Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I never really thought of it as a choice, it just happened. My surroundings as a kid made it pretty inevitable [Fred’s father is violinist Peter Thomas], or at least that’s how it feels. But I would venture to say that none of us really has a choice anyway! So I just accept it and enjoy it and go along with it.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Hmmm… the universe? That’s a hard question… some of my favourite musicians are Lester Young, Joao Gilberto, Charlie Haden, Elliott Carter, Bach. Maybe there’s something that links all those people, I’m not sure… something about elegance and carefulness maybe. I can’t separate the influences on my musical life and the influences on simply me. I try to be into lots of things so that when I play it sounds like I’m not just a pianist, but an interesting person. I think cats have influenced me a lot though, too.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Finding a way that feels comfortable and personal playing jazz piano without being drowned by powerful influences and ending up sounding just like someone else. Also, balancing the desire to be a polymath and someone very specialized… Coming to terms with the huge pros and but also the problems of being into so many styles of music. It’s hard to make peace with that. Finding the strength to compose is sometimes pretty hard when there are people like J.S. Bach around… I just want to spend my time with him instead.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
As a pianist, this new Bach one on Odradek I think. As a producer, I made a very creative record with Lily Luca that I still like. I also made a duo record with my violinist dad that means a lot to me. But generally it’s hard to be excited about old work, and the next project is always way more interesting and fun.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Those which I love and feel most aligned with.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
My choices relate to what I happen to be interested in at the time. I play all sorts of music and I’m a composer and producer. They all feed into each other, although sometimes you have to put up big barriers between them to kind of protect them from each other… co-existing with different styles requires a lot of… intellectual discipline… I think that’s it.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Jamboree, in London: unpretentious, nice vibes, mixed crowd. I find the homogeneity of the average classical venue audience to be quite disturbing, with little attempt to be inclusive in relation to age, race or class. I do find myself going to the Wigmore Hall a lot because they have such great musicians playing great music but politically this type of institution makes me pretty uncomfortable. So my favourite venues usually play other types of music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably hearing Mahler’s Third Symphony for the first time.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think I dislike the concept of success but I guess I would say that my arbitrary definition is to be a nice person and find a way to truly come across as yourself through whatever instrument or style you choose.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think it would be good if musicians realised how revealing it is to play music. You can see people so clearly. That has implications. I would say that generosity is the musical quality I most value: doing what’s right for the music or trying to make someone else sound amazing. If you can do that whilst also being very individual then that’s amazing. But how those two intersect is obviously very hard.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I hope that, wherever or whatever that is, it’s better than I can imagine now, which is already great.
What is your most treasured possession?
What is your present state of mind?
Confused by the chasmic implications these questions draw my attention to.
Fred Thomas’s CD Dance Suites is available now on the Odradek label. More information
Fred Thomas studied at the Royal Academy of Music and is one of London’s most sought-after multi-instrumentalists and composer/arranger/producers. A member of the F-IRE Collective, he recently embarked on a trilogy of J.S. Bach recordings to be released on ECM, The Silent Howl and Odradek Records. His first is a trio with Aisha Orazbayeva and Lucy Railton that plays Thomas’s transcriptions of Bach’s Chorale Preludes, the scores of which are published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen. His second, ‘Electrofeit‘, is a solo organ record and featured the multi-tracking of fugues inspired by the work of historian Hayden White.
Other projects include The Beguilers, a sextet that interprets Thomas’s song settings of poetry; his Polyphonic Jazz Band, a quintet with Martin Speake that explores improvised polyphony; a trio with Maurizio Ravalico and actor Gary Cooper that pits improvised music for prepared piano and percussion against prose-poems; an ongoing recording of contemporary interpretations of the medieval Chantilly Codex; a duo with his violinist father Peter Thomas; and a Richard Wagner tribute band with jazz pianist Liam Noble.
Fred Thomas has appeared or collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Jordi Savall, Jarvis Cocker, Ethan Iverson, Tamara Stefanovich, Basquiat Strings, Kadialy Kouyate, Leo Abrahams, Lisa Knapp, Mor Karbasi, CBSO, Elysian Quartet, Jason Yarde, Julian Siegel, Alice Zawadzki, Jiri Slavik, Zac Gvi, Pete Flood, The Magic Lantern, Seb Rochford, Oren Marshall and Olivia Chaney, as well as record labels Harmonica Mundi and Realworld. He has worked at The National Theatre and has toured worldwide with Filter Theatre and as musical director with Shakespeare’s Globe. He teaches at Trinity Laban and as a producer has recorded albums for many artists in Europe. His most recent compositions, for voice, string quartet and percussion, were commissioned by BitterSuite and Phaedra Ensemble and are being performed internationally and at the Royal Opera House, London.
(photo by Tommaso Tuzj)