Local native turning heads on NYC jazz scene returns home to join Columbus Jazz Orchestra for 'Extravaganza'

When I interviewed Micah Thomas by phone in late September, he hadn't yet seen or heard the piece he'll be playing with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra this weekend as part of its “45th Anniversary Extravaganza.” The piece, commissioned by the CJO from conductor/composer (and frequent CJO collaborator) John Clayton was composed with Thomas in mind.

“I first met John Clayton at a conference in Vail, [Colorado], when I was in high school,” said Thomas, now a third-year student at New York City's Juilliard School. “[As part of this commission process] we did a phone call where we just talked about music for a while, and I guess he wrote something based on whatever he thinks he'd like to hear me play. We'll find out.”

How much more jazz can you get?

A Westerville native, Thomas started taking piano lessons early, including studying jazz piano from age 7. He played with the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra and won the CJO's 2012 Hank Marr High School Jazz Award.

“I noticed this timid young man standing in the corner of our Jazz Academy, mistakenly judging him as yet another teenager who really wanted to be home surfing the internet looking for the newest Xbox game or YouTube prank video. Little did I know … his Google searches were for his jazz piano heroes like Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and the like,” CJO Music Director Byron Stripling said. “The most impressive thing about him was that it was clear that he had dug into the depths of jazz piano history, and his brain was busy assimilating and making sense of the rich jazz tradition.”

“My dad had a pretty big [record] collection,” Thomas said. “[There was] classical music. I went through a pretty big Elvis phase. I listened to a lot of [progressive] rock. But jazz was always kind of lingering around. Eventually my love for it grew so it became my main thing.”

Thomas gigs regularly in New York around his Juilliard schedule. A frequent solo performer at clubs and restaurants, Thomas joined with fellow Juilliard student and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins to form a quartet earlier this year that's already gaining traction on the NYC jazz scene. He's also become a frequent pianist at gigs with Stripling, including performances with the Louisville and Atlanta symphonies.

While Thomas acknowledged the practical benefits of a jazz musician being comfortable in varied settings, he said that's just always been his way.

“You don't have to be able to do all those [different styles] to have a gig. It's perfectly fine to focus on and really master one,” he said. “Big band gigs are fun, because I feel like I'm sitting in and playing only what's necessary, playing as needed. Most of what I play is in very small groups where I have a fundamental role. And I'm playing everything from swing music, traditional stuff you could dance to, to stuff with tricky time signatures and complicated structures. It just reflects the many eras of jazz.”