8 July 2015


Today let's play Fantasy Traditional Jazz. Imagine you have to put together your 'dream' band - drawn from the very best musicians alive today. Who would you have on string bass?

I can tell you that I would pick the young Canadian Tyler Thomson.
Tyler comes from Toronto where he mastered his trade with The Happy Pals Band. His inspiration was the great New Orleans bassist Alcide Pavageau (1888-1969), who recorded with the bands of George Lewis and Bunk Johnson in the 1940s and who also played in the early days of Preservation Hall.

Tyler is sensationally good, whether he is playing a sympathetic background in a slow number, or pounding a solid 4/4 in a pulsating performance of a quick tune. For a fine example of his work, look at this video (CLICK HERE TO VIEW) and note especially his dazzling solo chorus in Oriental Man. It comes at 17 minutes 36 seconds. It's heartening to think he was only 25 years old at the time of this performance.

As you can see, Tyler plays now in The Shotgun Jazz Band. When I met him during my visit to New Orleans in April 2015, he told me he had gone to New Orleans 'for a vacation' in 2013 and had stayed ever since.

Of course this was one of his jokes. I quickly discovered three things about Tyler:

(1) Offstage, he hardly ever stops joking. In fact, all members of The Shotgun Jazz Band are constantly joking, teasing and laughing and I'm sure this is one reason why they strike anyone who meets them as a 'happy family' as well as a happy band.

(2) He is so modest about his music-making that it's impossible to get him to talk seriously about it.

(3) Tyler is obsessed by sport - both as a player and a spectator. Sometimes, between tunes, you see him on his mobile catching up on the latest scores. He broke his foot playing basketball early in 2015 and was going around on crutches (but still playing gigs) for quite a while. I was pleased to see him on the first day off crutches, though still hobbling.

So Tyler will tell you he has been playing string bass since his late teenage years but still has no idea what he is doing, apart from having fun.
Tyler playing in
The Shotgun Jazz Band,
April 2015.
Having followed Marla and John Dixon to New Orleans, he joined them playing on the streets, where they already had the nucleus of today's Shotgun Jazz Band. They made CDs and started to get invitations to play in the clubs, bars and festivals. By 2015, they were so busy with bookings (averaging five a week) that they no longer needed to play on the streets for tips. Tyler is pleased about that. He found the street work increasingly tiring, especially when - because of the competition - it became so hard to secure a good spot. (Some member of the band would have to grab the spot the night before and man it all through the night if they were to be sure of having it in the morning.)

Despite his jokes, Tyler clearly knows exactly what he is doing when he is playing. He doesn't put a foot wrong or hit an incorrect chord while maintaining a rock-steady four-beats-to-the-bar (sometimes eight) bass line. I have never seen him refer to a chord book. He has internalised the chord sequences of a huge range of tunes.

It's not surprising that this exciting player is now much in demand. He is booked by such long-established greats as Michael White and Greg Stafford to play in their bands from time to time.

So since 2014, Tyler has been playing about five gigs a week, mainly with The Shotgun Jazz Band. Its dynamic leader - the trumpet player Marla Dixon - is a fellow Canadian who also worked and studied with The Happy Pals in Toronto. Marla's husband John plays banjo in the band. He and Tyler together provide a formidable rhythmic backing for the band, as you must have noted from the video. John Dixon's jazz hero was the banjo player George Guesnon (1907-1968) who played in such legendary bands as those of Papa Celestin and Sam Morgan, George Lewis and Kid Thomas Valentine. Like Tyler's hero Pavageau, George Guesnon also played in the earliest days at Preservation Hall. It's easy to see how The Shotgun Jazz Band is a direct descendant from those great bands.

And (like so many of the young New Orleans musicians) Tyler can also play play a second instrument - in his case the piano. He is no mean pianist when working in a jazz band, as this video demonstrates: CLICK HERE TO VIEW.

The third member of the Shotgun's rhythm section is the drummer Justin Peake, whose light 4/4 touch has fitted in perfectly with the style of John and Tyler. Unfortunately for the band, Justin has gone off to college, but he still plays with them whenever he can.

When Justin is unavailable, John and Tyler have found they can do such a powerful job - even as a two-man rhythm section - that they are happy enough to play often without a drummer, especially in the smaller more intimate venues. Here's an example (from April 2015) of such a performance:

A further interesting point about Tyler is that early in 2016 he acquired some recording equipment from the 1930s, restored it and launched into making 78 rpm records. He easily persuaded several of the very best musicians based in New Orleans to visit his 'studio' and make records, just for fun at first, I think. But by February 2017 he had started seriously to produce records likely to become historically very important.