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Passing it down

Rich Thompson's Generations Trio


Rich Thompson will never forget the time when trumpeter Clark Terry's quintet visited his high school in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It was his first taste of world-class jazz and he absorbed all he could from the veteran players. "I was blown away," says Thompson.

Two decades later, he was drumming with the Count Basie Orchestra, a band full of seasoned musicians in their 60s. Thompson, then in his 30s, profited greatly from playing with the older generation.

"The music has always been passed down for the last 100 years," says Thompson, who has served as drum-set instructor at Eastman School of Music since 1996. Now 55, he is passing on his knowledge to the two younger members of his Generations Trio: bassist Miles Brown, 34, and pianist Chris Ziemba, 25, both Eastman graduates. The group has just released its first record, a strong, straight-ahead affair titled "Generations," on the Origin label.

It was while playing gigs with Brown's father — guitarist and (now retired) Ithaca College professor Steve Brown — that Thompson first noticed Brown. "I met Miles when he was 16," says Thompson. "I'd go to Ithaca and there'd be this 16-year-old kid wielding a bass. At first I thought maybe he'd rather be hanging out with his friends, but I soon realized he was a serious young bassist. I enjoyed playing with him."

Brown was named for Miles Davis. Despite the name and the fact that his father is a musician, there was no pressure to play. "My parents let me come to music on my own," says Brown. While he listened to Davis' music, "I was more influenced by the bass players on his records."

In fact, Brown still learns from an older generation of bass players: Scott LaFaro, Dave Holland, Paul Chambers, and Charlie Haden. When his Brown's father first suggested he check out LaFaro's playing, he bought a Bill Evans record that included the bassist.

"I listened over and over to 'Portrait in Jazz,'" says Brown. "Hearing LaFaro being conversational in a trio situation made a huge impact on me. I didn't want to be just a bass player playing walking lines behind others. Even today I try to take an interactive approach."

Of course, it didn't hurt to have a musician father. "The music was always in the house," says Brown. "Musicians were always in the house, too, and I got to see what kind of ornery bastards they were and were not. I got to see what the lifestyle of a jazz musician was and I got to see the lifestyle of a college professor. It was all very attractive."

Brown followed his father's path. An active player, who has performed with Ralph Lalama, Ben Monder, Sam Rivers, and others, he is also coordinator of the jazz program at Oakland University, outside of Detroit. He wrote three of the album's tunes.

Thompson, who has played with Tito Puente, Phil Woods, Joe Pass, and others, began collaborating with Ziemba when the pianist was a teenager enrolled at Eastman. "I met Chris when he was a freshman and immediately started playing with him," says Thompson. "There is this generational thing. I was always playing with people who were older than me, but the music was always ageless. Chris had it when he was 18; I could hear it in his playing. Age is just a number."

Ziemba, who last year won the prestigious Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition, had forged a reputation as a classical player and composer long before coming to Eastman. In fact, he appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" at the age of 11.

Ziemba had done a lot of composing as a child and was winning awards. The media started paying attention and Letterman's staff asked him to participate in a segment on child prodigies.

"In the first skit, I was in the green room playing one of my compositions for Dave. That was cool," says Ziemba. "In another skit they mock-fired Paul Shaffer and had me come out in one of his ridiculous pink suits."

Ziemba's precociousness continued when, in 2009, he was asked to appear on "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" on NPR. Eastman professor Harold Danko had sent McPartland a tape of Ziemba's senior recital and she was impressed. Was he nervous?

"No," says Ziemba. "She puts you right at ease. What an amazing lady."

As for heroes, Ziemba also goes back a couple of generations to pianists like Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans. When it comes to contemporary pianists, he has great respect for Brad Mehldau, with whom he got to study.

"He's been a huge influence," says Ziemba, who is currently in the artist diploma program at the Juilliard School. "I've always liked pianists with a classical touch. Having been trained classically, I have an ear for pianists that employ those sorts of methods. Brad's approach to the piano and the way he oversteps the limitations of what many pianists are doing now — he's always trying different textures — that's kind of an inspiration for me."

In addition to teaching and playing with Generations, Thompson still goes on the road with the Byron Stripling Quartet. He says it's a balancing act but, "Eastman is one of those rare places. They want you to perform and remain active. They realize you're bringing that right back to the classroom," Thompson says.

For Thompson, being on the road is a revitalizing experience. "When I go out with Byron's band, we all act like we're in college again. We're up all hours. We have the best time."

As for The Generations Trio, Ziemba sums it up best: "It's been a treat for me. As a developing musician, one of the things you look forward to the most is finally being able to play with the people who taught and inspired you."

The Generations Trio will hold a CD-release party Sunday, August 26, 3-5 p.m. at the Bop Shop, 1460 Monroe Ave.