Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Thompson, Bob (Robert)

Pianist Bob Thompson has cultivated a sound which combines funk and jazz, bebop and the blues tradition. Praised for his ballad performances, his phrasing and harmonic vocabulary, rooted in the work of Herbie Hancock, enable him to execute melodies with passion and introspection. Born in Queens, New York, he has been a jazz performer and educator based in West Virginia for more than fifty years.

Robert Thompson was born on December 12th, 1942 in Jamaica, Queens. Thompson’s mother played hymns and gospel music on the piano. Thompson’s first musical training came during his early teenage years in the mid-1950s when he started playing the trumpet. Although he had a piano teacher that offered him free lessons, Thompson stuck with the trumpet. In 1958, Thompson moved from his home in New York City to attend West Virginia State College in Institute, West Virginia.

While at WVSC, Thompson, like most music students wanted to join the school’s jazz ensemble, but one obstacle stood in his way. That obstacle, according to Thompson, was named Mitchell Lee, an outstanding student trumpeter. In order to play in the band with Lee, Thompson switched to the piano.

Thompson formed a piano trio called the Modern Jazz Interpreters while at WVSC and the group was selected in 1964 to play the Notre Dame Jazz Festival, one of the longest running collegiate jazz festivals in the country. Following this invitation, the group next traveled to Algiers, Algeria for a U.S. State Department tour. Joining the group on the trip was saxophonist Bunky Green, who instilled a passion in Thompson that still lasts to this day. Thompson has been quoted as saying that Green told him, “Whenever you sit down to your instrument, play as though it might be the last time.”

Following his graduation from WVSC, Thompson spent the late 1960s and portions of the 1970s teaching privately and institutionally. Thompson was an instructor at Morris Harvey College (later to be renamed the University of Charleston) during the mid-1970s. The 1970s marked a growing period for Thompson as a musician as the 1980s proved to be his strongest and most commercial decade as a pianist. In 1981, Thompson began a long relationship with Intima Jazz, a subsidiary of Capitol Records. The label released his major label debut Morning Star, which featured Kai Haynes on bass and Guy Remonko on drums.

Thompson soon began an association with drummer Omar Hakim who appeared on the pianist’s 1984 album 7 In 7 Out, which also featured bassist Gerald Veasley. Hakim also produced Thompson’s 1986 album Brother’s Keeper, arguably one of his strongest albums. This album launched Thompson into the stratosphere of funk-jazz, which was highly popular during the 1980s. This album boasts a stellar line-up of seasoned and well-respected jazz veterans including guitarist Kevin Eubanks in addition to Veasley and Hakim. The title track has gone on to become one of Thompson’s most popular tunes. His 1989 album Wilderness featured guitarist Larry Coryell on the songs “Festival” and “Island Blue,” in addition to future Santana drummer Rodney Holmes.

On his 1992 album Love Dance, Thompson continued to record in the funk-jazz vein, enlisting the help of Holmes for the title track. This song starts off with a solid funk beat but switches to a Latin beat for the chorus. Thompson glides over the form, executing wonderfully timed blues lines and cascades of arpeggios that show his obvious influence from Herbie Hancock. On “Joyful Noise,” drummer Greg Humphries switches up between straight funk beats and 6/8 Latin grooves as tenor saxophonist Doug Payne plays a nice and tasteful solo before setting Thompson up for his solo.

The following year, Thompson released The Magic In Your Heart. Drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave, who later became a key player on the New York jazz/hip-hop crossover scene, complements the laid back nature of the album with his hip-hop, jazz influenced sound. Thompson’s lines and phrasing are enhanced by the pocket groove of Dave on the song “Promised Land.” This album captures the diversity of Thompson better than most of his previous releases. He swings hard over Dave’s up tempo ride beat on “Mi Hermana” and reveals his rhythm 'n' blues sensibilities on the song “For Kelly.”

Also during the early 1990s, Thompson became the house pianist for the West Virginia-based, nationally syndicated radio show Mountain Stage. He also made appearances on BET Jazz with Ramsay Lewis and has appeared as a guest on the radio show Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland.

Thompson began incorporating more local musicians into his band during late 1990s. Charleston-born drummer Timmy Courts appeared on Thompson’s 1996 album Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit, while saxophonist Doug Payne began playing with him earlier in the 1990s. Both musicians are staples in Thompson’s current band. In addition, he added South Charleston-born guitarist Ryan Kennedy, who studied at the Berklee College of Music, around 2000. Kennedy continues to play with Thompson in his live and studio bands.

In 2006, Thompson released the album Hit From the Git, recorded live at Legends in Charleston, West Virginia. Thompson demonstrates his bebop skills on the title track, incorporating a difficult melodic line over Timmy Court’s cut time funk beat. Other notable songs include the group’s cover of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” which receives a much slower tempo treatment than the original version, and a new version of Thompson’s more popular original tunes from the 1980s, “Brother’s Keeper.”

Bob Thompson continues to lend his piano skills to Mountain Stage, and has been active as a private instructor for more than forty years. Thompson resides in the Charleston suburb Cross Lane.

Select Discography

Morning Star (Rainbow, 1981)

7 In 7 Out (Rainbow, 1984)

Brother’s Keeper (Intima, 1986)

Say What You Want (Intima, 1988)

Wilderness (Intima, 1989)

Love Dance (Ichiban, 1992)

The Magic In Your Heart (Ichiban, 1993)

Contributor: Jared Pauley