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A history lesson from Sir Charles

February 15, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Jazz history was on display in full living color Thursday in the performance of pianist Sir Charles Thompson.

At 84, the veteran artist offered a fascinating view of the vital jazz transition that took place 60 years ago when the elements of the swing style gradually gave way to the new rhythmic and harmonic concepts of bebop.

Making a rare appearance, Thompson played in the warm and cozy setting of the new jazz room at the Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel, well aided by the responsive support of bassist Isla Eckinger and drummer Paul Kreibich.

His selections consisted primarily of the sort of standards favored by the boppers of the '40s in their efforts to extend and enrich the harmonies of the popular songs of the period -- songs such as "Whispering," "Embraceable You," "Body and Soul" and "All the Things You Are."

Thompson's historical relevance was particularly evident in his improvisations. His soloing was clear and straightforward, primarily reliant on melodic excursions in his right-hand playing, underscored with subtle chordal accents in his left-hand accompaniment. Still linked to the riffing of swing styles, his lines shaped those riffs around the piquant, extended harmonies of bop.

He further enhanced the music with his subtle use of musical space, allowing life-giving light and air to enhance the communicativeness of his improvised lines.

Not quite swing, not quite bop, the overall results -- which climaxed with a romp through his bop-era hit "Robbins' Nest" -- compellingly revealed the links between the two styles.

Still playing with vigorous authority, Thompson was a vivid reminder of the long-term capacity of jazz to survive as a creative force, undeterred by the changing winds of fad and fashion.

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