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Justefan's 'The Prelude' EP

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at] / @alexmarianyi

I got a chance to sit down with Justin “Justefan” Thomas the other day before his performance with Orbert Davis at the Symphony Center here in Chicago. The Baltimore native talked a bit about his choice in instrument. When he was eight, he walked into the music room and saw a xylophone sitting on two garbage cans, the perfect height for a kid. “Right from the beginning, I knew it was the instrument I wanted to play. It was like a piano you could hit!”

The Chicago-based vibraphonist’s latest release as a leader, an EP titled The Prelude (available now on iTunes), features him in a trio setting. This instrumentation gives him a lot of freedom and allows him to have a conversation with the bass and drums each separately or as a group. Especially on “Spirits No. 15”, you can hear Justefan’s extensive work as a producer shining through; he’s clearly chosen musicians that share his aesthetic.

On “Blue in Green”, there are several points at which drummer Xavier Breaker acts almost like a live DJ, as he drops the beat out and brings it back in to dramatic effect. It should also be noted that Breaker has excellent control over his dynamics and understands the right, and wrong, moments to be loud, a rare quality amongst younger drummers. Bassist Tim Ipsen also understands the responsibility that comes with the great freedom of the trio. Both during his solos and while accompanying the group on “Oriental Folk Song”, he doesn’t let his awesome facility on the bass push him to fill up every moment with his sound; each silence he provides leaves you waiting to hear more.

Of course, Justefan’s own ability as a player and improviser shine on the EP, as well. On “Blue in Green”, he lets loose while still showing off his sensitive side, a feat not easily accomplished. His rhythmic complexity on “Oriental Folk Song” produces a lot of energy, and his restraint on “Spirits No. 15” is admirable. While the rest of the EP reworks jazz standards into a modern format, the bonus track, where he plays the entirety of John Coltrane’s solo from “Giant Steps”, shows that he’s not soft on his jazz knowledge.

Overall, Justefan wanted something that jazz fans could dig into but wasn’t so overtly jazz that it would alienate other people. It’s not that he and his group dumbed down what they would’ve preferred to play; it’s more that they had a particular aesthetic that they were going for and achieved it. This prelude to Justefan’s career as a bandleader is quite promising, and the Chicago jazz scene is lucky to have such an excellent vibraphonist as part of its roster.

Alex Marianyi is a musician with an artistic identity crisis based in Chicago, IL. You can follow him on Twitter, and he won’t even file a restraining order.