” I was just stunned at the freedom of the improvisation.”
Thomas Douvan Interview
Thom Douvan is a talented guitarist originally from Ann Arbor Michigan, who now resides in sunny California. At a young age, Thom was taken back by the sound of the Beatles just like the rest of America. After being exposed to the baritone ukulele at the young age of five, Thom switched to the guitar and began to excel. He learned songs from his favorite groups such as, The Beatles and The Allman Brothers, but it didn’t stop there. Ann Arbor was a hot spot for blues and jazz, and the local promoters put on historic festivals with all the great artists of the time. Thom was able to take in a few of them and has great memories of the events. Thom also attended a school with a fabulous jazz program and there, he really began to hone his skills. At one point, Thom was in a group with the famous Funk Brothers from the Motown studios. He eventually made a tribute album to them called “Brother, Brother.” He completed his schooling and re-located to California for “Greener Pastures.” He hooked up with some fine musicians in the area and has a new album coming out entitled “All Over Again”. I recently spoke to Thom about his career.
R.V.B. – This is Rob von Bernewitz from New York. How are you today?
T.D. – I’m doing great. How are things are things on Long Island? Have things warmed up at all?
R.V.B. – We are actually starting to thaw out. I can actually walk down my driveway without being on three inches of ice.
T.D. (Hahaha) Terrific.
R.V.B. – We’ve had a couple of warm days thank God, because we had a real rough time period here.
T.D. – Of course what’s warm, out here would be freezing for us. I don’t mean to rub it in?
R.V.B. – (Hahaha) Yesterday was 55 and I was ready to put my bathing trunks on.
T.D. – It’s funny how perspective is. I’d be bundled up with that.
R.V.B. – What’s the weather like by you?
T.D. – Oh, it’s been stunning this year. Even though we’re having a drought this year, it’s kind of nice because we have a lot of blue skies.
R.V.B. – Well anyway, congratulations on your new album release “All Over Again”. I have listened to it, and the songs flow very nicely from one to the other. They are very well written, and the musicianship is outstanding.
T.D. – Yeah, well I was really thrilled to work with Mitchel Forman, Jimmy Earl, Luis Conte, Michael Barismanto, Michael Parlett, Lynn Fiddmont… these are some of my hero’s from back in the day. I used to listen to Mitchel with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Mike Stern and John Schofield. It was just a thrill to work with those guys.
R.V.B. – I can imagine. Now you grew up in Ann Arbor… when did you first pick up the guitar? T.D. – Well I first picked up the guitar… there are two pictures of me that are on the artwork of the inside of the CD of me in 1968 with my first electric guitar. Of course I was a big Beatles fan. I had already been playing for a few years. My mother got me started on baritone ukulele when I was five years old and I switched to guitar when I was eight.
R.V.B. – Were your parents also musically inclined?
T.D. – Well my father was a violinist. He was the concert master of his high school orchestra but he was sort of famous for not being able to carry a tune… when I grew up. (Hahaha) My mother loved music. I played cello in the elementary school orchestra and studied some piano also. They were very supportive of my music.
R.V.B. – So you had a little classical training in there.
T.D. – I tried classical guitar for a while, but I wasn’t too interested in the rigid technique. I did study some classical piano and I also played percussion in the school orchestra. Right out of high school I went to Berkley College of Music, and continued on in the music program at Oakland University in Rochester Michigan, which had the only jazz program in Michigan at the time.
R.V.B. – I read that you went to a few Ann Arbor festivals. Can you describe to me what it was like to be at one of those shows?
T.D. – Well it was sort of surreal on many levels. First of all, the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival was put on by the Rainbow People’s Party in Ann Arbor. A very left wing radical group and at one point they were called The White Panthers. John Sinclair was the famous political figure in the White Panthers and Rainbow People’s Party. They were very much about the 60’s and “Power to the People”, but they put on these fabulous festivals and brought in this unbelievable talent. At the same festival, I saw: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra. The talent that they brought in was unbelievable. You would never be able to put on a festival like that today with the price of things. It was just quite miraculous that I got to see all of those great performers at the same time and same place.
R.V.B. – So that started out as a blues festival and they eventually invited in jazz players?
T.D. – I think it was geared towards blues at first and then added jazz.
R.V.B. – So what made you to decide to go the jazz route instead of the rock and roll route?
T.D. – Well as you probably detected in my playing, I have a lot rock influences and I started with The Beatles, The Allman Brothers Band and many other great rock groups.
R.V.B. – I noticed some nice playing in Sephardia
T.D. – Thank you, yes
R.V.B. – That had a little bit more of an edge.
T.D. – Well I cut loose on that one, and the elements came together nicely. I had picked up a new Mesa Boogie amplifier and I was playing a Les Paul through it. That was one of my dream combinations when I was growing up. I was finally able to scrape together the money to buy that combination. That solo was pretty much a first or second take, when I was playing through the Mesa Boogie amplifier.
R.V.B. – Yeah, it did have a very nice sound, and I like the way you start off with a riff and the song seems to flow in a different direction and the musicians just seem to go off with it.
T.D. – When you’re working with musicians of that caliber, you’re smart just to close your eyes and ride the wave.
R.V.B. – So again, you did have some rock and roll influences but your overall style has a jazz feel.
T.D. – Well when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old, the alternative high school I was going to, brought in a couple of graduate students from the University of Michigan to put together a jazz program. It was really cutting edge. They brought in Dwight Andrews and Marcellus Brown, who played with a very deep soul/jazz band called Nova. That was really my first taste of jazz. I was just stunned at the freedom of the improvisation, but still with a funky beat. That was very key for me… that it was very accessible to me as a rock and roll guitarist. We were covering tunes that were on the charts then, like Herbie Handcock’s “Chameleon”, and they made sure to have us performing very hip current tunes from that early to mid 70’s. It was a thrill for me to be playing the same kind of music I was listening to on the radio. Then they brought in Dr. Lewis Smith, who was a trumpeter on the Blue Note label. He had several records out. Cannonball Adderly actually discovered Dr. Smith. He came on as a featured performer in one of our jazz bands. I then went to Interlochen Arts Acadamy, and studied with Dr. Smith. His first record featured Cannonball Adderly under the pseudonym of Buckshot Lefunk. There were probably some label issues as to why he had to record under the pseudonym. Anyway they’re great, great recordings and Lewis went on to play on Kenny Burrell’s “Blue Lights” record, with the Andy Warhol cover. These players like Herbie Handcock and Kenny Burrell were accessible to me. It felt like we were playing on the same scene. I was thrilled to be playing their music and the musicians that they recorded with, as a fifteen or sixteen year old. I think that it really started me off.
R.V.B. – That’s a good way to start your career for sure. Did you play at a stationary place or did you rotate with that outfit?
T.D. – We played a lot of functions in our high school and at public schools in Ann Arbor. I would go see Ars Nova when they’d be playing gigs. There was a lot of cross pollination between Ars Nova. I began taking lessons with the guitarist of Ars Nova. A lot of peers that were in those bands have gone on to great things themselves. David Mann is a very busy saxophonist in the New York scene. He’s part of a horn section that’s pretty well known. They played with James Taylor and others. Jonathon Peretz is also a drummer in New York. He was in that jazz program. There was a lot of pollination and real learning going on out there.
R.V.B. – So when you got out of college, did you have your heart set on going straight into the music business?
T.D. – I got sidetracked for a number of years. I went to law school and practiced law, but I always continued playing. I was busy on the weekends playing with several of the original Funk Brothers of Motown.
R.V.B. – How did that come about?
T.D. – Well my classmate in law school Louis Johnson… who was a great alto saxophonist… Claude Black is a name that he played with back in Detroit… Louis put together a charity when we were still together in law school, to raise money for underprivileged kids called “Jazz for Life”. We brought in Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie with his orchestra, and many other great jazz performers, to raise money for these underprivileged kids. This charity was very successful in its mission, and at the same time we were making fabulous contacts with people in the music industry. One of the local contacts we made was with The Funk Brothers… Johnny Griffith, Pistol Allen, Joe Hunter and Spider Webb of the original Motown pit orchestra. We started working with them, in fact Louis put together a corporation and Johnny, Pistol, Louis and I were part of that corporation. We put on music… “people music”, Johnny used to call it. We put on events, concerts and so forth. I was a part of that for a number of years when I was living in Michigan. Then I picked up and moved to California, looking for greener pastures.
R.V.B. – And nicer weather.
T.D. – (Haha) yeah, nicer weather. To some extent I found some greener pastures, and to some extent I never really recreated that special combination when I was able to play with those Funk Brothers. But I can’t complain, I’m raising a family and doing other things in California. Then I got to record this record with some of my musical heroes like Mitchel Forman and Jim Earl and Luis Conte.
R.V.B. – Did you run across them by doing your studio work?
T.D. – I connected with Mitchel Forman and Jimmy Earl through my drummer Michael Barismanto, with whom I’ve done a number of projects. When I was looking to put together a band to record my music and perhaps go out and play concerts featuring my music, Michael suggested that I work with Mitchel and Jimmy. Michael has worked with everybody from Billy Preston, Ivan Neville, Steve Vai, Stuart Hamm, Andy Summers and the list goes on and on. I really feel that Mitchel took this project on as sort of a labor of love. He was very available to me to bounce arrangement ideas off of. He really seemed to commit himself and go beyond the call of duty on the arrangements, and making sure the project is the best that it could be. I was thrilled with Mitchel’s commitment to my music.
R.V.B. – As I said from the outset, the music flowed nicely as it even kind of switched genres as it went along. It all seemed to meld together in one big melting pot.
T.D. – Well in part, I would give a shout out to my co-producer Michael Parlett… the great woodwind player. He played the woodwinds and percussion on my record. He played the percussion when Luis Conte was not playing. Michael Parlett also has an alternative career as an international smooth jazz radio DJ, so he has a very good ear for music and for makings thing flow. I really have to give a lot of credit to my co-producer. It’s my first record that I’ve done where I’ve brought in somebody else to help produce it. It was a valuable lesson to myself, to have a second pair or even a third pair of critical ears… or a fourth pair. Mitchel Forman deserves a co-production credit on this as well. Dean Chamberlain also helped produce it. I don’t think it’s true that too many cooks can spoil the broth, and it’s not true in this case.
R.V.B. – I heard a lot of different types of instruments on the record. There’d be an occasional sax solo and strings.
T.D. – Yes, Dr. Richard Niles arranged the great Kenny Burrell composition “Then I met you” for woodwinds and strings. Dr. Niles has worked with Pat Metheny, Cher, Paul McCartney and many others. He’s a very important producer on the London scene. He recently moved back to the States and I got the good fortune of working with the great Dr. Niles on the string arrangements on that song.
R.V.B – Do you have a band that you play out locally with?
T.D. – I’m reasonably confident that I would be able to put together this band to play concerts. They’ve already committed to me to work with me if the shows are local to Los Angeles. If we have any shows to do outside of LA, I would make the first calls to these musicians and give them the offer, because I think the record really came out the way I wanted it to. I also have other musicians that I like to work with, that I could put a very fine band together to play anywhere. If I was playing in Detroit, I would probably use the keyboardist from my last record… Duncan McMillan. He’s a great Detroit organ player, who also plays piano and synthesizers and has done some work with smooth jazz artists there.
R.V.B. – That second record was “Brother, Brother”, right?
T.D. – Right, that’s a jazz album tribute to the Funk Brothers. It’s all soul music, interpreted for the jazz organ combo. That’s organ, guitar, drums and on a few cuts saxophone. I wanted to do sort of a mid 60’s Blue Note recording version of 70’s, and more recent soul songs.
R.V.B. – Do you have any memories of a live show that you performed that you thoroughly enjoyed?
T.D. – Recently, I did take the organ record to Detroit and played with Duncan McMillan on organ and Louis Johnson, my old Jazz For Life charity partner on saxophone, and I was thrilled in Detroit, to work with George Davidson on drums. He was Aretha Franklin’s main drummer back in the day. Dwight Adams was on trumpet, who is currently lead trumpet player for Stevie Wonder. It was a thrill to do the Motown music with some of the players from back in the day and also from today.
R.V.B. – And to do it right in the area where it was born.
T.D. – I am happy to say that we didn’t get booed off the stage. (Haha) I think we acquitted ourselves well doing the soul music in Detroit. If you can play could play soul music in Detroit with authenticity, I think you can play it anywhere.
R.V.B. – That’s for sure. Well congratulations, the hard work on the record paid off. When is the release date?
T.D. – The release date is April 1st. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon now.
R.V.B. – It’s a beautiful sounding record… finely executed… great guitar playing and a fine collection of songs. Good luck with it.
T.D. – Thank you so much. I hope it resonates with other people the way it resonated with you.
R.V.B. – It’s the kind of record that grows on you the more you listen to it. Have a great day.
T.D. – Thank you.
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