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Steve Thomas: Press

Steve Thomas is a Boston-based jazz singer but--surprise--his focus is almost all on original pieces. He writes his whimsical, sometimes surreal literate story songs for his band the Co-Conspirators--vibist Rich Greenblatt, bassist John Funkhouser, and drummer Gary Fieldman. The tunes mix trad rhythms from New Orleans and Brazil with the harmonies and angular phrasing of jazz.
PICKS OF THE WEEK
JAZZ PICKS
Vocalist/songwriter Steve Thomas & the Co-Conspirators present original jazz songs, backed by vibraphone, bass, and drums at Rutman's Violins.
Somerville Musician Prepares for Third Life Performance on Sunday

By Barbara Rodriguez
Somerville Journal
Fri Jul 13, 2007

Somerville resident Steve Thomas has always played to the beat of his own jazz tune.

Musically, he is inspired by rhythms. He might get a melody and “fool around” to create some chords, but slowly, the music starts to come together.

“It’s sort of like chewing on things,” Thomas said. “It’s kind of like building … like layers.”

The composer-lyricist will be honing his skills when he and his band the Co-Conspirators perform new and old tracks from their 2006 album “Spirits Passing Through,” at the Third Life Studio in Union Square this Sunday night.

With musical jazz influences ranging from New Orleans to Brazil, many of the band’s performances are a mix of Thomas’ lyrics and improvised segments of music.

The Co-Conspirators – bassist John Funkhouser, drummer Gary Fieldman, and Rich Greenblatt on vibes – have a unique sound due to years of combined music playing experience, Greenblatt said.

“The songs are strong, and everyone plays well,” the Berklee College of Music professor said. “We enjoy each other’s company, so it’s a good time.”

Interested in jazz from an early age, Thomas – a copy editor in educational publishing – had been playing for several years when a former music professor recommended he take the next step and record an album.

The result was 2002’s “Got the Map,” a compilation of vocal and piano duets with local Boston pianist Ben Schwendener.

“That was a really transforming experience,” Thomas said. “I realized this was very important to me.”

“Spirits” marked a new chapter for the band, who had recently formed when they recorded their album. They were still adjusting to their sound – as well as getting to know each other. Thomas said he learned to manage the band better and improve on his songwriting by the time the album was complete.

“It’s changed a lot … the songs [on “Map”] were pretty compact. I was learning my way,” he said. “There’s an enormous growth [on “Spirits”]. It’s light-years ahead of the first.”

The band’s ability to integrate all its members into the ensemble, as well as the nature of Thomas’ song writing, set the band apart, Thomas said. The band’s instrumentation – they do not use a piano but instead vibraphone – creates a more clear and distinct sound.

Thomas said events in his life, including his father’s death, have directly inspired many of the band’s lyrics. He hopes those lyrics, many of which emphasize life’s ordinary moments, will increase the band’s appeal. More important than lyrics, Thomas said, is having a good instrumental backing.

“The music has to be strong,” he said. “I don’t want it to be just a vehicle for the lyrics.”

After Thomas completed “Map” in 2002, he recruited the band following several visits to local jam sessions. Their work ethic and musical composition instantly meshed well together, he said.

“They were all people who would do really well in the band … and they have,” he said. “None of them are show-offs. They listen to each other.”

When the band performs at Third Life this weekend, they will be one of the first acts to primarily play jazz, said studio Director Susan Robbins.

Located in the heart of Union Square on Somerville Avenue, the three-year old studio is in the middle of a transforming square, Robbins said. Third Life, which promotes cultural arts through classes, concerts, performances and workshops, has “its place within that revitalization.”

“It’s already developing that reputation,” Robbins said. “It’s a very eclectic space that offers things outside the norm.”

Robbins’ ultimate goal is to have the studio booked for performances every weekend night. She wants it to be a place where musicians and dancers of all types – including Thomas and the Co-Conspirators – can feel free to express themselves.

“There is a need within the music and dance community, including Somerville, for this kind of space,” she said.
Editor Brings Jazz to the Nave Gallery

By Doug Holder
Somerville News
April 23, 2008

By day Steve Thomas is an editor at a prestigious publishing house; by night his music takes flight. Thomas, a tall and lanky man, is a composer, lyricist, and jazz vocalist who founded the group Steve Thomas and the Co-Conspirators.

The Co-Conspirators consist of Thomas, John Funkhouser (bass), who is on the faculty of the Berklee School of Music, Rich Greenblatt (vibraphone), also a Berklee faculty member, and Gary Fieldman (drums), an accomplished musician who has worked with such important musicians as Bill Frisell and Joanne Brackeen.

Thomas grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Somerville in 1988. Since arriving in Somerville he has involved himself with the area arts scene. He has worked with Mobius, an arts group based in Boston, and he won a Somerville Arts Council grant when the council was headed by Cecily Miller.

Thomas, who is an English major from way back in the day, has a real passion for music. He plays around Somerville and Boston, and has performed at the Somerville Museum, Third Life Studio, McIntyre and Moore, and has an upcoming gig at the Nave Gallery. Thomas has been influenced by jazz artists as varied as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Steve Lacy.

Thomas said there are a lot of Brazilian influences in his work. He writes original music, and like most jazz compositions, his leave a lot of room for improvisation. He employs scat singing . . .

The music scene in the area, according to Thomas, "is a hard nut to crack," but he is happy to have a chance to engage his passion in any way he can. Thomas will be performing with the Co-Conspirators at the Nave Gallery on May 3 at 8 p.m. at 155 Powderhouse Boulevard.
Doug Holder - The Somerville News (Apr 23, 2008)
SPIRITS PASSING THOUGH
Steve Thomas and the Co-Conspirators

Steve Thomas (vocals, songs, arrangements), John Funkhouser (bass), Rich Greenblatt (vibes), Gary Fieldman (drums)

DO we need more time and space? I'm not sure on either account...but I like SPIRITS PASSING THROUGH. ("Liking" or not is close to the least interesting thing you can say about music, when it's necessary to say anything at all, but there it is.) This is credible work which sounds like faint praise but it's not meant to be; I mean that this CD doesn't sound like R&D for the album you're going to make someday. Your first album, with Ben Schwendener, felt more R&D-ish but this stands up as a cohesive work -- almost a "concept album" (remember those?).

The timbre of the band works well. It's enough instrumentation to flesh out the harmony without cluttering up the voice and the lyrics. Maybe this album should be filed near Dolphy's OUT TO LUNCH, since it's that same approach with vibes taking the place of the piano and/or guitar. Speaking of guitar, do you remember DUSTER, a band (this was around the late 60s) with Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Larry Coryell and Roy Haynes? During the vibes solos on "So Cold" and "Time/Space" I smiled to hear Duster but with Jack DeJohnnette on drums. When the three piece bass/drums/vibes vibing kicks in throughout the disk, it's like some kind of self-activating machine that roars into motion without warning. But (thankfully) this machine, animated by the spirits passing through, has a soul. The machine far exceeds factory specs on "By the Factory Wall" where Rich seems to find a groove he can really sink his teeth into. The vibes solos throughout the album are truly ensemble bits. There's no foreground or background -- they're integrated statements by all three musicians.

The album starts strongly with "Didier et Chocolat." It's a warm, inviting beginning and I think this is one of the most together pieces on the disk. "So Cold" is another one of my favorites. Somewhere in the first part of the album there's a moaning vocal solo that I'm not sure works, but it doesn't detract from the tune. In the middle of the proceedings I recall how an instrumental passage depicts time suspended over a couple of decades of Chuck Fisher's life. That music travels through some kind of temporal passageway leading to the re-entry of the vocal which makes it explicit: "Time passes by..." I find myself drawn deeper into the story, as the lyrics satisfy my curiosity. "Beads" covers similar territory; it's ambitious since the territory it's trying to cover is bigger than Louisiana and Texas put together. John's arco, unaccompanied bass solo communicates something about memory and reflection in the midst of the re-telling.

The band finds itself on its most familiar terrain on the clever "Reframed." The bass in its walking intro and solo suggests the era of the Ray Browns, Oscar Pettifords up to the George Duviviers, but without resorting to cliche. You might expect Percy Heath to be the bass reference here, but John is more bluesy and gritty. The vocal solo on this tune is a stand out. There's no stereotypes in this scat, cats! This tune is very different in mood than the others, and by the time you get to this point in the album it's a welcome off-set. The last two tunes are my favorites. Re: "By the Factory Wall" -- I'm a hopeless sucker for a funky back-beat, and, as mentioned above, the instrumental part cooks. Steely Dan makes a brief appearance in this tune somewhere. "Are We There?" is the finest performance on the album...from a performance standpoint. After the tighter, more constructed things, my ear was happy to get something that breathed just a bit more and allowed you to stretch out a little. There's an obvious rapport between you and Funkhouser, and the duo tunes you did when I saw you guys 'live' were a highlight. I'm looking forward to more from the Thomas/Funkhouser duo, as a part of the "S.T. and the Co-Cons." quartet. "Are We There?" is the performance I see myself returning to the most from this album. In short, I think you chose the best tunes for the openers and the closers -- the album begins and ends on strong notes.

Gary is such a good player. I love hearing what he's going to play next, even from moment to moment. I hear Elvin in there; it's as driving as that but not as relentless and there's more of a concern for variety and text. A single tune can become an encyclopedia of groove. The drums have a compositional role throughout the album. Some tunes are held together by the drums, and my ear goes first to them, and then hears the other musicians (and even the compositions themselves) in light of the what the drums are doing. I'm admitting to being jealous that you get to play with Gary as much as you might.

Lyrically -- but not only lyrically...the whole enterprise -- brings to mind Joni Mitchell. In this lyric-world things are what they are. Events stand and the song is a reflection, but one which is as unmediated as any reflection or memory can be. There's no mythologizing. The portraiture and biographic realism in the lyrics are Joni-ish as are the allusions to various genres, popular and otherwise, in the service of a modern art song...but one that grooves and improvises.

My one global criticism is on the composition rather than the execution. There's a same-y-ness about the vocal melodies. It's in the way these melodies tend to float over the ground beat. I might want to hear some more different rhythmic values in the notes, maybe some faster triplets or a brief string of eight notes. When I hear the vamp at the beginning of a tune, I can predict how the vocal melody is going to begin, and, although I have a reasonable tolerance for predictability, my sense is that that's not what you're going for. (When I said something like this before you dismissed me as a "Rock guy" (although I doubt I'm really that much more of a 'rock guy' than John or Gary) but my ears are telling me something that you might consider.) There's a compositional contrast between your instrumental and vocal melodies that might inform this a bit. Monk's around when you're writing the vamps and little lines you sprinkle around the tunes; maybe your vocal melody could be in that spirit a bit more (?).

Leaving aside that one beef, I have this album on my CD changer next to Monk solo piano from Paris. I went from one to the other last night with a seamless transition. I think a later Steve Lacy album might take its place in the changer after that. Good company, all.
David Vermette - December 11, 2006