Talking Jazz with Thor Polson

Jazz pianist Thor Polson has recently released a new CD, “Thor Polson & Friends, The Portal.” Besides performing, Polson teaches piano and languages: Latin, ancient Greek and German. One afternoon, we met at Bloomsbury Coffee House in Ashland.

EH: Tell me about your performances.

TP: It’s just an expression of pure joy. We play the music that I and other band members love. It’s flipping the joy switch. I count it down, and we’re just off to the races. I suppose I feel responsible for having prepared all that music; but when I’m playing it, I feel that it has gone through me, that I haven’t generated it. To me, musicians are conduits, not vessels: I don’t feel responsible for the music. When people compliment me, I don’t know what to say. I suppose, if I were playing a completely written-out piece of music, OK. But when it gets into improvising, I don’t know what will come out. It will depend on my mood, or my health, or the angle of the sunlight, or moss growing on a tree. Who knows what will happen?

EH: How did you become a jazz pianist?

TP: I grew up on a steady diet of classical music. In my mid-teens, I became interested in jazz. In college, one of my professors turned me on to Dave Brubeck. Listening to Brubeck had quite an influence on me as a human being. I graduated from Grinnell College with a double major in English and music. I took a lot of ethno-musicology, Baroque music, surveys of western music courses, with a thorough grounding in theory too, because jazz is a highly theoretical undertaking. The complex harmonies, the rhythms, the voicings — it’s a lifelong study.

EH: Tell me about the structure of jazz pieces.

TP: Jazz is not everyone’s cup of tea because (to many people) it sounds chaotic. If you have four musicians, you have four musicians improvising simultaneously. Many types of musicians use lead sheets. A lead sheet is the skeleton of the piece. The skeleton involves seeing the harmonic structure. You have a series of chords, the so-called chord progression. You have the melodic component. You have a time signature. You have a key signature. You may have a tempo marking. Then it’s up to the musicians to take that and run with it.

Improvising has been called an instantaneous form of composition. Composition has been described as extremely slow improvising. From measure to measure, a composer (Beethoven or Aaron Copeland) might suppose, “I could do this, no I’ll do that.” It’s glacial improvising.

EH: What is the direction of jazz?

TP: There is jazz fusion: Just as jazz fused with classical music, just as it fused with rock, just as it fused with Latin music, just as it fused with funk, jazz is now fused with hip-hop. It means that the music will continue to thrive. Jazz has proven to be very adaptable. If new music isn’t being created within the given genre, then as far as I’m concerned, the music is dead or dying. I compare it with museum exhibits in glass cases. You walk through a gallery and look. But I always want to look outside the museum and see what’s going on.

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