Pianist Micah Thomas has been able to play what he’s heard since the age of two, but his debut, Tide, demonstrates that this is a prodigy who prefers conceptual purpose to technical dazzle. Now 23, the Columbus, Ohio, native cites Charlie Parker as a fundamental influence, led off his Juilliard recital with a song that was a hit for Sophie Tucker in 1918, and says one of Tide’s eight originals, “The Game,” was inspired by the finale to Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. That he incorporates an enormous breadth of music into an organic approach to the piano has prompted raves from kindred spirits such as Aaron Parks, Frank Kimbrough, and Lage Lund.
Although Thomas has been a regular member of ensembles led by Lund, Immanuel Wilkins, and Joel Ross, he chose for his first album as a leader to be a live recording culled from two nights with his working trio of three years (bassist Dean Torrey and drummer Kyle Benford) at the small Manhattan club Kitaro. Amid the applause, the all-original eight-song program occasionally coalesces into little suites, which fits the pianist’s mosaic impressionism. Phrases are segmented and then invariably tweaked via rhythm, timbre, or voicing—slight stylistic pirouettes that leap as much as flow with balletic precision.
It’s promising that the best songs are usually the longest and most multifaceted, including the title song and “The Game,” which provide room for Thomas to make logic from his scholarship while urging on the playful repartee of his trio mates. Of the others, the opening “Tornado” is an understandably virtuosic introduction, “Grounds” is anchored by a Monk-like refrain of arresting simplicity, and the ruminative “The Day After” is a nifty showcase for Torrey. But the one that lingers longest may be “Across My Path,” a restrained ballad with the confident touch and timing of a pianist at the height of his powers. Except that Micah Thomas is probably a long way from his summit.