Steve Thompson Interview
You play in the Small’s house band. How’s that going?
“It’s now at The Verdict. It’s finding its feet at the new venue. I think it’s going to be fine. We were worried because the place before, The Caxton Arms, had a really special vibe to it and a special sound to it. But maybe you can take it anywhere. It’s not the venue, it’s the people involved. And the guy who runs it, Dennis Simpson, is great and he books very interesting and consistent players as the front line, and then we have a regular rhythm section of Piers Clark on guitar, Mark Edwards on piano and myself on bass. Sometimes we augment it with a drummer, Steve Brown. By virtue of playing with the same people in a rhythm section we’ve really got a good sound together. The venue, The Verdict, is a lovely venue and I don’t know why we were worried that it wouldn’t work. It does cross your mind but in a way it’s brought a new audience. The Caxton Arms was a hidden away venue. Smalls was a bit of a hidden secret, a hidden away jazz club, which is great but it does affect numbers of people who come to see you.”
“Now that it’s at The Verdict. In fact all of the jazz clubs are now at The Verdict. It’s all consolidated. I think it’s great because it means that everyone has it in their mind that that’s the place to go when you want to hear some jazz, whether it’s Thursday, Friday or Saturday. It’s been a good thing, ultimately.”
“We’ve got some good people coming up. We’ve got Chris Garrick on violin, Remi Harris on guitar. And Ken Peplowski is coming back at the beginning of summer. And of course the interesting thing about it is that it’s all acoustic, there’s no amps ever involved, like an old-fashioned jazz club.”
“With Small’s, it’s mainstream jazz and the repertoire is completely separate to what you might expect to play. I know from speaking to Mark Edwards that a lot of these tunes are ones that he hasn’t encountered as a modern jazz player. They come from a completely different book. That’s really interesting for me. It means that you’re spreading your knowledge. I think that my breadth of knowledge of the tunes that I can play. It’s been good from that point of view.”
“The other thing is this whole acoustic thing. It brings the volume down and everybody has to listen more. And in New York it seems to be the way that they try and play. ‘Playing quiet is the new chops’ is the current phrase that musicians in New York say. It’s the way to go. It’s tough as a bass player but you get an amazing groove compared to what you would get through an amp. I would recommend to any band to go acoustic.”
So what are the other things that you’re working on at the moment?
“The project with Paul [Richards] is an ongoing thing, very much the kind of project that I’m really into and it’s kind of really different to anything I’ve ever done before. A lot of the pieces we play are through-composed, so there’s no improvisation at all. It’s like doing classical pieces. It’s effectively having to read music on those tunes. Although we do that, we also do like a Blue Note tune and give it a little twist. We also do a few original compositions by myself and Paul. It’s a very creative, very interesting combination and it seems to reach audiences that wouldn’t normally happen with a straight-ahead jazz trio. We play at festivals and arts centres and I don’t think it would have gone down so well or even if we’d have been invited if it wasn’t for the style of music and the way we play. So it’s been good and it’s opened up a few doors. So that’s definitely one project that I’m really into.”
“I’ve got another one with piano player Jonathan Vinten, who played for 15 years with George Melly. That’s kind of the opposite musical end to Paul’s trio. It’s mainstream, straight-ahead jazz with Bobby Worth on drums and we do quite a few jazz clubs and those sorts of gigs. So those are the main projects. That’s how I like working: focussing in on a couple of pet projects and really commit to them. Practice and rehearse and get it sounding as best as you can. The danger, particularly as a bass player, is that you’re always playing in pick up bands, sometimes meeting people for the first time and playing with them that night. So it isn’t always satisfactory. It always feels a little bit half-arsed. I’m really into the idea of having just a few pet projects.”
Tell us about some of the things that you do outside of jazz.
“That really explains why I can be choosy and picky, because I have another income. Jazz is very much a sideline. It’s very important to me but my main thing is that I’m involved in film scripts. I’m a screenwriter and also a creative director for a couple of film companies so I help them choose the projects for their slate of films that they’re going to try and produce for the next few years. That’s my real, main activity these days.”
“It’s very interesting because the film world moves so slowly. Everything is so slow. So a project may take ten years for it to actually reach the screen. You have to be very patient. It’s the long game. What’s great about being able to do music alongside the film thing is that music is instantaneous. We could form a band tonight, we could do a gig and that would be it. That creative cycle would be complete immediately. But if we decided to write a screenplay we would have to allow ten years perhaps for it to ever get made. And that’s the other thing: it’s frustrating in film because things don’t get made, things don’t happen. I’ve sold five screenplays in the last ten years and not one of them has been made yet. So it’s a weird limbo situation but you get used to it. I guess the point I was making was that if I didn’t have music I might go a bit mad. You need to have that release, that instantaneous release.”
How do see things developing in the future? Do you see yourself doing more of one thing or keeping the balance?
“Keeping the balance. I used to always think ‘oh, well once the film gets made I’ll make my millions and move to La La Land and retire from music’ but I’ve realised that what’s brilliant about music is that it’s very sociable. You do have to meet people and chat to people. Writing is very solitary. You go in a room and you sit in a room on your own. So the going out and meeting people through music actually helps the writing and actually helps you as a person. And just travelling to gigs, you go to these mad places. You might go to a hotel and you would never have gone there or a venue or a bar or a club. But it is a good window into the world, and I think it has fed into my writing. I’ve realised now that the trick is to keep both going, come what may and just focussing on a few projects that I love, keep them going and really commit to them.”
So which players do you think you are most influenced by?
“Ray Brown is the starting point. Sam Jones, Cannonball Adderley’s bass player is a huge influence as well. The bass player that I spent the most time transcribing would be Leroy Vinegar, the West Coast bass player. He’s the bass player that I consciously try to copy but I’ve never actually managed to sound like him, ironically, even though I’ve been trying to copy him I can’t quite get that feel. But Leroy Vinegar is definitely one. Red Mitchell and then more recent bass players would be Jay Leonhart and Christian McBride.”
I’m also influenced by other musicians such as piano players and I try to feed a lot of that into my playing, particularly soloing. Wes Montgomery. I recommend to anyone to spend a bit of time transcribing any of his solos, whatever instrument you play. You’ll get a lot from it; really interesting ideas.
What have you been doing recently?
“I’ve just come back from the Berlin Film Festival. There’s a couple of projects that I was over there having meetings about. One of them will be filmed in New Zealand and hopefully in October this year. Another will be fully financed.”
“The writing thing is very exciting but I’m really loving the music as well. I really think that musicians can sometimes forget how lucky we are to be able to do it. And how many times have we got in the back of a cab and the cabbie turns out to be an ex-musician or how many times do you meet someone who works in the city who says ‘oh, I wish I could do music’. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t have the creative outlet that we have as musicians, or writers for that matter. So you have to treat it with a bit of respect, that’s what I’ve come to realise. Every time you play, you’re bloody lucky to be doing it. That’s my approach: try to have a positive attitude to music.”
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[Photo of Steve Thompson at The Independent by Lisa Wormsley]