Canadian jazz icon Don Thompson and renowned fingerstyle guitarist, Rob Piltch resurrect their 1982 LP Bells into Bells… Now and Then, out now via Modica Music
Modica Music has released Bells… Now and Then, a remarkable musical collaboration featuring the veteran multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson and the accomplished fingerstyle guitarist Rob Piltch. Available on all digital platforms, Bells… Now and Then is a reissue of their seminal 1982 recording Bells, bookended by two newly-recorded compositions. 42 years after the release of Bells, these timeless compositions have been remastered and released by the Modica Music label, owned by Toronto-born bassist-composer Roberto Occhipinti.
Magic has no jurisdiction or timetable. When it happens it happens. Such was the case when multi-instrumentalist-composer and seasoned jazz veteran Don Thompson got together 42 years ago in his Toronto home studio with a young fingerstyle guitarist named Rob Piltch. Thompson, the maestro who also ingeniously engineered the session, ensured that the tape continued to roll, capturing moments of pure magic that would forever resonate. The result of their encounter was nothing short of fate. The nine tracks created from their three separate sessions on September, 17th and December 3rd, 1981, and January 28, 1982, became the cherished album, Bells, originally released on the Umbrella label. Fast forward to today, four decades later, these timeless compositions have been remastered and reissued as Bells… Now and Then.
“It was like time traveling,” said Piltch about reuniting with Thompson after 42 years. “And both titles of the new songs we recorded — “Circles” and “Days Gone By,” were relevant to me, for obvious reasons.”
Don and Rob have not only preserved the original nine tracks but they’ve also breathed new life into their collective magic by adding two freshly recorded tracks, Circles and Days Gone By to this musical legacy. These two new recordings perfectly complement the original tracks and continue the enchantment that began 42 years ago in Thompson’s home studio.
“Circles,” the Thompson composition which opens the program and was also the title track of Jim Hall’s 1981 trio album on the Concord label, alludes to the coming full circle of their collaboration. “Days Gone By,” which closes the collection on an intimate note, was previously recorded by pianist George Shearing on his 1992 Telarc album, How Beautiful is Night, and nods to the decades that have passed between sessions. Both new recordings not only perfectly complement the original tracks, they continue the magic the two musicians felt in Thompson’s home studio 42 years ago.
“I think I was too young and stupid to be intimidated,” said Piltch, who was 24 at the time of his original hookup with Thompson, who turned 42 by the time the sessions were completed. “But I was also very familiar with Don. He was part of my formative years, in a way—from having heard him with the great Canadian guitarists Ed Bickert, Sonny Greenwich and Lenny Breau, all the guys I grew up listening to. Plus, Don was not about having any kind of aura or anything. He was always about just playing music. So I felt comfortable with him.”
Thompson held a similar admiration for his guitar-playing counterpart during the initial “Bells” session. “Rob’s mastery of the instrument was ridiculous,” said the elder virtuoso, now 84. “He studied classical guitar with John Williams and he was also seriously studying composition when I met him. One of the things we did at the end of the original record was a thing called Chant, which was a Gregorian chant that he was orchestrating for a string orchestra. And he decided to just play the whole thing on the guitar. That’s how serious he was when he was 24. Yeah, he’s the real deal.”
Listening to the two newly recorded tracks in mid-September of 2023, it’s clear that Thompson and Piltch seamlessly resumed their musical journey, picking up right where they left off 42 years ago. “I think there’s a continuity in the way that we relate to each other,” said Piltch. “We never talk about what we’re going to play, we just play.”
“Bells”, the title track of the original sessions, is a patient and sparse solo piano showcase by the composer. “I have a thing about bells,” Thompson explained. “A friend of mine who was a percussionist in the Toronto Symphony collected bells from all around the world. He had a room in his house that was full of them. They were all strung together, hanging from the ceiling and if you pulled on this one cord they’d all start ringing and it would take about 20 minutes before they stopped. It was quite beautiful.”
The remaining tracks of Bells, which took up the entire Side Two of the original vinyl album, comprise a suite of tunes. “Kyoto” finds Thompson carrying the melody and unleashing his considerable chops on upright bass against driving accompaniment by Piltch on a David Wren acoustic guitar. “Moon Dance” is a brief interlude by Piltch playing Lenny Breau-styled ringing harmonics on his Schecter guitar, creating a hypnotic soundscape before Thompson enters with gentle single note playing on piano. As he recalled, “I just told Rob—Why don’t you play something as a set up to the next tune so I can get from the bass over to the piano? And it was as simple as that. It wasn’t like we rehearsed it or anything.”
The calming “Red Dragonfly”, a poignant traditional Japanese number performed on piano and guitar, finds Piltch utilizing a volume pedal to achieve a haunting effect. Then “Nexus” opens with another stirring guitar improvisation by Piltch utilizing his volume pedal once again to swell richly evocative chord voicings. “That was just so I could get from the piano over to my vibes,” explained Thompson. By the time Thompson enters at the 1:43 mark, the duo heads into some rather adventurous free territory, conversing on guitar and vibes in tones ranging from spiky and dissonant to compelling and dreamy.
The final track on the original collection, Piltch’s “Chant”, is a sparse, entrancing number that develops patiently and gradually with Thompson playing the delicate melody on vibes while the guitarist comps gently with ethereal chordal swells. The piece ends on a big crescendo, putting an exclamation point on the suite’s concluding track.
The final track of Bells… Now and Then, Thompson’s “Days Gone By” commences with a remarkable solo piano performance by Thompson. Piltch then joins in with a patient, warmly-toned elegance, weaving a captivating melody. Their remarkable synergy in supporting each other’s solos is extraordinary, exemplifying a magical connection that stands the test of time. “Rob and I definitely have a beautiful connection,” said Thompson. “We clicked right away when we did the original recording 42 years ago, and it’s still there to this day.”
Derived from liner notes by Bill Milkowski
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
A multi-instrumentalist and proud Capricorn, Don Thompson, was a triple threat (piano, bass, vibraphone) on the Toronto studio and club scene during the late ‘60s as well as regular bassist in Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. He began touring with Jim Hall in 1974, later appearing on the guitar great’s 1975 album, Live!, a pivotal recording for aspiring jazz guitarists, working professionals and guitar aficionados alike. It was engineered by Thompson himself at Toronto’s Bourbon Street club, where he had also backed visiting American musicians like saxophonists Lee Konitz and James Moody and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Thompson began playing in George Shearing’s quartet in 1982, touring and recording with the gifted pianist-composer for five years. He returned to the Boss Brass in 1987 and remained a fixture in the band (this time on piano) until 1993. He’s recorded over 20 albums as a leader or co-leader since then, including duet projects with guitarists Ed Bickert (1978’s Ed Bickert/Don Thompson on Sackville), John Abercrombie (1991’s Witchcraft on Justin Time) and Reg Schwager (2002’s Live at Mezzetta on Sackville and 2007’s One Take on Alma Records). Thompson’s 2008 outing, For Kenny Wheeler, reunited him with drummer Terry Clarke, whom he had played alongside in John Handy’s group in the mid-‘60s and in the Jim Hall Trio in the mid ‘70s. Clarke was also the one who introduced Thompson to Piltch back in 1975 when the guitarist was still a teenager.
Rob Piltch, the acclaimed fingerstyle guitarist and Canadian music icon, has left an indelible mark on the world of jazz with his extraordinary guitar prowess and an unparalleled knack for crafting captivating melodies. His musical journey, a compelling narrative of evolution and dedication, has firmly established him as a luminary in the realm of jazz. Rob Piltch’s journey began with classical guitar training under the esteemed John Williams, setting the foundation for his lifelong devotion to the art of music. Under the tutelage of a maestro, Piltch honed his skills, laying the groundwork for a remarkable future in the world of strings. As Rob Piltch continues to illuminate the jazz scene with his exceptional skills and unwavering dedication, his journey remains an inspirational testament to the power of music to shape lives and leave an indelible mark on the hearts of music enthusiasts worldwide.