Weather Report became the preeminent jazz/fusion band in history for a variety of reasons during its 1970-1986 tenure, chiefly its constant members, keyboardist Joe Zawinul (1932-2007) and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, both alumni of trumpeter Miles Davis’ bands.
But the additional band members recruited by those two co-founders may have proven as important. Those included bassists Miroslav Vitous, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987), drummers Chester Thompson, Peter Erskine and Omar Hakim, and percussionists Alex Acuna, Manolo Badrena and Miami native Bobby Thomas Jr.
Of those percussionists, the 62-year-old Thomas stood out in one of Weather Report’s greatest lineups, the 1980-1982 quintet that also featured Pastorius and Erskine. And among the band’s percussive scroll (which also included Airto Moreira, Dom Um Romao, Alyrio Lima, Jose Rossy and Mino Cinelu), Thomas’ playing was unique stylistically by not being steeped in traditional Afro-Cuban influences.
Thomas and his current band, the 7th Realm, perform at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach tonight.
It was during Pastorius’ 1976-1982 tenure that Weather Report achieved its greatest critical and commercial success, largely due to the inimitable fretless bassist’s combination of musicality, songwriting, and stage theatrics. And it was Pastorius — a Pennsylvania native turned South Floridian living in Deerfield Beach — who brought in both Erskine (in 1978) and Thomas after jamming with the percussionist at a 1979 benefit in Miami for another percussionist, Oscar Salas, who’d been severely burned in an accident.
“I was playing with [multi-wind instrumentalist] Ira Sullivan, and Jaco approached me, even though I didn’t know who he was, let alone Weather Report,” says Thomas by phone from his home in Miami. “He came up to me after hearing me play with Ira, and before I was to play with him, and says, ‘What’s that stuff you’re playing?’ And I told him I was a bebop hand drummer. He took my card, and said he was going to tell Joe Zawinul about me.
“I didn’t know who Joe was then, either, but I got a call to audition for Weather Report a month later. Jaco had told Joe he’d found a bebop conga player, and Joe didn’t believe him, so they made a bet. I auditioned with the band at a concert in New Haven, Connecticut, and I wondered why Jaco was turning around and laughing at Joe all night. I got the gig, and Joe lost a lot of money!”
A relatively late bloomer, Thomas didn’t get started in music until age 14, preferring to entertain his original penchant for painting, which continues through today. His ascension into music escalated when he developed an interest in jazz while studying at Miami-Dade Community College, which led to performances with Sullivan and some of Miami’s other top jazz artists like trumpeter Melton Mustafa, pianist Billy Marcus, and saxophonists Jesse Jones Jr. and Jet Nero.
“Jet was the one who told me I should add cymbals to my percussion setup for accents in order to play jazz,” Thomas says. “They also help to add space. When you listen to most conga players, they never rest or stop playing. I’m of Bahamian ancestry, but I love Latin music. Still, I couldn’t see myself playing clave rhythms the rest of my life. That’s created a misconception that all percussionists play the same thing. And the guys I played with in Miami early on realized that I wanted to play bebop with them — not the stereotypical Latin music that was associated with most percussionists.”
Being a drummer as well, Thomas drew inspiration — not to mention elements of his style on percussion — more from drum set players than hand drummers. He cites both fusion (the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Billy Cobham and Weather Report’s Eric Gravatt, who played with the band throughout 1972) and traditional jazz drummers (pianist Horace Silver’s Eddie Moore, saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s Eddie Gladden) as primary influences.
“I played with [Jamaican pianist] Monty Alexander for 39 years until recently,” says Thomas, “and there were nights when his drummer was a no-show. Which led to me putting a drum set right next to my hand drum setup on stage and playing both.”
Having a style different from Weather Report predecessors Acuna (a Peru native) or Badrena (Puerto Rico) might not be as surprising as was Thomas’ creativity while using mostly the same hand drum-based percussion instruments. But like Acuna, Thomas can effortlessly switch to a drum kit, and he also sings and plays guitar as well as various wind instruments.
“Acuna and Badrena also played a lot of hand drums, but their approach was different,” says another of Miami’s top percussionists, Steve Kornicks. “Bobby stood out in Weather Report because he played in a fusion of bebop and swing styles, adding tasteful accents using congas and bongos simultaneously, the way Master Henry Gibson did touring and recording with Curtis Mayfield.”
Kornicks is a pharmacist by day, and freelances by night in duos with South Florida-based guitarists Tom Lippincott and Cezar Santana, among other settings. The percussionist is a fan of Thomas’ entire lengthy career, which includes additional work with Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Mann, Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Big Band, and the post-Weather Report acts Weather Update, the Zawinul Syndicate, and the Zawinul Legacy Band.
“Joe’s influence is practically stamped all over everything I do now,” Thomas says of Zawinul. “He had no fear, and loved going around the world and learning about different cultures and collecting instruments. As a fellow world traveler who’s lived in France and taken many journeys, I’m proud to follow his lead.”
Thomas’ recorded contributions to the Weather Report catalog include the standout releases Night Passage (1980), Weather Report (1982), and a few tracks on the band’s 1975-1983 double-CD retrospective Live & Unreleased (2002).
“Bobby also did a notable recording with Stan Getz called ‘Billy Highstreet Samba,’” Kornicks says of the 1990 release. “And there are great YouTube videos of him soloing on both hand drums and a drum set on Monty Alexander dates. Bobby’s hand speed, sense of rhythm, and unique approach, including the use of hand cymbals, always makes for a very complete rhythm section in any setting.”
The 7th Realm features Thomas with keyboardist Abel Pabon, saxophonist Fernando Diez, bassist James McCoy and drummer Jermane Dukes. The percussionist will play a combination of congas, bongos, cymbals, a Korg drum synthesizer, Asian bells, a Middle Eastern dumbek customized to function like the kick drum on a drum set, and a Hang drum, the steel drum-like instrument that resembles a flying saucer.
“We’ll be playing original material that we plan to record soon,” Thomas says. “I may also sing ‘Nature Boy,’ one of my favorite standards, or we may just stick to instrumental music. But we’ll definitely play ‘Palladium’ and ‘A Remark You Made’ to honor Weather Report, Joe, Wayne, and Jaco.”
Weather Report may be the act with which Thomas is most associated, but his longest tenure by far was the nearly four decades with Alexander. The percussionist recognizes that the parting, though painful at first, was a blessing in disguise.
“I’d been putting my own projects on hold, because every time I’d get started on one, there would be a call to play with Monty,” Thomas says. “So this is the best thing that could’ve happened to me. In addition to playing jazz with the 7th Realm, I also have another project called the Alien Brothers, which is more of a jam band. They’re both futuristic rather than throwback groups, and really have me looking forward to finally being a band leader.”
See Bobby Thomas Jr. & the 7th Realm at 8 p.m. tonight (July 29) at the Arts Garage, 94 NE 2nd Ave., Delray Beach ($30-$45, 561-450-6357).