop for Occhipinti to solo. The players then switch roles as pizzicato brings back the groove for the emotional lines of the others to take the forefront. The piece feels like a cinematic journey. It shows off each instrumentalist’s skill and creates a great deal of intrigue. Thompson’s harmonic choices blend genres beautifully. It would have been a magical concert – in person – to watch these four present it live. 

Other compositions on the album are all duo pieces for double bass and piano. They  include a piece dedicated to Keith Jarrett (one of his major Thompson’s major influences) called Another Time, Another Place. Quarrington’s beautiful vibrato as he plays the melodic lines and Thompson fills the spaces with the higher register. 

Egberto is a Brazilian piece inspired by the music of Egberto Gismonti. Normally, percussion of some sort would create the feel that is often experienced with Brazilian music whereas, the gentle rocking of the bossa nova beat is kept through Thompson’s piano playing here. And alternatively, the urgency that this music often has of the music is carried forward by the bowed bass solos.  

A Quiet Place was originally written for a concert for Thompson’s jazz quintet and a small string orchestra. It was written for Jim Vivian to play with the bow and Phil Dwyer doubling the melody on soprano sax. Beautifully paired back here, both Thompson and Quarrington have the ability to make the piece practically sing. You can hear the pure joy and dedication to conveying this ‘quiet place’ to the listener. 

The first piece on this album is the most beautiful of the selections. Again, in the liner notes that Thompson wrote, he explained that in a rehearsal for something, Quarrington had camped out under the piano to rest for a bit and awoke to Thompson playing the arrangement of the song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Quarrington enjoyed it so much that he remembered the experience and asked Thompson specifically to include an arrangement for them to play for this album. 

The combination of Thompson’s enigmatic chord changes combined with Quarrington’s heartfelt interpretation of the melody is unparalleled. It’s moody and rich and the gorgeous cadenza at the end conveys the nostalgic meaning behind this selection. 

Quarrington’s idea to record this project has resulted in a unique snapshot of a long friendship, open pathways between genres displayed through exceptional musicianship – an absolute pleasure to listen to.

LINK: The Music of Don Thompson on Bandcamp

Categories: Album reviews

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