Often, “Blues for X” is a memorial for the departed X — grief in the shape of an improvisation. It’s thus a pleasure to offer this BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES, a celebration, not an elegy, for the remarkable pianist Sir Charles Thompson, born March 21, 1918, still with us, living happily in Japan (playing golf, I understand).
Knighted by Lester Young, Sir Charles has and had a distinctly personal style: the casual listener could mistake him — for a few bars only — for Basie, and his rhythmic engine is just as reliable, but Charles heard and employed a broader harmonic palette than did the Count, so one is always delighted by the strong swing he engenders allied to the boppish harmonies.
He’s recorded for John Hammond’s Vanguard series and also crops up memorably on the Columbia Buck Clayton Jam Sessions. My friend Bill Gallagher has created a Thompson discography, accessible here.
But I have something more rewarding to offer as a tribute to Charles, which is Ray Skjelbred’s rocking piano evocation of the great man, performed on November 28, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest:
Marc Caparone brilliantly manages to evoke a whole host of Basie trumpeters — Tatti Smith, Lips Page, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, Bobby Moore — while sounding just like his natural self; Beau Sample rocks the rhythm in the great tradition of Walter Page, and Hal Smith’s sweeping hi-hat and accents in the final choruses could swing Mount Fuji joyously. And Master Skjelbred takes the opportunity to honor his hero with some deliciously unexpected runs and chords, suggesting not only Joe Sullivan on a straightaway but also Monk at Minton’s, 1941.
If you can listen to the final minute of this performance — starting with the riffing hide-and-seek of Marc and Ray — without moving around in your chair, I wonder if your blood pressure might be dangerously low. Consult your physician. Do not operate any heavy machinery.
May your happiness increase!