Sir Charles Thompson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Sir Charles Thompson 

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SIR CHARLES THOMPSON

Some are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them, and still others thrust it upon themselves--pianist Charles Thompson, for instance, granted himself a sort of knighthood in the early 40s simply by adding "Sir" to his name. Presumptuous, perhaps, but not entirely unjustified: Thompson's sparse chords and light touch recall the style of another jazz royal, Count Basie, a resemblance that helped him land a gig with former Basie saxist Lester Young at New York's landmark Cafe Society in 1942. That six-month stint exposed Thompson to bebop in its fledgling years, just before it supplanted the small-band swing he was playing with Young, and soon enough he'd adapted his uncluttered, flowing technique to the irregular accents, jagged melodic contours, and extended harmonies of the emerging idiom. He recorded early sessions with Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and Charlie Parker--music preserved in part on Thompson's own Takin' Off (Delmark) and Parker's At Storyville (Blue Note)--and composed what's still one of the most played tunes of the era, the graceful "Robbins' Nest." (He also had a long tenure with tenor saxist Illinois Jacquet, who occupies a similar position on the cusp of swing and bebop.) Born in 1918, Thompson has performed primarily with swing stars throughout his career; his effortless grasp of bebop serves as a reminder that it didn't just rebel against the swing music of the 30s but in many ways evolved from it. His performances here this week are, incredibly, his first in Chicago in 60 years: he last played here as a sideman with Lionel Hampton at the legendary Grand Terrace Ballroom. His recordings from the past decade or so have only been released on labels without U.S. distribution, but reviews of those discs and reports from the road suggest that his technique and ear are as strong as ever. He'll lead a quartet fronted by saxist Eric Schneider to kick off the Jazz Showcase's 45th annual Charlie Parker Month; on Thursday the band will record for an upcoming Delmark release. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, August 4 and 5, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, August 6, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

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