August 2 at 10:16pm
Chronique musicale 162
The dynamic sound of Johnbern Thomas
A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to attend a jazz concert by Reginald Policard and friends at the very nice Hotel Karibe in the Pétion Ville area. One of the musicians playing with him was a Haitian drummer I had not had the opportunity to hear in person yet: Johnbern Thomas. I hope this concert was videotaped, because I doubt that any description I give of Johnbern Thomas will be enough to adequately communicate the immense joy I had in listening and seeing him play. That is why, failing that, the CD he recently released , entitled “Mèsi” (written in 4 languages) , gives you an idea of the talent of this wonderful drummer. It is another gem of a CD in the history of Haitian jazz. Many of those who will read this Chronique might hear about him for the first time, but, Johnbern Thomas already has a solid following among Haitian jazz aficionados.
As you listen to Johnbern Thomas in that concert in Haiti, you can immediately notice how well he coordinates his play with the other instruments. Always attentive, he fills in every minute, every second of the song, almost responding to every note on the piano, anticipating what is going to happen. This was most remarkable during Réginald Policard’s piano solos. This is the mark of a great musician and you will hear it too as you listen to his CD.
The CD opens with a Johnbern Thomas’ composition, “Mèsi Lavi” , delicately sung by Sarah Jane Rameau. This is a beautiful ballad, one of those melodies that requires you to listen to it more than once to capture all subtleties of the song. Listen to the beautiful lines of Jonathan Michel’s haunting bass solo which seamlessly weaves into an equally harmonious piano solo by Johnson François. Most remarkable also is the introduction of the magnificent Godwin Louis’ solo on soprano sax. He does not only plays his instrument, but he holds a conversation that you can follow. You hear it also in the next tune entitled “Ti Sourit”, a composition by the late great conga player Lénord Fortuné, better known as Azor.
This is a remarkable arrangement of this tune. To begin with, it is rather rare that a composition by a Haitian drummer is taken up by a Haitian jazz player and subjected to such crdeative arrangement. This a real tribute to Azor, who is considered by the great Haitian pianist Eddy Prophète as probably the best Haitian conga player he ever felt comfortable playing jazz with. That Johnbern Thomas decided to include such tune on his CD is a confirmation of the esteem in which he is held by jazz musicians. It takes creativity to arrange a tune by Azor and this is what we get here. The tune is played at a furious pace which highlights remarkable solos by the talented series of musician playing with Johnbern Thomas: pianists Aaron Golberg and Johnson François, trumpet player Billy Buss, soprano sax player Godwin Louis, tenor sax Bennie Wallace, upright bassist Jonathan Michel and electric bassist Hermand Duverné, guitarist Junior Dorcelus, Conga player Arus Joseph of Strings fame, singers Lucia Di Pois and Sarah Jane Rameau.
Pianist Aaron Golberg surpasses himself in “Ti Sourit”. You will have to listen to his solo as well as that of trumpeter Billy Buss. As far as Godwin Louis’solo, this is the kind of sound that John Coltrane would enjoy. The arrangement on this song in a nice blend of jazz and Haitian rara, which allows Johnbern Thomas, conga player Arus Joseph and bass player Hemand Duverné to give vent to their inspirational roots. Listen to the transition from the trumpet solo to the sax solo. Out of this world!
I found each one of the tunes an absolute joy to listen to, but I want underline three in particular. Tune No, 3, “Hommage à Préval”is features its composer, Bennie Wallace on the tenor sax. The song is a very good reflection of the late president whose legendary demeanor and coolness served him well in the labyrinth of Haitian politics. Bennie Wallace sought to translate through his instrument the ups and downs of the man, weaving through the melody, expressing alternately a sense of laisser-aller, or a certain animation. That was the man maneuvering in Haitian politics and acquiring the reputation of one of the best Haitian politicians of his time.
Tune No. 4, “Bye Bye baby”, composed by Eddy Renaud is one of my favorites on the CD. I invite you to enjoy the beautiful lines played by bass player Jonathan Michel. What a conversation he is having with his instrument. This is what you call improvisation with a message.
Tune No. 5 is a wonderful arrangement of Charlie Parker’s famous composition “Scrapple from the Apple”. The creativity in this arrangement is remarkable. Soprano sax player Godwin Louis is featured prominently in this tune, along with guitarist Junior Dorcelus and pianist Johnson François. Godwin Louis’ solo is absolutely incredible and Johnbern Thomas provides impeccable support.
And speaking of creativity, listen to tune No. 10, the alternate take of Charlie Parker’s “ Scrapple from the Apple”. Johnbern Thomas, conga player Arus Joseph and Bennie Wallace just get loose in this rara arrangement in which all three musicians engage in quite a conversation.
There are ten songs on the CD, ten songs superbly executed with a number of superb musicians and a superb drummer who is destined to great things. It may sound like I am exaggerating, but you should go get your own copy of the Johnbern Thomas Trio, so that you can experience what I am talking about.
Serge Bellegarde for Windows on Haiti – August 2017
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