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By Robert Gillespie
Eric Thomas, about to set off down the Colorado River on a jetboat, checks on his clarinet. A string trio, a vocalist, a pair of pianos are already aboard. When the craft pulls into a grotto 45 minutes downriver, the musicians will unload their instruments and in this natural stone amphitheater with 200-foot red rock walls will perform, among other selections, Johannes Brahms's Serenade No. 1 in D and Darius Milhaud's Creation of the World. The audience of about 100 will have arrived on another jetboat.
"It's a spectacular concept," said Thomas, who performed at the grotto in June and has played beautiful works of mankind in this beautiful work of nature the last six or seven Septembers. It's one of 11 concerts held indoors and out during the two-week chamber music festival in Moab, Utahand only one of his many performances around the country.
"I usually play classical chamber music. I'd like to be able to do both classical and jazz," said Thomas, the director of Colby's Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band since 1998. He says he's "played with guys in the New York Phil who also play in jazz groups," performed both classical and jazz clarinet with the Boston Pops Traveling Ensemble and played a duo concert with jazz pianist Billy Taylor at Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. "That," he said, "was a moment for me!"
Only 9 when his music ability was discovered in the Los Angeles public schools, Thomas won his first competition a few months later and at 22 performed with a New England Conservatory woodwind quintet in Carnegie Hall.
Thomas says he had already established a career as a performer but came to Colby to teach, conduct and compose, too. He liked the college level, he says, since he was an adjunct faculty member at Brown University and ran the saxophone and clarinet studio there for three years while playing with a jazz band. He also gave private lessons to Harvard students. Back in 1978, even before he graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, where he later studied as a graduate student, he was teaching at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
The Wind Ensemble at Colby is open without audition to brass, wind and percussion players (townspeople as well as Colby students), and like the Jazz Band it performs twice a year. The 20-member Jazz Band was beset with inconsistency, however, as juniors went abroad and the numbers would dip, so Thomas also started a blues band and a small jazz combo. Next year the smaller jazz group, which gives more people more chances to improve, will play at local schoolswhere kids are at the age when they are about to choose instruments. "You're in the community, you share music with the community," Thomas said.
"I'm always learning how to get to their place of emotion when players don't have a lot of expertise," he said. One tenor sax player in the Jazz Band showed remarkable ability to improvise but had no formal training. "She can't tell you what scales she's playing or why she switched scales. It doesn't make what she's doing any less valuable," he said, "but how do I teach somebody like this? My job is to find out how she's doing itshe needs to teach me."
That's the philosophy of a teacher who has been called "about the finest clarinetist I've ever heard" by Gene Pack, host of the National Public Radio morning classical music program on KUER in Salt Lake City. Thomas has performed as a side man on CDs with pianist Donal Fox, a Guggenheim Fellow in 1997. And George Walker, a dean of classical composing and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2000, heard Thomas play Walker's "Five Fancies for Clarinet and Piano Four Hands" and asked him to record it for Albany Records.Thomas "is a very fine player," Walker said. "He understands the freedom necessary for the music coupled with the proper control. This is very unusual."
Thomas says he should have a solo CD in the next couple of years. In the meantime, he and Fox, along with bassist John Lockwood, make up the Fox-Thomas-Lockwood Trio, which has performed with the Boston Ballet. Thomas also is a member of Videmus, a Boston group that promotes the work of minority and female musicians.
During spring break this year, Thomas performed seven concerts in nine days in halls between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Apple Hill Chamber Players, a group of four on a tour called "Playing for Peace," raised money to bring together groups of musiciansIsraelis and Palestinians, Hong Kong and other mainland Chinese, Greek and Turkish Cypriotsin this country. Thomas has done the tour three years in a row. "It's a tremendous thrill. I think of it as a certain nourishment, a meal I have to have," he said.
Last October, when he performed in the Music at Colby series, Thomas played his own "Seven Videos, Seven Days to Clarinet Mastery," described by The Colby Echo as "a comic piece attempting to teach the audience 'everything there is to know about the blues in 10 minutes.'" ("It actually took twenty minutes," Thomas joked.) This summer he is working with Tina Wentzel, adjunct professor of dance, on a new pieceinspired, he says, by his 2-year old black Lab. "Tina has some movement in mind and I have some sounds in mind."
Speaking of movement and sounds, Thomas believes that music is like running. "You throw yourself physically into it to bring life to the playing," he said. He's run 5Ks and three marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., "each one slower than the last. But," he said, "it was important to me to beat Oprah."
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