Iraq vet and New Orleans avant-gardist WATIV on first visit to NYC

Composer and improvising keyboardist William “WATIV” Thompson — Mississippi-born, New Orleans-based and an Iraq war veteran who I profiled for NPR in 2005 (podcast below) when he was posting laptop computer music he created in Bagdad during free time from his counterintelligence duties — made his first visit to New York City last week. I met him for coffee near New York University, saw him the next night at le Poisson Rouge hearing
electronics innovator Morton Subotnick and the night after that took him and his companion along with my NYU blues class to hear blues singer Shemekia Copeland perform in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Thompson now likes New York.

So much so that he was heading down to the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park on Veterans Day to start on his next recording project: interviews of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, which he’ll process to generate melodic motifs and be sonic aspects of works like those on Syntaxis, his just released quartet CD (with guitarist Christ Alfrod, drummer Simon Lott and bassist James Singleton). This is clearly jazz beyond jazz, another next step, improvised but structured and drawing on a wide, unpredictable sound palette. Thompson has an MA in jazz piano and was studying bebop with Ellis Marsalis before going to the Middle East, but what he’s doing now is expanding on the sounds he found and fiddled around with when he was there, having never been interested in electronic music or very far out abstraction before. He told me all that, and Viet Nam vet violinist Billy Bang commented on what he heard in WATIV’s Bagdad Music Journal, in my aforementioned All Things Considered piece.

Thompson is a third-generation musician,  raised on Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith and Professor Longhair. He turned to decisively towards jazz modernism upon hearing Bill Evans. His work week back home currently includes teaching kids (which he enjoys), playing on Sundays for a church and occasional party gigs. But he says since being in Iraq (he was called up as part of a reserve unit he’d joined for the educational benefits and spent a year there, a tour extended by the military’s “stop-gap” policy) he doesn’t much like making music for people to drink to, which is the New Orleans commonplace. He says likes the idea of playing softly, so that the audience must lean in to listen. On the other hand, here he is with in foursome wearing Sun Ra headgear and tearing up at the Always Lounge.

It was great to meet Thompson face-to-face — we did the NPR interview by phone — because he’s open-minded, perceptive, engaged and original. He told me he’d always veered away from “free jazz” because of its cliche image as being all high energy (Chicago’s AACM branch excluded, he was quick to say, and WATIV credits drummer Alvin Fielder as a mentor — Fielder, a Mississippian, was nonetheless in Chicago and instrumental in the AACM’s founding). WATIV doesn’t exclude anything anymore and was taking full advantage of Manhattan’s cultural offerings. He’s excited about hearing Chick Corea in duet with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note, night before Thanksgiving.

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