Continuing with our musician’s profiles, we have Igmar Thomas who sat down to discuss the difficulties in being a live musician today, especially in jazz. From developing his technique to discovering new ideas and theories about how and why modern music is the way it is, Igmar tells it how it is. If you want to know where hip-hop and jazz are going, here’s your insider look.
I understand that when you went to Berklee, your teacher there had you change up your technique and style of playing, how did that effect you?
Well, it was really the timing of it all. Before I got to Berklee I played in different bands and gigs and things like that. I’ve been playing gigs since I was probably 15 or 16. But once I got to Berklee, it was the first time I had a bunch of musicians around me that were my friends. It was a community of musicians. That was a different experience, and I got exposed to a lot of things. I started seeing different pictures and things of different trumpet players and I was around different players. I was just realizing the differences. Certain things that I was going through at the time pushed me to changed my embouchure. The teacher I had at the time — he was really the best teacher I’d had — Charlie Lewis, he was just really supportive. He didn’t really convince me to change it, but it was just the development. He’s just very familiar, he’s a master of the horn. He really laid a lot of information on me. And actually when I did it, I wasn’t even studying with him anymore. I had already finished all of my private lesson credits, but he helped me out a lot.
What’s practicing like for you these days?
I listen to a lot of jazz obviously, but then again I listen to a ton of hip-hop, R&B (old-school and new-school), and also a lot of singer things that I think are pretty cool. Subconsciously and consciously it comes out a lot in your playing. I don’t necessarily have to practice it, but you’re influenced by the music you listen to. Actually shedding, I’ve taken apart a lot of hip-hop songs and found different ways to put it through on trumpet. That goes for rappers; that goes for production, producers, every aspect. With a lot of Latin music there are certain rhythmic aspects that you can take. It’s real cool when you put jazz in it because it’s the most free art form. You can include all of your influences without feeling restricted by the standards. I think that’s the difference between when I do a jazz gig or a hip-hop gig. In a jazz gig anything goes more or less. I’m free to express myself. In the hip-hop gig there are certain things that are cool and certain things that may not be. You have to be conscious of the audience and what they’re into, because it’s not a jazz gig. There are a lot of bad performances where maybe a may get on a hip-hop gig and just approach it the exact same way. I don’t look at music that way. Everything has authenticity and it should be approached that way.
So you approach a jazz gig differently than a gig that you’re playing with Mos Def or Bilal?
It depends. A lot of times jazz and hip-hop could be the same. And a lot of the time it’s the same band or the same guys nowadays. It depends. Sometimes it is the cliché thing where I’ve got to put on the suit and tie and go do the jazz gig because that’s sort of how it’s presented nowadays. I might feel uptight and restricted in that dress because that’s not how I dress day-to-day. But then again I get on the stage and I can play whatever I want, so I’m completely free. It’s the opposite with the hip-hop gig. I might dress how I dress on a regular basis, but I’m definitely much more conscious of what it is I’m playing. I can’t just go in there and start trying to sound like John Coltrane because…you can say it’s over their head or they’re just not used to it or you can call it whatever you want, but it’s generally not really appropriate for a Mos Def gig or something like that.
Do you think it’s not appropriate based on the audience’s reaction or the rapper’s standards?
I take every aspect into account. I take the energy in the room into account. Sometimes your jazz-ness or whatever you want to call it comes out whether you know it or not. It’s not like you can distinguish all of it. It’s really just being in tune with the atmosphere. That’s what I learned, you know, because straight up and down I’m a trumpet player in 2011 and people aren’t used to hearing trumpet over Dilla or over Dr. Dre. The guys that know me are, but the general public is not exposed to jazz. They’re generally intrigued about it, but they’re not generally exposed to it.
Do you think that the general public is not conscious of the jazz-hip-hop connection?
No I don’t, because anything that you throw some instruments on, especially in this sort of setting we work in, they’re going to call it jazz. A jazz purist may not even deem it as jazz, they might call it something else. But I’m not even concerned about it; you can call it pancakes because I’m not worried about it. The thing is, to a lot of musicians and music industry folks, jazz is another name for death. They don’t want that anywhere near associated with their stuff. Other times it’s the opposite where they want to feel artsy or musically sophisticated, but their music has nothing to do with it. It goes both ways, but either way I’m not concerned. This is what I’ve been doing my entire life and people who hear it are really into it.
What’s the idea behind your band, The Cypher?
A cypher like the band is in a circle when we perform and in my situation we’re taking the message of old, you know, the whole jazz thing and we’re repackaging it and making it relevant to people that are our age, which is what I’ve been doing. I try to take a different approach and make it relevant so people feel like they can listen to it as opposed to them just hearing something that may be 60 years old and not being able to grab onto it.
What’s different about your approach?
I just listen to it and it’s just who I am. It’s just being of that culture. With hip-hop, you listen to it, you dress that way, you walk that way, you talk that way, and you just are. It’s not really a question or anything like that, it’s inside of you. That’s how I’ve felt my whole life. Honestly, I feel that way with a lot of musicians, but then there are plenty of musicians who don’t take that approach as they cross genres. With hip-hop, I guess still being kind of young, there are plenty of guys that try to change it up and that’s what I’m striving for. It’s definitely a conscious decision to emphasize different beats or play something staccato maybe, you’re phrasing. You have to pay attention to your phrasing in hip-hop especially because you’re doing 16 bar verses and then hooks. Hooks are what makes it flow in hip-hop. It’s sometimes the opposite of jazz. They’re used to getting up there and playing for five minutes as opposed to playing for 30 seconds and then going back to the chorus. It’s shorter songs in general. As opposed to a thirteen minute jazz song, you might play four hip-hop songs in that time, more like a DJ, just to keep our generation of ADD going. Nobody in the mainstream is playing the whole song whether you’re talking radio, DJ, MTV, BET, none of them. It’s musical ADD within the masses. Within jazz you have to take that into account. You can’t get up there and play for that long.
I’ve heard you describe your music as audible art, what does that mean?
It has a lot to do with how I see things based on the fact that I play trumpet and that I don’t have words or lyrics in my main thing that I’m doing. So people are free to interpret it however they want, and of course music in general is art. It’s more like looking at a painting; to each person, they interpret it as they like. Anybody can explain it you, but only you can see and perceive how you want to interpret that Van Gogh or that Picasso. It’s the same thing with jazz and instrumental music I believe. A person is expressing themselves on an instrument and people can pick up on that, but to each person, they perceive it differently. To me it’s like a masterpiece. It takes a great artist to include all the right colors and just make it beautiful.
How did your weekly jam sessions come about and why do you feel they are important?
I was just walking in Harlem where I live and I saw this club called Creole. It was kind of empty, but the first person I see ended up being the owner. I told him I was just going in there to inquire what goes on and perhaps maybe I want to start something. I just approached him straight up. Him and I connected and had a similar wavelength in terms of what we wanted to do. He told me his vision and it matched up with something I’ve wanted to do for a while which was the jam session, the cornerstone of live music and music in general, but especially jazz. Music was born off of jam sessions. It was innovated off of jam sessions. You accomplish many things that can’t be done on just some show. We just really needed something today in New York that we could call our own that involved a lot of the guys today on the scene. A place to hangout, a place they could call home that they could go to every week and just check the temperature of Revive Da Live, because we kind of have this camp and movement of listeners, but also musicians. You progress the music. It’s a place we can all come together and combine our ideas and hopefully move forward kind of like the way Bird and Dizzy did it at Birdland.
Speaking of Revive, what do you see as the importance of what Revive Da Live is doing?
Revive is for us…us being musicians in a position like me today — young, into jazz and hip-hop, on the music scene playing with a lot of different guys and a lot of different genres, and expressing that through our music. Revive is making it more evident than it has been in the past.
Why jazz and hip-hop?
To me, they can essentially break down to the same thing, you know, the square root of the two is the same. It’s just something that I felt. I didn’t think like, oh this would be great. It’s just like, I hear music in my head all the time, and whether it’s a hip-hop beat or a jazz melody, or something I’m just hearing in my head, I’m always hearing mixtures of stuff. That’s what the title is, but again, I don’t really care what people call it. I guess that’s the appropriate term, that’s fine, but for me it’s always kind of been that way. I’ve been doing that my entire life. But with Revive, it’s just bringing exposure and more appreciation to true artists, you know, guys who spend as much time as a rocket scientist perfecting their craft to get on the stage and get underpaid. You have to have a lot of respect for the younger guys that are doing this, because it’s more underappreciated than ever, but here we are in the trenches, and we’re thriving forward. We’re still exposing it and adding our salt and pepper to it.
Any favorite performances that stand out to you?
Yes, performing with Lionel Hampton and his big band. Also all the great jazz and hip-hop artists I’ve worked with; you always learn something new and different whether it be how to perform or how to conduct myself. I don’t take any opportunity for granted.
Anyone you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Herbie Hancock. [laughs] Everybody would say that. That’s the true master. That’s the difference between a lot of guys in what we do and I suppose like a rapper. We take somebody like Herbie as our role model and our idol and we strive to be what they are, but we’re not chasing what they do; we’re chasing what they chase. We’re taking the same steps and process, but we’re putting out our own styles and our own way of seeing it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done. I don’t think it’s a situation where we should be just repeating the same 1960’s jazz. We all know what Miles would say about that. He would say, “Stop playing my shit.” He would just call it lame. We saw how quickly he moved on three or four times over. Jazz was never supposed to be stagnant, it was never supposed to be like that. For whatever it’s worth, you know, I can respect and appreciate everybody’s different voice and approach in music I definitely think there are certain cornerstones and private standards that jazz has and a certain respect that it requires, but at the end of the day, we’re all musicians. Miles didn’t listen to jazz, he listened to a lot of classical, flamenco, and then later on rock. Trane listened to a lot of Indian and Eastern music, and also classical. Bird listened to tons of classical. It’s really just repeating itself. So first and foremost, every one of us down to Louis Armstrong, we’re musicians. And musicians are the most worldly, open minded type of people. Those lines are much more easily crossed when you don’t involve the money and the PR campaigns.
Interview by Eric Sandler