The free-range pianist, keyboardist and vocalist Thollem returns to the Bay Area for a series of gigs. (Ariele Monti)
A musical nomad who has spent much of the 21st century on the road, Bay Area native Thollem is a protean pianist, keyboardist and singer whose free-range aesthetic has opened doors around the world. Performing and recording under a single name, he can be found improvising in solo recitals, knocking about in punk rock combos, creating electronic textures in multimedia collaborations, and building spacious sonic structures with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, just for starters.
Dauntingly prolific, he’s released more than five dozen albums in the past decade. Instead of slowing down his output, the pandemic supercharged his discography with the Astral Traveling Sessions. A 25-album project on Austin-based Astral Spirits Records, the series documents a year in Thollem’s footloose life, including a new release with Rova Saxophone Quartet recorded live at San Francisco’s Center for New Music.
“When everything shut down and I couldn’t tour anymore I started going through my 2019 calendar to remind myself of where I was when,” says Thollem, 54. “I started realizing how many musicians I’d played with that year. I was doing all this detective work, tracking down files and recordings and then finding some surprises too, like when I’d played in a living room and it wasn’t on my calendar.”
Starting with his releases on the East Bay label Edgetone Records, he’s cut a broad swath across the indie music scene, recording for ESP-Disk, Relative Pitch, New Atlantic, Leo Records and many others. Nate Cross, the founder of Astral Spirits Records, wasn’t initially looking to launch a granular study of Thollem’s improvisational encounters, but once they started talking he became intrigued by the uncommon diversity of his music.
The Astral Traveling Sessions document performances with 55 improvising musicians from Greece, Italy, Canada and throughout the United States, including similarly multifaceted New York bassist William Parker, Baltimore pedal steel renegade Susan Alcorn and San Jose saxophone visionary Hafez Modirzadeh.
“He's known as a bit of a nomadic sort that has a voice of his own but can also adapt to almost any scenario,” Cross says. When Thollem sent him a list of a dozen or so projects, Cross thought that an extensive series of releases would “truly capture the breadth and variety in Thollem's work,” he says.
Bay Area audiences can get a taste of Thollem’s music in the coming weeks. He performs a solo concert at the Back Room in Berkeley Aug. 25 and duo with drummer André Custodio at Bird & Beckett Books & Records in San Francisco on Aug. 28. Thollem and photographer/videographer Angela C. Villa (a.k.a. ACVilla), his life and creative partner since the mid-1990s, premiere the multimedia production “Worlds In A Life” Aug. 29 at the performance space Works/San José, an event that will be livestreamed.
He also presents a livestream solo piano concert and lecture Sept. 3 at San Francisco State University focusing on “the socio-political history and significance of the piano.” Afterwards he and Villa head out on a cross country tour via train that will keep them on the rails through Oct. 3, traveling with a keyboard that he can transport in a backpack.
Thollem started exploring electric keyboards about six years ago when his far-flung travels brought him to situations where even a sadly neglected piano wasn’t available. “Piano concerts are my bread and butter, and I’m not picky at all,” he says. “I’ve played disastrous pianos, which I love. They have their own intonation, quirks and sounds. Sometimes they bite back. I’m wide open in that regard.”
The instrument has always loomed large in Thollem’s life. His mother was a piano teacher when he was growing up on the Peninsula, and he took to the ivories early, immersing himself in the European classical repertoire while also regularly attending jazz concerts at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center. By the mid-1980s he was studying piano performance and composition at San Jose State, a time when the university boasted the region’s most creatively unfettered music program outside of Mills College. Playing gamelan with composer Lou Harrison and studying with Hafez Modirzadeh and Royal Hartigan radically expanded his musical horizons.
But dismayed by the advent of the first Persian Gulf War, “I dropped out of everything and spent three years living out of a backpack, protesting,” Thollem says. “It took me years to figure out how to reintegrate back into society. The last 15 years have felt pretty successful.”
He taught piano himself and worked as an accompanist for many years while developing his own compositions and an idiosyncratic approach to improvisation, but he didn’t start documenting his music until 2005. That was the year he made his first extended foray on the road as a musician, an experience he describes as “a total disaster, where everything went wrong but loss of life and limb.”
He doesn’t recommend trial and error as a touring strategy, but the connections he made on the initial five-week cross country sojourn provided a foundation. After several years of building on those relationships, he gave up his apartment and stayed on the road, making “a meager living without having to compromise anything,” he says.
In many ways his peripatetic lifestyle echoes his musical sensibility. At home everywhere and nowhere, he absorbs influences from collaborators and cultures he encounters, fitting sundry sounds and textures into his vast matrix. Saxophonist Rent Romus, the founder and director of Edgetone Records, has watched Thollem’s evolution since releasing some of his earliest albums, starting with the 2005 duo session “Everything's Going Everywhere” with drummer Rick Rivera.
“From the outside you’d almost think the focus was very wide, but if you sit with the music you can hear the common themes coalesce whether it’s his vocal music, electronic music or improvised piano music,” Romus says. “He had compositions in his early development that he used as launching points for improvisation. He carries his own book in his mind and brings it out in different settings.”
“There are definite threads,” Villa agrees. “One of the main ones is something he talks about in workshops, which is ‘why not?’ You could say that is one of the components of his approach. ‘Why not do this? I’m going to go for it.’”
No collaboration better exemplifies the seamless continuum between Thollem’s life and music than his partnership with Villa, who taught in public schools around the South Bay for many years before she gave up her day job and took to the road with him. In recent years she’s taken to documenting his performances and their travels as a photographer and videographer, visual elements that she’s woven into multimedia performance pieces like the new production they’re introducing at Works/San José.
Thollem, a moniker he created from an anagram of his given name, doesn’t blame an unstable childhood for his rootless ways. (“There’s no sob story,” he says.) But the fact he feels unmoored to family, job, and hometown has allowed him to thrive as a rolling stone gathering ever thicker layers of creative connections. He doesn’t reject creature comforts—he just puts a premium on unconstrained movement.
“When I’m in motion, I feel my ideas are flowing,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to sleepwalk through life when you have a routine. Things aren’t predictable and you have to be way more on your toes, which is really important to me as an artist. Traveling gives me the opportunity to be inspired by others and transmit energy, to see what works and what doesn’t work.”
Undaunted by taking big risks in public, Thollem has found audiences eager to see where he’ll go next.
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