Playing to ‘A New Standard’: Exclusive Interview With Jazz Pianist Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo

Among family, friends, and his many acquaintances, Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo is known for his infectiously positive spirit, his playful hijinks, and a smile that absolutely lights up a room.

But it’s the music that emanates deep within Egbo-Egbo’s soul his piano as a constant appendage, his jazz, classical and pop leanings and the constant intermingling and pushing of musical genres that reveals the creative standard of the man. As a Toronto-based pianist, composer, producer and sound designer, 2018 marks the official release of his new musical work, appropriately titled A New Standard.

The twelve-song album contains a wide selection of entries originally created by a number of legendary composers over the last two centuries. They are, naturally for Egbo-Egbo, culled from disparate genres: classical, jazz, and curiously, even rock music. In A New Standard, Egbo-Egbo lovingly performs a fun and up-temp version of Sigmund Romberg’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” as well as a rollicking account of John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” that merges brilliantly into the classically jazzy and beloved theme song from the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon by composers Paul Webster and Robert Harris.

In a more contemporary sense, Egbo-Egbo’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s”Make You Feel My Love” brings a wonderfully fresh and emotional sense of affection to the beloved classic, but surprisingly, there’s also a perfectly lonely interpretation of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” found on the new compilation, whose aural sense of isolation any fan of the band might expect and adore. This time, it’s just with a piano.

Biff Bam Pop’s consulting editor and regular contributor, JP Fallavollita, got the chance to steal Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo away from his busy schedule to talk music, his home city of Toronto, and the release of his latest album, the shimmering and wonderful A New Standard.

JP Fallavollita: First off, Thompson, thank you for taking the time to speak with us here at Biff Bam Pop!– it’s much appreciated! How are you doing these days? I imagine it’s been a busy few months?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: Thanks JP! Things have been great. Life is super busy. I feel like I’m being pulled in many different directions, but that’s the way it goes sometimes and I’m just happy have so much on my plate.

JP Fallavollita: Most of our readers are keen on pop culture, be it pop culture in film, television, art or in music, but they probably haven’t heard your work – not as of yet, anyway. Perhaps you can tell us what it was that first piqued your interest in music and specifically, jazz music and the piano?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: Well, I’ve been playing music all my life since I was five. I started playing classical piano, like many others, and then transitioned to jazz. Music for me is just another limb. It’s never not been a part of my life. Jazz was slowly introduced to me by different music instructors and peers.

JP Fallavollita: Over the years, you’ve visited and played in many cities around the globe, to many different audiences, but Toronto is definitely your proud home. From growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park and all of your charitable and volunteer work there, including your work with Dixon Hall, Regent Park School of Music, the Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo Arts Foundation, music studies at both Humber College and the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, to performing at local establishments like Poetry Jazz Café, The Rex, Reservoir Lounge, Burdock Music Hall, and so many others, what is it about Toronto that you find inspiring?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: It took me traveling around the world to start to truly appreciate Toronto as a city.

When I was younger, I always thought I would end up living somewhere else. Who knows? I still may end up doing that. However, you start to get a true appreciation of everything this city has to offer, and the diversity that is a common theme, from everything like food, music, people, and culture. Toronto truly has so much to offer.

And it has a strong music scene. I remember when I first started playing, it felt like a lot of jazz clubs were closing down at the time – Montreal Bistro and Top of the Senator to name a few; but in the past few years there seems to be a resurgence, and new clubs are opening up. I’m definitely very thankful for the ones that have lasted like The Rex, The Reservoir Lounge, Nawlins and the other clubs that have popped up to fill the gaps when things took a little dip.

JP Fallavollita: I was lucky enough to listen to A New Standard, your latest release, last year – but it finally made its official release a few weeks ago via the Entertainment One label. Your last album of original songs, Short Stories, came out in 2014. Can you tell me a little about how A New Standard and your relationship with Entertainment One came to be?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: A New Standard was me taking influences, both new and old, and compiling them together. The album got the attention of eOne and a partnership was formed. As part of that partnership, they agreed to re-release A New Standard on the label and give it global exposure, for which I am extremely excited.

JP Fallavollita: In your experience, what are the major artistic differences in recording an album of original works, as heard on your first release, Short Stories, and recording one of covers, as heard on A New Standard?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: For me, the process was similar with the exception of the fact the when you record music that has already been put out, you have to try and find the balance between creating something new but not going so far that your interpretation is unrecognizable.

JP Fallavollita: There’s a great mix of genres on your new album, albeit, all tinged with your jazz influence. Why this mix of songs on the album and what made you want to specifically record Spider-Man with this collection?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: Honestly it comes from playing so many gigs over the years! At some point in time, as you create sonic wallpaper for an audience that may not always be listening, you find ways to make the experience fun for yourself and your band mates. Many of the mash-ups are as a result of some of these gigs.

JP Fallavollita: As a quick aside and as a bit of a pop culture Easter Egg, did you know that the original 1967 recording of Spider-Man was recorded at the old RCA Studios on 225 Mutual Street, right here in Toronto? That’s some sort of perfect musical karma for a jazz-soaked son of the city, right?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: That’s hilarious I had no idea!

JP Fallavollita: Curiously, a couple of more famous, pop-oriented songs make their way onto the track listing of A New Standard. Many listeners would certainly recognize Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” and Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film).” Certainly, the latter song is a more curious choice to arrange in outright jazz stylings as we’re all so used to the avant garde rock original. Why these two choices for the album – and what do you feel you, and jazz, lend to these particular songs?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: I think music is music. Regardless of genre, you are picking from the same set of twelve notes to create music. For me it has never felt like a big stretch playing one genre to the next. I think I’m not doing anything different than what many of the old legends did when they re-interpreted the popular music of their day.

I think that both of the songs (you mention) are very beautiful. I got the idea of (covering) the Radiohead song from another pianist name Brad Mehldau. He’s covered a lot of Radiohead music. I’ve always been aware of “Make You Feel My Love,” but really enjoyed Adele’s version and thought it would be great to do my own.

 I hate to say that I listen to everything, and acknowledge that it is impossible, but I do listen to a wide range of music. Some of the various artists I find myself listening to are: Royal Blood, Vulpeck, Christian Scott, Robert Glasper, Ed Sheeran and others. I’ve really enjoyed looking for new music on Spotify and discovering new artists from all over the place.

JP Fallavollita: You have the A New Standard release party coming up on Tuesday, February 13, at the famous Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto – free of charge to anyone who loves music. Who are you playing with that night and what might we expect from you and your band? What might be a surprise to concert goers?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: The band from the album will be with me that night – Randall Hall on bass and Jeff Halischuk on drums. As well, Nikki Ponte will also join us to do the vocal piece she is featured on.

I am excited about the show because we will also showcase music which we plan on recording for the next album. Fans will be able to expect a high energy performance from the band and a jazz trio presented in a way that people aren’t used to, especially with the Horseshoe not known as the eminent Toronto Jazz club these days.

JP Fallavollita: Finally, I found the following liner notes you wrote on A New Standard particularly interesting: “With change comes a new beginning and a new ending. Each time we get better our starting point moves us closer to where we want to be. Our dreams and hopes evolve as our understanding deepens. When we reach for that new summit we create ‘A New Standard’.” Musically, what is the next summit for you to climb? Are you closer today to where you want to be?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: I think that for many artists, as with myself, your goal post as constantly changing. Sometimes, by the time your music comes out you’ve already moved past the stage in your life from the year prior.

I think I am still discovering my sound, and myself for that matter, so I stay open to the influences that could enhance my music and help me say what I need to say just better.

Many thanks to Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to Biff Bam Pop!

A New Standard, his new album is out now via the eOne label, and available on iTunes. As an album release celebration, Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo will be playing a free concert with his jazz band at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen Street West) at 9:00 PM on Tuesday, February 13.

You can catch up with the news and music of Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo at www.egbo.ca or follow him on Twitter @egbomusic or his YouTube Channel.

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