Collaboration and Camaraderie:
Thollem McDonas and Detroit Improvised Music

Brad Duncan

Photo credit: Angela C. Villa

Photo credit: Angela C. Villa

Pianist Thollem McDonas, 45, is considered one of the rising stars of adventurous music. Perhaps he is the Roman candle of the contemporary improvised music scene. Over the last few years Thollem’s growing stature as a daring pianist has afforded him the opportunity to record and perform with experimental music mainstays such as guitarist Nels Cline, bassist William Parker, percussionist Susie Ibarra, and legendary composer/theorist Pauline Oliveros. Thollem won his renown the old fashioned way: with a grueling touring schedule, a punk-inspired work ethic, and an open-hearted desire to collaborate and perform with whomever and wherever the music demands. It is impossible to understand Thollem’s artistic practice separate from his relentless touring and knack for collaborating. Thollem’s first visit to Detroit seven years ago was supposed to be yet another gig on a cross-country tour. Instead, he immediately connected to a city and an artistic community that would profoundly impact his work and set the stage for some of his most vital and substantial collaborations yet. Just as Thollem McDonas bear hugged Detroit’s tight-knit improvised music community, the community itself fell for this charismatic pianist who had arrived in their midst. It was pure chemistry. Thollem’s emergence as a troubadour of wild, joyous, and often jagged piano improvisations stands in stark contrast to his formative years as a disciplined conservatory student immersed in his training. His entire youth was focused on mastering the classical piano repertoire, spurred on by his pianist mother and surrounded by dedicated musicians. But the wave of jingoism and militarism that swept the country in the lead up to the 1991 invasion of Iraq was too disturbing for Thollem to ignore. Soon he would drop everything to become a full time activist in the anti-war and radical environmental movements, effectively ending his promising career as a concert pianist. Thollem spent most of the 1990’s at the heart of the West Coast radical activist scene, from Earth First’s Redwood Summer project to a five day march on the Nevada nuclear test site on Shoshone land. When he eventually reemerged as a full-time musician he found a home in the Bay Area’s vibrant and decidedly unorthodox improvised music community. 

Photo credit: Angela C. Villa

Photo credit: Angela C. Villa

To understand how Thollem McDonas could fall under Detroit’s spell it is essential to look at the music community he discovered upon arriving in 2006. Thollem’s first gig in Detroit was at the Bohemian National Home, a decaying 1900’s social hall on Detroit’s Westside that musician Joel Peterson had re-opened as a music and art venue. The massive brick building was oddly quite homey, with couches and bookshelves and an upstairs ballroom. Raw to be sure, but also glowing with possibility. Joel Peterson, a multi-instrumentalist and promoter with roots in the Free Jazz scene, was booking all sorts of challenging artists, from jazz legends like Marshall Allen and Henry Grimes to avant-rock acts like Can’s Damo Suzuki and Mission Of Burma, along with everything from Arabic folk music to the unclassifiable Eugene Chadbourne. But most importantly Peterson was using the Bohemian National Home as a home base for Detroit’s jazz-influenced avant-garde improvised music scene. Too few Detroit jazz clubs open their doors to the children of Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. Joel Peterson’s Bohemian National Home became their clubhouse. 

Thollem McDonas’ music does not slip silently into genre classification. Fans of 20th century classical music marvel at his arresting technique, while devotees of fi rebreathing free jazz eat up his manic energy. His music touches on all of those schools but insists on independence. Detroit’s improvised music scene has distinct roots stretching back to the birth of the “New Thing” in jazz in the 1960’s. Detroit has never suffered from a lack of dedicated improvisers, but it has continuously suffered a lack of attention from the national music scene. The result of being overlooked is that Detroit’s music scene develops in splendid isolation, void of industry opportunism but also at times insular. Where Thollem saw Detroit’s scene as a family of unspoiled true believers, Detroit’s improvising musicians came to view Thollem as an utterly refreshing blast of new energy and new ideas. By his second gig at the Bohemian National Home later that year (with the Bloom Trio, featuring fellow Bay-Area improvisers Jon Brumit and Rent Romus), McDonas was right at home. Before long Thollem seemed to play with everyone in town with a sense of adventure: trumpeter and composer James Cornish, cellist Abby Alwin from near by Ann Arbor, vocalist Jennie Knaggs, inventor/instrumentalist Frank Pahl, and kindred piano-tweeker Clem Fortuna. Spending a week or two in Detroit at a time, and dropping in every couple months, Thollem was building a dedicated audience and a musical family in Detroit. In addition to the cast of occasional collaborators and drop- in partners, there was a growing cadre of Detroit players with whom Thollem cultivated a deeper relationship still. More than any other single musician it was bassist Joel Peterson that facilitated Thollem’s embrace of Detroit’s music scene (and visa versa). The two became true comrades and co-thinkers, leading Thollem to include Joel’s considerable playing in nearly every one of his prolific Detroit sessions. It was also Peterson’s intimate relationship with the many divergent strains of Detroit’s music underground that enabled Thollem to cast such a wide net and perform so regularly in the city. Peterson has spent years playing Balkan folk music with the Immigrant Suns, Nigerian Afrobeat with ODU Afrobeat Orchestra (featuring one of Fela Kuti’s protégés), in addition to his long jazz apprenticeship and his work as a composer (the latter earned him a Kresge Foundation arts fellowship in 2010). Peterson’s far-flung musical background and focus on free improvisation has made him Thollem’s central Detroit foil. Among Thollem McDonas’ other Detroit soulmates are Marko Novachcoff, a daring multi-instrumentalist with an attic full of rare instruments; percussionist Kurt Prisbe (“one of the most sensitive drummers I’ve played with”); Michael Carey, a seasoned tenor saxophonist who carries the banner of Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders; and Skeeter Shelton, a sensitive and intuitive sax player whom Thollem regards as an effortless collaborator. And then of course there is the late Faruq Z Bey. As a founder of Griot Galaxy in the 1970’s, Faruq Z Bey was Detroit’s avant-jazz ambassador for decades, as well as its great professor. Performing on stage with Faruq Z Bey, Skeeter Shelton, and Michael Carey allowed Thollem to interact—playfully and earnestly—with Detriot’s living avant-garde and experimental music traditions. Thollem played with Bey on many occasions, including a gig at Lo & Behold Records & Books in Hamtramck just a few weeks before Bey’s death in the spring of 2012. 

A warm, freewheeling social web that Thollem spun across the city increasingly surrounded all of this artistic ferment. Musicians knew when he was coming to town and came out of the woodwork accordingly. The Bohemian National Home was the hub, but soon the Edwin Gallery in Hamtramck emerged as a spot for McDonas’ regular gigs, and the Corktown home of Joel Peterson and his partner, deputy-director of MOCAD and Detroit art stalwart Rebecca Mazzei, also became a de facto Thollem clubhouse. Over the course of 7 years Thollem has more than just carved out a niche for himself in Detroit as an artist. He has cultivated his own musical eco-system. These organic connections to Detroit have now sprawled all across Michigan. 

Not only has Thollem performed in Ann Arbor’s EdgeFest avant-garde festival (his second appearance at EdgeFest will be this fall), but he is now collaborating with revered modern dancer, video artist, and Martha Graham protégée Peter Sparling at the University of Michigan. It was Thollem’s vibrant connections to Detroit which landed him one of his most extraordinary gigs yet: KHU, a truly epic opera and film by artist Matthew Barney, KHU shot in old factories around Detroit and at sites along the Rouge River in October, 2012. Thollem’s immediate and deep connection with Detroit might also grow from his political vision and background in grassroots activism. Long before Thollem was touring as an improvising pianist he worked with the radical green movement on the West Coast, doing everything from building opposition to deforestation to “guerrilla gardening” aimed at stopping the environmental degradation of urban communities. His work regularly takes on themes related to austerity, poverty, and economic violence; all of which are felt in the air in Detroit upon first arrival. Eventually Thollem introduced Detroit to his band Tsigoti, a punk-inspired band made up of Italian improvisers who share his radical left ethos. Far less subtle than other McDonas projects, Tsigoti’s music explicitly attacks war and austerity. Thollem’s recorded works produced in Detroit echo these issues, from the instrumental disc PoorStopKillingPoor to the visceral and triumphant TwoRevolutions, which includes a spoken word contribution about the revolutions against Portuguese imperialism in Africa in the 1960’s and 70’s. Both CDs were recorded live at the Bohemian National Home, and both speak to the political inspiration Thollem has drawn from Detroit and its long history of struggle. It has become hard to count the number of Detroit area venues that Thollem McDonas has played in, from the Diego Rivera courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts to lofts in Eastern Market to Cliff Bell’s to the Old Miami in the still-seedy Cass Corridor. It is perhaps harder to calculate the number of duos, trio, quartets, and on-the-fly bands Thollem has assembled during his prodigious time spent in Detroit. Fortunately his relationship with Detroit has produced some lasting groups, too. One of Thollem’s “let’s invite everybody” jam sessions at the Bohemian National Home became the Box Deserter Ensemble, a group that has continued to evolve and record. A smaller version of Box Deserter Ensemble based around Thollem, Skeeter Shelton, and Joel Peterson is called Soar Trio. Soar Trio has toured the U.S. quiet extensively and has a new recording being released this year on Edgetone Records, entitled Emergency Manager Heist. Their trio format especially highlights Thollem’s delicate and inspired interactions with Skeeter Shelton, who remains a criminally under recorded saxophonist. Thollem McDonas’ love affair with Detroit’s experimental music scene continues unabated. And the cream of Detroit’s avant-garde never seems to tire of this buoyant piano savant who rolls into town so very regularly. A few years after losing the old Bohemian National Home building, Joel Peterson has opened a new and promising music/art venue on Gratiot in Eastern Market called Trinosophes. Of course, Thollem was ecstatic to be able to perform at the new venue. And of course half of Detroit’s most adventurous musicians came out of the woodwork to watch him brilliantly deconstruct modern piano music. They always come around when Thollem’s back “home” in Detroit.