Chicago Jazz Magazine
Jazz musician, vocalist and songwriter, Michele Thomas has a new group she will be debuting this weekend (December 16th & 17th) at Pete Miller's in Evanston called SoulMeme. We caught up with Thomas to learn more about how she got started in music, the different styles of music she loves that has helped to shape her sound and the new group she will be debuting this weekend.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have been performing around Chicago for many years but I think it would be interesting for our readers to learn more about where you grew up. Did you grow up in Chicago and were your parent’s musicians or into music?
Michele Thomas: I grew up on the west side of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood. Ogden Avenue was on one side of our block and Cermak Road was on the other side, and you could stand on the corner of Lawndale and Ogden and see clear through to the downtown skyline - the Sears Tower and everything...And my parents were definitely very musical. My dad was a preacher and loved to sing. My mom learned to play piano from a young age and grew up playing and singing in church. They were big gospel music connoisseurs and in addition to a huge record collection they invested in both an upright Baldwin piano and a B-3 Hammond organ for our house - so their love of music was pretty serious. My mom in particular loved Sam Cooke and casually talked about how he often came through the local church scene and would sing at a lot of the black churches on the Westside. She also had a secret love for Oscar Peterson, but had to keep it to herself as my dad was pretty religious and not down for playing that “devil’s music” in our house, which was hilarious.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was there a specific artist or experience that influenced you and introduced you to jazz music?
Thomas: Funny enough, my earliest memory of jazz music kind of coming into my psyche was at 6 or 7 years old watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood. I didn’t know I was listening to jazz or who Johnny Costa was but he and the trio backing up that show was everything! I mean, how lucky were we as kids to hear that caliber of music on a children’s show? But later on, when I got to high school, my jazz band director would give me my very first jazz album which was Ella Fitzgerald singing Gershwin songs that was arranged by Nelson Riddle. She scatted over Lady Be Good and my mind was blown - so after that I was hooked.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you decide, you wanted to make music your profession? Was there a specific performance that gave you the confidence that you could do it for a living?
Thomas: I’m very much an introvert so it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I wanted to perform professionally, even though ironically enough I had been singing in front ofa lot of different audiences for most of my life and was studying music at a high school for the fine arts. Plus, my dad in particular was not too keen on me getting into the “show business”, so I really had a hard time envisioning a viable path to a music career. After high school, I didn’t get into university right away, so I took a year off and went part-time to Triton College out in River Grove, IL so I could figure out what I was doing. There I met Shelley Yoelin and Rich Armandi who were heading up the jazz combos and jazz band there, and they got me involved and were really encouraging to me, and it helped me to feel like a career was a bit more of a possibility. So that eventually led me to go to a university and study for a music degree. Joe Lill who heads up the jazz program at North Park University was basically my mentor and showed me how to build a viable music career in the Chicago jazz scene.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have a new group called “Michele Thomas and SoulMeme” debuting at Pete Miller’s in Evanston December 16th & 17th. First tell us the significance/meaning of the name SoulMeme.
Thomas: We came up with the idea of SoulMeme as a way of describing our music and what drives it. We think of memes that spread through our culture like pictures, symbols, phrases and even gestures. Memes come into existence when message meets motion; and that’s a concept that I’ve pondered about a lot as it relates to the propagation of music, especially jazz. My desire is that jazz doesn’t merely exist, but it continues to evolve, grow and instill its relevance into future generations in a spectral manner.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did the concept for the band come about and what repertoire will you be performing?
Thomas: The core members of our band actually go way back. Darren Scorza, my husband and our drummer, Neal Alger our guitarist and Bob Lovecchio our bassist and I have played together for years. And I think we’ve always been drawn together through the years because of a shared musical aesthetic and our fluidity between jazz and other genres. So I knew these were the guys I would want to continue on the journey with as I wrote more original music and new arrangements.
We’ll be performing a mixture of contemporary and straight-ahead jazz, infused with a little gospel, r&b and sometimes funk. And we’ll cover some great arrangements by Joe Sample, Percy Mayfield, Abbey Lincoln, Luciana Souza, Billie Preston, Wayne Shorter, Maia Sharp, and Josef Myrow, as well as a few of my own originals sprinkled throughout the sets.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who will be in the band at Pete Miller’s this Friday and Saturday night?
Thomas: This weekend I’ll be playing with some of our extended SoulMeme family of players who I also love and admire.…on Friday we’ll feature Darren Scorza on drums, Neal Alger on guitar and James Ross on bass. And on Saturday we’ll feature Darren once again on drums, Jo Ann Daugherty on piano and Cory Biggerstaff on bass.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: After this performance, what do you have coming up in the future?
Thomas: SoulMeme will be back at Pete Miller’s in January and we’re working towards more bookings in 2017. But I’m also excited to premiering at the new Winter’s Jazz club in January. We’ll be performing more of our classic and vintage jazz sets on that evening. My hope is to put together a demo of original music later next year and work towards another album release going forth.
"Michele Thomas takes her inspiration from Stevie Wonder, even covering some of his most familiar songs on Messenger. However, as jazzy as Wonder can get, Thomas is even jazzier than the iconic Motown artist.
She opens with “Have a Talk with God,” which leans heavy upon funky electric guitar. Thomas also reveals a bit of a feminist strain when she refers to god as ‘she’ toward the end of the track.
Another religious one (then again, God has been all through Wonder’s work over the years) is “Jesus Children.” This song was likely originally inspired by the Jesus People movement of the late 60s/early 70s, particularly in Southern California where churches like Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel were accepting hippies of that era with open arms, while many mainstream churches were trying to hold these long-haired, sloppily-dressed young people at arm’s length. Thomas’ version includes plenty of brass horn work and female backing vocals.
Perhaps the most straightforward jazz song on this collection is “Dee Song (For Andrea).” It’s backed not by a funky guitar part, but with a gentle, Joe Pass-like traditional jazz electric bed, and built upon complicated jazz chords. It’s a soft song that Thomas sings prettily.
“Higher Ground” is sung with the necessary anger. When Red Hot Chilli Peppers covered it, they did so as though it were some sort of fun funk workout. And while the funk groove is undeniable, to sing it without vitriol directed toward the powers that be only gets it half right. Thomas’ version is jazzy, with horns and more of a jazz-fusion feel, rather than some sort of 70s funk. Oh, and she sounds really angry on it.
For “They Won’t Go When I Go,” Thomas transforms the tune into a percolating number that has African music elements running through it. The guitar part sounds a little Nigerian in places. Thomas holds back her vocals when singing it and lets the guitar and simple organ part take up much of the sonic space. At one point, Thomas works in a few lines of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which was a hit – and a popular Civil Rights song – from the 60s.
Thomas gives “If It’s Magic” a breezy jazz feel. The track swings with a shuffling groove. It’s colored by acoustic piano and busy drumming. It’s also a little on the Latin side, stylistically.
On “Triple Play,” Thomas performs her most complicated jazz vocal. The song sounds to be in 6/4 at times, but it’s by no means any sort of waltz. Thomas spars with her electric guitarist throughout, which makes the song into a sort of guitar versus vocal duel. Thomas even scats a bit on the tune.
The album closes with “Big Brother,” and it returns a bit to the African roots Thomas explored with “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Once again, percussion is upfront in the mix. Her take on this song may remind you a little of Paul Simon’s Graceland recording. The song’s lyric is quite dark, as it’s sung from the perspective of someone living in the ghetto. Even so, Thomas infuses the track with a bright, upbeat feel. It’s almost as though she’s fallen in love with the melody; which, in this case, takes priority over the lyric. Even so, it sounds strange to hear Thomas singing in a Chaka Khan-like voice about roach-infested apartments.
Overall, this is a fun collection of reinterpretations. When someone can take such liberties with the original material, and never spoil the memories of Wonder’s version, shows just how strong Stevie’s compositions are. They’re so great melodically other artists can play with them and come up with new and beautiful covers. You may not even reach back for the old Wonder records quite so quickly after listening to this one." Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
I'll Take Romance
"Vocalist Michele Thomas is one of those new artists that you anxiously wait to hear more from, after their first CD has been released. Indeed, if larks could record CDs, they'd sound like Michele. She has a style that is joyful and soulful, her love for jazz music emanates through her scats and song phrasing. This is one artist that you have no choice but to "dig" and I mean really sit up and listen. And that goes for even those who may not be hardcore jazz fanatics. Even if traditional jazz isn't your thing, Michele's seven track CD I'll Take Romance would change your mind before you could say the title of her CD. Michele sounds like an old jazz soul on the jazz standard "I'll Take Romance" and sings it with a level of familiarity as if it were written for her. Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" never sounded so good and Michele shows off her skills as she adds lyrics to this jazz instrumental standard. Delve into "My One and Only Love" and Stevie Wonder's "Where Were You When I Needed You" and see how mellow and pleasant they are. Truly gems. Other songs on the CD include "Marmaduke", "Gentle Rain" and a unique version of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday". It is neither straight-ahead jazz nor bordering on pop music. Just a musical oddity on a CD that more favors standard-like theme is all. Luckily for Michele, it turns out just fine."
"As Kornheiser would say, "clahhh-sic". As debut albums go, this one is especially strong. Michele has wonderful control and excellent use of tone color. The songs are a good mix of vibrant and melancholy; mostly standard straight-ahead fare. (Although the Duke's "Come Sunday" treatment could be called smooth jazz - but not as a euphemism for elevator music). After listening to it off and on since its debut, I have to say that my favorite cuts are "Marmaduke" and "Black Nile." Both have a nice delicate energy to them. Michele and her band keep things percolating nicely, while still never going over the top. "I'll Take Romance" is definitely something worth listening to on a quiet night at home with that special someone. If only romance were as easy to come by as this CD.
"(Michele has) a serious vocal gift. Stevie's "Where Were You..." took on the colors of autumn with (this) graceful unplugged unit. Patient, mature accenting; both the voice and the feeling together."
JuliansFlight.com - "Melody for the world"