The ‘buzz’ around rising pianist Isaiah J. Thompson continues to grow. The Power of the Spirit is his second album and first live one. It was recorded at Dizzy’s Club and is released on Blue Engine Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s in-house record label, appropriate in that Thompson has frequently played with Wynton Marsalis in various configurations. The album features bassist Phillip Norris (who has been gigging with The Emmet Cohen Trio recently), fiery tenorist Julian Lee, and drummers TJ Reddick, and Domo Branch, each on select tracks.
Thompson, already with a staggering resume about which the following just scratches the surface, delivered his debut album as a leader, Isaiah J. Thompson Plays the Music of Buddy Montgomery in 2020. The 25-year-old earned Second Place in the 2018 Thelonious Monk (now Herbie Hancock) Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition and is now one of five finalists for the most prestigious piano award in the 2023 American Pianists Awards – the same event won by Aaron Diehl, Sullivan Fortner, and Emmett Cohen, to name a few. Thompson appeared on Steve Turre’s 2022 Generations and is a trio member for John Pizzarelli’s upcoming Stage and Screen. In many respects, the Jazz House Kid and Julliard graduate has already arrived, but this live set will undoubtedly steepen his already rocketing trajectory.
Like young generation pianists such as Fortner and his fellow Jazz House Kid graduate Cohen, Thompson is a straight-ahead cat, with similarities to Cohen but here focuses on his own gospel-inflected originals with nods mostly to revered pianists in the soul-jazz vein – Bobby Timmons, Phineas Newborn Jr., and Cedar Walton. Right away the quartet launches Thompson’s almost 11-minute rousing “The IT Department,” a soulful burner that reveals the considerable chops of Lee, the authoritative bass of Norris who is also clearly an up-and-comer to watch, and the rhythmic power of drummer TJ Reddick who is in the mold of Jeff Tain Watts. Thompson shows his complete arsenal – solid comping, original soloing, and great command of dynamics. He can heat it up. The title draws its name as a play on the pianist’s initials and a response from his non-musical father about Thompson’s musical development – “Music is his department.”
The second already-released single is “Tales of the Elephant and the Butterfly” where Thompson’s thundering touch, rolling arpeggios, and trills evoke Les McCann while tenorist Lee digs down into Gene Ammons/Ike Quebec-like territory. We just don’t find many contemporary players getting to the gutty, soulful level that Thompson, Lee, and quartet reach. Similarly, “The Soul Messenger” brims with a bright and classic ‘60s soul-jazz feel, Lee, blowing with abandon over the romping trio motoring at full throttle, bringing it to an explosive climax. Norris takes a declarative pizzicato intro to Thompson’s “For Phineas,” a nod to Newborn, Jr, the gospel-oriented pianist that greatly influenced him. Following Norris, the band, with Branch on the kit, jumps in at full fury, Thompson absolutely monstrous on the ivories with Lee equally unbounded. Branch matches their intensity in his solo before the full quartet returns with yet another combustible finale.
“Good Intentions (learn our names, say them right)’” features a lengthy, highly energetic piano intro from Thompson in this angular, Monk-influenced piece yet his solo mid-piece is at that infectious intersection of Monk and soul-jazz a la Timmons and Walton. Lest you thought ballads were not in Thompson’s repertoire, he and the band dial down with the tender “Thank You Betty.” That sets the stage for the almost sixteen-minute title track finale with drummer Reddick returning as the quartet concludes its effervescent onslaught to a brisk, swinging tempo.
To those who say jazz is just not exciting enough for them, suggest they listen to Power of the Spirit, one of this year’s most dynamic releases, a must-have for enthusiasts of straight-ahead, blood-pumping soul-jazz, 21st-century style. Thompson will be a force to be reckoned with well into the foreseeable future.