Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Piano Man

In the studio with Butch Thompson.

By Jon Garelick

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Boston isn't exactly a music-industry mecca -- it's not New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville -- but enough goes on here so that any day of the week you might be surprised to find out who's working in town. That goes not only for the rockheads at Fort Apache and Q Division but for a bright, cheerful studio in Cambridgeport called the Music Room, a favorite among local classical and jazz players and, recently, the locale for a two-day session by pianist Butch Thompson.

The 54-year-old Thompson, a longtime member of the house band on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, is one of a handful of pianists at the head of the class in playing early jazz and blues. Jelly Roll Morton is a particular specialty, but Thompson's albums are also sprinkled with chestnuts by Bix Beiderbecke, W.C. Handy, and Fats Waller as well as a few originals. In October, Thompson was in town to record a Scott Joplin album -- a project he'd long resisted, despite having played the ragtime master's pieces in concert for years. "It's something that's been done a lot," Thompson explains about recording Joplin. "And so it took me a long time to decide that that doesn't really make any difference."

So Thompson broke down and got to work, hooking up with Mason Daring, producer of eight previous Thompson CDs on the Marblehead-based Daring Records, including a gem of duets with trumpeter Doc Cheatham, Butch & Doc. On hand as well for this session are engineer Dave Shacter and, occasionally, Pamela Emerson, the Music Room's owner and also, it turns out, one of the most respected piano tuners in town.

Day one proceeds in fits and starts. Joplin's signature syncopated melodies and oom-pah rhythms roll out of Thompson's fingers, the tunes' delicate inner harmonies unfolding like small bouquets. But Thompson, a self-effacing Minnesotan, keeps halting the tunes, annoyed at mistakes that no one in the control room can hear -- not even Daring, a seasoned performer and composer (he's written the score to every John Sayles film but one). Whereas Thompson is the self-critical artist, Daring is the archetypal cheerleader producer -- present as much to give psychological reassurance as to provide technical know-how or aesthetic critiques. "Well, could be worse," sighs Thompson after finally completing a take of "Rag Time Dance." "That's what I like to hear!" barks Daring into the two-way mike from the control room. Off mike, Daring says, "He's playing really well right now and he's not going to get it much better than that." Thompson moves into Joplin's "Stop Time," which is named for its meticulously deployed one-beat stop-time accents.

"Am I going out of tune up here or am I nuts?", Thompson asks.

"Try G above middle C," says Daring.

Thompson hits C, then G. Daring cocks his head to the sound. "Well, we're close enough . . . for jazz. To coin a phrase." Thompson halts himself mid take a few more times. "That's really a beautiful harmonic structure," encourages Daring. "It's not quite there," answers Thompson. The pianist tries a couple of more takes and stops. "This is nice," says Daring. "Don't stop." " 'Stop Time' take 10," announces Thompson. But he stops after two verses. "We're going to do something else," says Daring. "It's like toy boat, toy boat. Say it 25 times and there's no way you're going to get through it. . . . What's 'Heliotrope'?" he asks Thompson, reading from the set list. " 'Heliotrope Bouquet,' " answers Thompson, "that's worth a try." "High praise indeed," deadpans Daring.

"Heliotrope Bouquet" lives up to its name -- in its small petals of harmonic and melodic detail, its lyrical lilt. Thompson, the kind of pianist who puts a score up on his music stand and then never looks at it, makes the piece dance, and he sustains those ineffable legato links from one isolated note to the next. "He has more space between every note, like no one I've ever heard," says Daring. "He's just an exquisite player, he's got great muscular control, and the biggest fucking hands I've ever seen in my life. . . . Don't STOP! Just play. I never know why he stops! He's his own worst enemy by far. There was just one mistake there, really tiny, almost unnoticeable, and it had a great groove."

Thompson has moved on to "Cottontail," by Joseph Lamb, a young contemporary of Joplin's. On his seventh try he completes the take. "We made it through," he says, "but I think it could be a little more delicate." They try a couple more tunes -- "Justina," another "Heliotrope Bouquet," "Magnetic Rag." After another stab at "Stop Time," Thompson says, "I left out a strain. That may be okay in concert, but you don't leave out notes on a recording." He tries another take, and Emerson shows up, shortly followed by sandwiches, and Daring calls for a break.

Emerson has at the piano, looking for the bad octave that Daring and Thompson noticed earlier. Thompson, gray-haired and moustached, six-foot-four, eats his sandwich standing up in the control room while he talks about the music. "I hate recording," he says. "After I recorded Lincoln Avenue Express I couldn't listen to it for six months." He reflects for a moment on the vagaries of performance. "Whenever I play 'Mamie's Blues' in a concert, it's the one tune people ask for at the CD table. I never understand. What is it about that song?" He pauses again. "Maybe I'm not supposed to be a performer."

"Yeah," says Daring with a laugh, "you should just quit."

A couple of weeks after the recording, Thompson talks to me over the phone from his St. Paul home about his 37-year career in music (he played his first professional gigs at 17 and joined the Hall Brothers band in Minneapolis when he was 18) and about his acquiescence to Joplin. "My real specialty has been the jazz stuff, which is unlike Joplin in that it's not to be played so literally. A lot of people have made recordings of Joplin who are classical players, and they approach it with great respect and play it quite well. But to my mind, it's supposed to have a certain snap, because that's where it came from. It would have been steeped in a tradition of music that's played by ear and not from a score.

"Joplin did have classical training and he was quite an accomplished musician. The scores that he wrote were very detailed, and the voice leading and all that is perfect, all the harmonic things are 'spelled' properly and he got all the rhythmic things right. That's unusual. You don't see that in some other publications. They didn't know how to write these rhythms out. So you find there's five beats in a bar or four and half beats in some other bar and you have to figure out something. But with Joplin it was perfect.

"On the other hand he was coming out of this thing that was spontaneous. It [ragtime] was a style, not a repertoire. That's the way everybody played piano -- all the saloon players and the various people that Joplin would meet. It was a way of approaching the performance. His music is ragtime too, but it's ragtime carried into a different realm where it becomes almost like classical music. But it still has to have that snap, I think."

Thompson joined the Hall Brothers band when he was in college, and he'd been listening to the likes of Armstrong and King Oliver since childhood. But it was a trip to New Orleans that broke him open musically. "I'd never been anywhere outside of Minnesota, except maybe once up to Winnipeg. I heard people playing in New Orleans who had a big effect on me. Guys who were born around the turn of the century and were still pretty vigorous in the '60s and playing extremely well -- [clarinettist] George Lewis and people like that.

"Preservation Hall at that time was a brand new establishment, it wasn't crowded, you could go in on a Saturday and sit right in front. Now you can't even get in, the music's changed a lot, and there's nobody left from that era who's still playing it. But at that point, no one knew what to make of it, it was off the beaten path, not on Bourbon Street, and it was not a tourist spot. You could get close to those guys, you could talk to them, practically sit with them inside the band, and watch what they were doing. It really had a big effect on me, to hear that, and how different it was from what I thought of as older jazz or Dixieland -- how much variety and how much fresh melody there was there. And it hit me at the right time -- about 18."

Although Thompson professes a love for all kinds of jazz ("I started college when Dave Brubeck was on the Top 40 and everyone in the dorm had his Time Out LP"), early jazz has remained his thing. "I would not by any stretch of the imagination be qualified to sit down and play bop with anybody. I could probably play the changes, but I wouldn't have the fingers because I've been away from it too long." Nonetheless, Thompson travels in charmed company, and he recorded several times with Cheatham before the grand trumpeter died, earlier this year, at 92. "He was a very gentle person," recalls Thompson. "He was a real fan -- and of course close friend, too -- of Armstrong. He idolized that guy. And so do I. He was actually one of my elders, and superiors, probably, too. But we were pals on that level." Thompson pauses. "Whenever we talked about Armstrong, we both knew what we were talking about." By which it's clear Thompson means not that he and Cheatham were two experts (though they were) but that between them no explanation was necessary.

Thompson avows that the new disc of Joplin tunes probably won't appeal to early-jazz specialists. "When they see my recording and yet another version of 'Maple Leaf Rag,' they might think, 'Why didn't Thompson play some of the more rare things?' " He laughs. "But I'm not working for those people. I'm working for somebody else. I don't mind playing for jazz record collectors and all that. It's fun. But if that's the only kind of people you try to please, I don't think it's very much of a living thing. I would much rather sit in front of people who don't necessarily know anything about it, but make them like it by doing it well. I think that shows something much more positive about the music. I prove for myself when that works that the music is valid and it makes sense for me to be playing it."

Jon Garelick can be reached at jgarelick@phx.com.

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