British keyboardist Pat Thomas has performed alongside avant-garde luminaries for decades, but somehow has remained a relatively unknown quantity on this side of the Atlantic. At age 60, he has yet to play a live show in America. However, he’s increasingly been releasing music on U.S.-based imprints, including Nights on Saturn (communication), the most recent album by his quartet [Ahmed], issued in late March by Astral Spirits. While the group’s name pays tribute to Ahmed Abdul-Malik (1927-1993), a Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston compatriot, its work strays far from his swing, indulging instead in rhythmically acute free improv that rarely relents in its pounding explorations.
[Ahmed] started as a coincidence. Several years back, Thomas and saxophonist Seymour Wright had individually begun playing with bassist Joel Grip and drummer Antonin Gerbal, when the pair discovered a shared love of Abdul-Malik’s music. On his leader dates, the late bassist introduced a sound world that, in Thomas’ words, went “beyond Western tonality” and helped “to free us from a static rhythmic perspective.” That Abdul-Malik never wrote for piano only emboldened Thomas, who saw an opportunity to use 60-year-old recordings as a starting point for improvisation.
Nights on Saturn (communication) expands on a composition of the same name from the bassist’s 1961 The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, on which he was joined by drummer Andrew Cyrille, among others. Turning the seven-minute original into an album-length improvisation could have been an overwhelming task, if Thomas didn’t see himself as being surrounded by the proper collective.
“We don’t need to worry about the rhythm section; they’re there and can play in and out fantastically,” explained Thomas, who’s recovered from a recent stroke. “And Seymour was into this very micro [concept of playing] the note and slightly changing it. With the piano, I thought it would be good to stick with Seymour, but keep adding these sort of rhythmic splinters as well.”
If Abdul-Malik is an overlooked figure, Thomas himself deserves more of the spotlight, having worked with avant-guitarist Derek Bailey and improvising reedist Lol Coxhill while recording dozens of albums over a career that stretches back more than 30 years. The pianist also features on the recent 577 album Educated Guess, Vol. 1 alongside Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
As blocky and indebted to Cecil Taylor as Thomas’ playing is at times, his work with the improvising trio Shifa on a pair of live releases showcases his dexterity—both inside the acoustic piano and at its keyboard. Saxophonist Rachel Musson, who along with drummer Mark Sanders rounds out the group, finds Thomas to be an exhilarating partner for his easy humor and his incisive style of improvising.
“He’s very motivic and will hang on to something for ages and ages, and then just keep twisting it and developing it, which is nice because it provides an arc,” Musson said. “But then, he’s also very happy to suddenly shift and change.”
Malleability has served Thomas well in settings as varied as the 2019 Paul Bley tribute BleySchool—another 577 release where he swaps the aggressive tone he’s become associated with for a lighter touch—and his engagement with rock, funk, and reggae in younger days. As jungle became an important part of U.K. club culture during the ’90s, he met the genre on its own terms: as an experimental electronic music. Given that London’s current jazz scene is inextricably connected to grime (a hip-hop ancillary with ties to the Caribbean), some might draw a comparison between Thomas’ experiments from the jungle era and a performer like D Double E appearing on Sons of Kemet’s Black to the Future.
Thomas refutes the idea, though. “I see grime as much more marketed,” he began. “Basically, grime is coming out of dubstep. And dubstep was mostly instrumental music; a lot of it’s still reggae-based. I think they called it ‘grime’ as the lyrics got more confrontational. And so I don’t see it in the same way. When [jungle] came out, it shocked people the way early hip-hop did. It shocked everybody.”
Such an expansive purview belies Thomas’ musical experiences while growing up in Oxford, where he still lives. But an early chance viewing of Oscar Peterson performing on TV resulted in a dedication to jazz—in its broadest terms.
“I personally needed to see someone like Oscar Peterson. I had a classical training, and at that time I was thinking of classical music only,” Thomas recalled. “When I saw Oscar Peterson with that facility, playing music I’d never heard of, then finding out the music was created by Afro-Americans, I couldn’t believe it. And then when I couldn’t play it, that was it.”