Vance Thompson is finding ways to get a handle on a form of music that, more than any other, resists handles. He resists handles himself. Like few other musicians, either locally or nationally, he regularly rides the red-eye between two extremes of jazz: the carefully conducted and arranged, the pieces you listen to because you know what's coming next and like it; and the wildly improvised, when you can't guess what note's going to come out of that horn next, which is what makes it thrilling.
Some jazz is appealing because it's predictable. Some jazz is appealing because it's unpredictable. Most musicians specialize in one or the other, but Vance Thompson does both. And now he's trying something in between that we haven't seen before, at least not lately.
After founding the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, the usually 18-piece group that evoked some of the smooth, swinging sound of the network-orchestra era— and earning some national renown for it—Thompson startled some of us with the stripped-down bebop quintet the Marble City Five, featuring himself, pianist Keith Brown, and internationally noted saxophonist Greg Tardy as freely improvising soloists.
Those poles would seem to offer plenty of variety for most jazz musicians. Thompson says his latest project started on a long car trip with two regular collaborators, Brown and saxophonist Jamel Mitchell. They were listening to trumpeter Nicholas Payton's 2001 tribute to Louis Armstrong, Dear Louis. It was an unusual album, featuring 11 instrumentalists—more than most bebop combos allow, but not enough to call it an orchestra. Thompson was entranced with the record and, at home, pored over it, listening to the individual instruments, especially Payton's take on Armstrong's 1928 classic "West End Blues."
"I wrote it down to figure it out," Thompson says, but it gave him an idea to put together a comparable band in Knoxville.
He's proud of KJO's current lineup. At the same time, he's been impressed with some talented younger players in town and frustrated that he couldn't find a place for them in his current projects. "I wanted to use some younger players who are great players but not in the KJO, not replace people willy-nilly. That band has membership."
He had another motive. He wanted to record with a small, improvisation-based band. He'd been reluctant to record the Marble City Five, because—a surprise to his fans—he doesn't consider his own solo trumpet chops up to the standards of a recording without more horns backing him. "I've been wanting to record the quintet for some time," he says. "I didn't feel I was at a place as a trumpet player I wanted to be."
He'd been playing trumpet since he was a kid, for 20 years or more, had even founded the KJO, and earned an enthusiastic local audience, when, suddenly, in his mid-30s, he decided his own trumpet technique was all wrong. Audiences awed by the tunes he played well didn't know that he was avoiding others because he couldn't play them to his own satisfaction. In 2006, "cold turkey," he changed his mouth placement—his embouchure, as trumpeters call it.
"What happened, the initial result, was that I couldn't play at all," he says. "I couldn't play a one-octave scale. I didn't have enough trumpet technique to make an eighth-grade band."
Though he kept conducting the KJO, he quit performing for a while and traveled to Washington, D.C., to take lessons from a trumpet specialist. He's a lot better now, as the hundreds who witness his bold, soaring solos every week on Market Square will attest. But Thompson's still not where he wants to be to record with a five-piece.
Hence the Five Plus Six. At the core is the Marble City Five—Thompson, Tardy, Brown, Taylor Coker on bass, and Nolan Nevels on drums. The additional Six include some locally well-known performers like Jamel Mitchell on sax. On baritone sax is David King. "He plays alto in the KJO, but he's like a closet baritone player," Thompson says.
In transcribing Payton's group, Thompson had to make one substitution. Jazz tuba players are hard to find in Knoxville, so he brought in a bass trombone, played by University of Tennessee student Sean Copeland. Tyler Bullion also plays trombone. The other trumpets are young guys, too, Michael Wyatt and Joe Jordan.
As was the case with changing his embouchure, Thompson had to start over. "I thought I knew how to arrange. But this is very different, sometimes it didn't work at all."
They'll play Tuesday night on the Square and then drive to Wildwood Studios in Franklin, Tenn., and make a record of Duke, Monk, and Dolly. That is, Ellington, Thelonious Monk and, yes, Dolly Parton, just to get your attention. "I just chose to do that, to put the three of them together. I had some tunes by each of them and arrangements I really liked." Of the nine tunes—Thompson himself arranged seven, pianist Keith Brown the other two—only one, "Little Sparrow," is written by Parton. "I arranged another of hers, but didn't like it as much, and didn't want to force the issue," Thompson says. "But I really like the way ‘Little Sparrow' works."