“It was very fun and challenging for all of us. Especially for me, because I was coming from jazz,” recalls Kim Thompson about recording with legendary guitarist Mike Stern on his 2006 CD, Who Let The Cats Out?. “For him, it’s not only jazz; it’s funk, jazz, and a little bit rock-ish, so it covered all the spectrum of creativity.”
Thompson has been playing with Stern for over two years now, occupying the seat that is one of most coveted in the New York scene. Well, make that the world — she’s performed with the group in Europe and in North and South America since she was featured in DRUM! Magazine’s December 2005 issue. She’s also had international gigs with post-bop trumpeter Wallace Roney and R&B singer and actress Beyoncé in a whirlwind schedule that keeps her bags eternally packed.
With Stern, her bebop training crosses over into other contemporary styles as well, which is to be expected. “He’s probably known across the world as more of a rock guitarist, so he likes to show his influences on the jazz end of music also,” says Thompson of the funk to straight-ahead bebop time shifts on the CD’s opening number, “Tumble Home,” and the title track. “It’s actually his idea and his arrangement to go from the swinging jazz and back. For him, it’s been difficult to find a collaborative team of musicians who can do both, and especially within the context of one tune. With everything else on the CD, it’s something he wanted to do for a long time, so with this project he pretty much went for it.”
When asked about the difference in handling the diverse styles of bebop and R&B, Thompson says, “You want to have some kind of continuity with your energy, no matter whom you’re playing for or what you’re playing on. That’s the most important thing. [Beyoncé’s] gig is more groove-oriented. With her projects, you have to be a little more supportive because she’s singing. All the parts are pretty much laid out. There’s room for creativity, and the band is a mix of all types of musicians. The goal is to center it all in one place in a supportive way for her, so it’s different [from Mike] in the way that you can’t venture off into something or if someone makes a mistake, you can’t build off that mistake.”
And the 25 year old certainly has made few of them. Since she graduated from the Manhattan School Of Music in 2003, she’s had the opportunity to play and record with one of her mentors, pianist Kenny Barron and a host of other musical luminaries, including vibraphonist Stefon Harris and the funk-hop group The Real Live Show. And even though she was booked solid as a sideman, she still found time to gig with her own groups, which have featured creative talents like pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, saxophonist Tia Fuller, and bassist Tarus Mateen. “Music doesn’t have to be work, especially if it’s something you love to do; you’ll never have to work if you’re doing something that you love,” Thompson says. “That’s the way I see it. I value a great person who can put out their energy through music, and love music itself.”
Her fresh attitude, formidable talent, and love of the art form resonated with Stern, who could literally choose — and has had — some of the most legendary drummers in the last quarter century. “Mike finds something unique and strong within a player, and he wants to challenge it to see whether it will work with him conceptually or help him grow as a musician or even as a person,” Thompson says about working with Stern. “If you play amazingly, that’s great. You have to have a good attitude about life because he’s been through a lot — it’s definitely reshaped his attitude. And that comes out through his music, and so that’s what he’s looking for: a great musician, somebody who can play music.”