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Scene & Heard

Composer Omar Thomas seeks harmony

Andre Valente

Omar Thomas remembers the first time he heard Pat Metheny. Thomas was 14 years old, and he hated it. He was hanging out in the high school band room when a friend urged him to check out the Pat Metheny Group’s CD “The Road to You.” “I just thought, ‘This is terrible. This is ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense.’ ” Nine months later, for some reason, Thomas put on the CD again. But now his reaction was different. “It was a wrap. It was over for me at that point. I was in love.”

What happened during the course of those nine months? “I’ve asked myself that question,” says Thomas, “and I have no idea.” Maybe it was the hours of playing trombone in the high school concert band. He was able to hear something he hadn’t heard before. The harmony, the rhythm, the way it all came together. “It blew me away.” In fact, “Next to Silence,” on the debut CD by the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble, “I Am” (Sound Silence Records), is dedicated to Metheny and his PMG writing partner, Lyle Mays. “It’s on my bucket list: to someday thank Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays in person.”

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Thomas and his 18-piece Large Ensemble will present a good chunk of “I Am,” as well as a new suite, his LGBT civil rights piece “We Will Know,” Friday and Saturday (May 24 and 25) at the Davis Square Theatre. Thomas just turned 29, but “I Am” has a kind of state-of-the-art authority. The title track is a classic slow build — from hand percussion and piano establishing the rhythm and principal motif, through development in low reeds, a secondary midrange theme, and then a sunburst crescendo of high brass and trap drums. Themes morph and develop, and the orchestration settles like a chorus behind Brian Landrus’s ruminative baritone sax solo. But there’s always a song behind Thomas’s layers of harmony, a musical narrative context that holds everything together even when the soloists are running free.

The attraction to tunes started early. Growing up in Delaware, Thomas was drawn to sophisticated R&B — Anita Baker, Donny Hathaway, and the like. “It was a little more harmonically and rhythmically daring than other stuff that was out there, and I wanted more!” Jazz was the logical next step. “Jazz builds on what’s happening on the radio, takes it to the next level, and blows the roof off of it.”

As for big-band writing and arranging, “I always loved playing in a jazz ensemble. The trombones are right in the center. I got to hear everything. Those harmonies, just the way everything interacted. I loved it so much.”

As an undergraduate, he heard the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, and the die was cast. “I could measure my life as before I listened to [Schneider’s] ‘Hang Gliding’ and after I listened to ‘Hang Gliding,’ ” says Thomas. He sought her out, and a private lesson for the 19-year-old soon followed. The piece he brought her, “Dancing,” ended up on “I Am.”

“She taught me about space,” Thomas says. “She said, ‘Your piece is in there, you just have to turn your pencil upside down and dig it out.’”

You can hear Schneider’s influence not just in the spaciousness of his pieces, but in their rich tonal colors. “When I’m using chords,” Thomas says, “I’m painting a picture with emotions. I look at my harmonic palette as a series of emotions. And I take from the colors or emotions that I need to paint the picture.”

Thomas earned a master’s degree from New England Conservatory in 2008 and has been an assistant professor at Berklee since 2007. Joe Mulholland, chairman of the Berklee harmony department, recognized not only Thomas’s musical and classroom skills, but also his “tremendous life energy. Music is a spiritual mission with Omar.”

The four-part “We Will Know” is Thomas’s musical comment on marriage equality. He recalls hearing an interview with Nina Simone: “It’s an artist’s job to reflect our times. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” The suite’s first movement, a hymn for solo voice and piano, will also be performed this summer by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. “Chord progressions, orchestrations, rhythms — I put all those together to spread empathy. Isn’t that what everybody on this planet wants? ‘If you can only understand how I feel.’ These chords and these rhythms are the closest way I have of realizing that.”

BONUS TRACKS

The ageless Boston drum hero Roy Haynes comes into Scullers for the weekend with his Fountain of Youth Band. . . . If that’s not enough drums for you, another Boston basher, Grammy winner (and Berklee prof) Terri Lyne Carrington comes to Scullers on June 13 following her excellent “Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue” (Concord), a 50th anniversary tribute to a historic trio collaboration by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. . . . Kenny Werner is a player and composer of vast reach — his writing is always expansive, whether in short pieces for a small ensemble or a symphonic-scale work for large orchestra. And as a pianist, he has a vocabulary that extends, as they say, from “rag time to no time.” His quartet at the Regattabar on June 14 will include saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.
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