Isaiah Thompson, finalist for Indy's jazz contest, writes music to connect with audiences
Isaiah J. Thompson has played piano on Edward Norton's crime drama "Motherless Brooklyn," joined major stars including trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis and performed an NPR Tiny Desk concert with his quartet — all before his 26th birthday.
Thompson didn't envision this list of achievements as a kid when he tried to quit the instrument his parents signed him up to learn.
"They always said, 'There's nothing more dangerous than a young person with nothing to do,'" he said. "They put me in a bunch of things."
Thompson dropped the other activities one by one, but piano stuck. His parents always say that's his "department" when asked about their son's progress — a practice enshrined in "The IT Department," a single he wrote that plays on his initials, also his nickname.
The composition appears on his upcoming album "The Power of the Spirit" to be released in full March 17. The works show Thompson's commitment to writing music that connects with audiences.
"I always try to figure out whatever the emotion of the piece is and base that off of something that I've experienced in my life," he said.
Indianapolis audiences can hear Thompson, a finalist for the 2023 American Pianists Awards at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. Tickets are $20 to $40. All five finalists return to Indianapolis for the final round April 21 and 22.
Thompson's about-face on piano came after he found jazz. Growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, he became aware of his neighbor, pianist and composer Nat Adderley Jr., the musical director for singer Luther Vandross. Then Thompson learned about all the other jazz programs and musicians in the area.
While part of the community arts organization Jazz House Kids, Thompson met Marsalis, the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, whom he saw throughout his training. By the time actor Norton asked Marsalis to work on the 2019 film "Motherless Brooklyn," the trumpet star knew Thompson's playing well enough to ask the pianist to join him.
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In addition to composing and performing, Thompson, who earned his undergraduate and master's degrees from the Juilliard School, takes plenty of notes from jazz greats. His debut album as a leader celebrates Indianapolis pianist Buddy Montgomery.
Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn Jr. and Cedar Walton are among other musicians whom Thompson, now based in New York, admires. Their ideas influence him, he said, but he's not trying to become anyone besides himself.
"I think the challenge is believing in those ideas that you have," Thompson said.
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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indianapolis jazz: American Pianists Awards finalist Isaiah Thompson