In anticipation of his new album release What Remains via MNRK Music, RX Music sat down with Toronto-based pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo to break down the creative process and how he’s pushing his boundaries as a contemporary composer.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Thanks for chatting with us! This is really exciting, as your new album drops October 28! There are a lot of themes on the album that are a reflection of things we went through during COVID and the aftereffects of that time. What did you want to focus on when you started writing and composing?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo You know what? I didn’t. It’s funny, some of the stuff that was created came out of voice notes— which I don’t do enough of, and so going through the writing process I had a vision. I was planning to go away with the trio like, “Hey, let’s just go hang out for a couple of days and see what comes out of the music” or practice for the recording, kind of anticipation to see who can come up with stuff and work through some things. That didn’t happen. I said to myself, “Well, hey man, keep recording stuff on your voice notes and maybe you should try and go through it and see if there’s anything that you like.” So some of the tunes that are on the record are actually stuff that came out of those voice notes and that’s kind of how some of the themes came about, which is just sort of picking up the pieces of what else sort of “what remains.” It’s just like, “that’s what’s here.” I think for me, there is a very different range of things that are on the record and part of that is also a reflection of what’s happened too, that everything that has gone down has not been of equal weight. People have been impacted in very different ways. For some people COVID has just been an inconvenience. For others it’s been very devastating to their whole lives. And so that’s part of it. There’s a very stark difference in the way this was experienced and so that’s where some of that comes from. Not to be sort of dark and heavy, just “that’s just the way it is” and it’s really highlighted that disparity.
LMR Absolutely. I particularly enjoyed “What Was Taken.” I thought it was just a stunning piece altogether and it really had a sort of cinematic feel to it. It’s got lots of arcs and valleys and I really enjoyed it. When listening through your repertoire, I was curious about the running thread of covers and how you choose to incorporate those in what you release or what you play with your trio?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, I think it’s stuff we stumble on. You know what’s on there is stuff that I’ve been playing for years, and something like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that tune we’ve been playing for over decade. Obviously it’s a popular tune and you get asked enough times, “Hey, where can we hear that version of it? And you’re just like, “Nowhere.” So finally I was just like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to record that.” (laughs). It’s a lot of stuff that had already been a part of the repertoire for years and piecing some of those things together and saying, “Oh, let’s add that. Let’s see how that sounds and see if it fits with what we wanna put together.”
LMR I read that you typically like to try out new material live before recording. So that was sort of challenged by COVID for this record. What was your approach this time?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, so it’s funny you say that, so outside of the covers— this is the first record I would say the material hadn’t been performed extensively live before it went to recording and the biggest difference with that is that through its life span of playing it live, things change, maybe the feel changes, or something new comes to the arrangement and so that didn’t happen with what was presented because there was no opportunity to do that. So this will be a reverse, where we had a show in Orillia. We were playing a couple of tracks but the original tracks we actually had to use music, which is so bizarre for me because everything it’s not just that it’s been memorized, it’s that we’ve been playing it so often that there’s no need for that. But now I’m actually working almost in reverse, where I’ve written it and now I’m actually almost learning it as we come out of this and move into that live space again.
LMR Interesting and what’s the reception been like so far now that you’ve been able to play live again?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo It’s been great. So going back to the show in Orillia, we did that with some dancers and part of that was the choreographer took my music, both the new stuff and stuff that’s out and wanted to write pieces to that. For me it was a great experience of doing this full show with not just all my music, but music that someone had said, “I really like that and would like to choreograph dancers dancing to your music.” And so I’d say the reception has been great, which is an understatement, but it’s really just been unexpected. What’s cool is you look at an artist and you’re like, “Oh man, I really like that artist,” and you kind of have that feeling or envy someone but it’s really cool to be like, “Oh shoot, somebody might feel that way about my music too.” That’s kind of nice (laughs).
LMR And I mean, you’re no stranger to recognizing an opportunity as well. I know you work a lot with two different foundations and arts programs. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that— The Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo Arts Foundation and Evolving Through the Arts program?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, so Evolving Through the Arts actually is within the foundation under Thompson, that’s interesting because the Evolving Through the Arts program actually came out of being able to do some work. There was some funding to reach out to certain communities and I was like, “Oh, that would be cool to do that.” It wasn’t the initial vision for the foundation, which I’m still moving in that direction, but as someone who grew up taking lessons that were subsidized from programs that were supported by either private donors, United Way, things like that. I was very fortunate as a kid to not only take piano lessons that were affordable enough for my mom. I moved to Canada with just my mom and sister so she was the one paying for it. It had to be affordable before my dad came over. Having those opportunities and resources, the foundation actually comes from that and me really trying to replicate all the experiences that were very beneficial to me. One of those was music camps, I loved going to music camp. I think it’s very important to pull kids out the bubble that they’re in, meet other kids from other parts of the city or the province and not so much to measure yourself as a competition, but also just to see that there’s people doing things that you’re as much interested in. To build your confidence, understand that you have the ability to just do what they’re doing and that you’re not that far off or in fact, maybe just be right in line. And so I think those opportunities were extremely useful and beneficial. I still have friends from when I used to go to national music camp and as coincidence that’s in Orillia as well. And so that’s where the vision for the foundation came. And I’ve been fortunate that it’s also been able to do other things as well, besides that and create these scholarships and opportunities for different kids.
LMR Yeah, especially now that things are open. It seems like this is the perfect chance to get back out there and allow kids to be in the same room together and spend time and learn new skills. Get back to the music and what they enjoy!
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Exactly.
LMR So to pivot back to the record. I wanted to jump into specifically some of the tracks that spoke to you the most. Obviously “Eleanor Rigby” we are very familiar with, as well as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” What are some of the highlights that you think really pushed your boundaries as a composer?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo One of the cool things for me was I think of it as a sweet. Whether or not people will respond to it that way, but I guess “What Was Taken,” What Remains with possibilities and that music. Those pieces were actually part of my voice notes. “Anthem Rising” were voice notes too. So things I went back to listen to and kind of piece them together. My initial vision was to do stuff with strings. I really wanted to collaborate with strings. But again, that wasn’t something that was really possible just from the standpoint of— the freedom wasn’t there. As we were sort of opening and closing and opening and closing, I got to do a little music video with the artist named AHI, he did an acoustic video of some of his songs on this new record at Union Station. It was me on piano, where the string quartet and the quartet was called, The Odin Quartet. And so while we’re there and we’re playing and having a blast, and it sounded amazing, I just was like, “This is a sign and this is an opportunity for you to bring these guys on the record.” And so I said to them, I’d already recorded at the time, I’d actually recorded the trio and I said, “Hey, would you guys be comfortable with putting music on top?” And if we did an arrangement on a few pieces that I really envisioned strings being there, but didn’t think it was possible, but now seeing you, I think anything’s possible.” And they were like, “Sure.” I had literally just started the mixing process and so the timing was perfect. So for me that was a really great collaboration with them. I was the first time for this record that there was something that wasn’t even recorded on the same day and not even in the same room or same studio, but it worked together. I sat with them, worked with them. They were really cool and fast at building arrangements. So we built it together and then we went and recorded it, and it just fit perfectly.
LMR Since this is your first full-length album release in three years, that’s a pretty big deal! wanted to bring up the last track “Cola Cherry.” It was more of like an improvisation session, which I loved because when I think about jazz and piano, I always think of those off the cuff, off the tape moments where you’re wondering what’s going through the musician’s mind and what makes it on the record. I’ve always been very curious about that creative process. I was hoping you could describe some of that process for you in that extra recording time and how you know where to stop?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo You don’t. You know, it’s funny. There’s an element of like until I’m hearing it back, I don’t even remember we did it. And what’s interesting is— just because it’s super recent and it was literally just last week, the show we did with the dancers, there was a piece that was on the last record that was similar, which was like, “Hey, we’re in the studio, there’s a little bit extra time. Let’s see what comes up.” Maybe it makes it to record maybe it doesn’t. And so the single from the last record, “It’s Not That Serious” was actually a tune that was created very similarly. I just never learned it because one, I didn’t think initially it would make it to the record, two I didn’t really know what I was doing and I couldn’t be bothered to sit down and learn it, but it was a piece that people loved. I remember going to the St. Regis Hotel and the DJ was like, “Oh man, I play here. I spin your music.” I’m like, “Really?!” And then he just pops it on and mixes it in his house set. I found myself having to learn my own music because it was almost like a blur. We’re just in this fog of creating something. And you go back to it and you’re like, “Oh, actually, I really enjoyed that.” This was similar where we’re just creating and I think you know part of it, it may sound difficult to someone else, but when you’re playing with people for so long. Things just come up, you don’t even realize how in tune you are with your other bandmates. You create this music, but if you think about how long we’ve been playing together, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” Yeah and we make this stuff up all the time. I like to call it “sonic wallpaper.” So it’s coming out of that lineage.
LMR Yeah and also the added factor of when you have when you get great reception from even an unsuspecting audience, sort of makes you wonder what you should be working on more or what becomes successful.
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah.
LMR It makes me think of that story of Ray Charles. Coming up with “What I’d Say,” which was in New York. The band had extra time at the end of the set and they were just improvising. And the crowd went so crazy for it that he eventually ended up recording it. And obviously now it’s a classic.
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, yeah!
LMR But I just love that story, that there’s that sort of open-ended unknown. No one knows what’s going to happen there, but it might just be some of the best work you have. And it’s like the creative process mystery.
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, there’s a different energy to it, right? You know, especially not knowing what’s around the corner and you just have to go with it. I guess trust that it’s gonna land in the right place. But I say that knowing that there was a lot of stuff that we did like that and not all of it did make the record right? So it was a lot of trial in there of getting through different pieces.
LMR So lastly, after releasing this record, which feels much heavier, there’s some very introspective elements to it. I think it has a really strong cinematic sort of feel. Is there something else or a certain style you’d like to explore more on a future releases?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, I think you really touched on it, for me exploring the compositional breadth that I have to offer, but really doing stuff like that with incorporating probably more strings than just the quartet. I’d say they filled out the space even more than I might have thought of, just with the quartet, so that might be the perfect size. Definitely economically it might be. Doing that now I think I’ve been so fortunate just to be able to start to put together a collection of different recordings that now get an opportunity to say, “Hey, how do we take the music a little further? What else do we want to explore and what else can we bring to add more textures to what it is we’re doing?”
LMR That’s so exciting. Any upcoming shows you can tell us about?
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, we’ve actually been so busy playing different things that it’s nice to have a little break, but winter is gonna be fun because we are actually playing pieces, parts of Canadiana Suite. The trio is with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra. I just got the music yesterday, which is nice because I was getting a little nervous about having to learn that. I’m looking forward to that. I think for us too that will be another piece of understanding what it sounds like to put the trio with other textures and maybe thinking of the trio as almost one voice and then including a whole array of other things.
LMR And hopefully you have some upcoming hometown Toronto shows! Thanks again for giving us some insider details about the record and your process.
Thompson Egbo-Egbo Yeah, thanks so much! Thanks for having me.
Upcoming Show: Saturday, February 11, 2023 – A Celebration of Oscar Peterson – Windsor, ON