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Syreeta Thompson, "The Trumpet Lady," finds musical freedom in gospel jazz

Giant Steps

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Though she's now well established on the gospel circuit as both an instrumentalist and successful recording artist, Syreeta Thompson understands there are still those who find it strange a trumpet player is accompanying vocalists and choirs rather than playing crisp lines and challenging phrases in a jazz combo, or keeping the groove driving in an urban funk band.

But Thompson, who's back in Nashville this weekend for the 27th annual Stellar Awards show, maintains there really isn't that much difference between the two, despite the common perception they are thousands of miles apart.

"Really, in terms of what I do on the trumpet, it isn't that much different in terms of my approach," Thompson said during a recent phone interview. "I grew up playing in the choir in Chicago and had close proximity to the city jazz scene. So I was influenced by both, and learned how to incorporate the influences of each into my playing. With gospel, you're conscious of spiritual lyrics and the need to never overwhelm that message. In jazz, you're concerned with melodic statement and the changes as you work through the song. Each emphasizes listening closely to what's happening around you and interacting the right way at the right time."

Thompson was among the performers in Thursday night's Urban Soul Cafe gala awards ceremony at The Cannery that honored legends Rance Allen, Dorinda Clark-Cole and Kim Burrell. She'll also attend the awards program Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry House. The veteran trumpeter has a remarkably diverse background despite deciding early in her career she would specialize in gospel. She's backed both Beyoncé and Tito Puente, and the two people on her instrument she most admires are Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis.

"Getting the chance to be around Wynton and Terence had a profound influence on me," Thompson says. "He really encouraged me to get the most out of my music. That LP he made, In This House - On This Morning, was a great example of taking the jazz style and incorporating it within a religious framework."

She divides her time between touring, recording and working with students at the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, N.J., where she's the department chair. Thompson has also served on the Gospel Music Workshop America (GMWA) faculty. She's especially proud of having four students recently get full scholarships for their entire time at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston.

"That's the greatest thing that can happen for you as a teacher, to see your students move on and succeed," Thompson says. "I'm following all of them very closely. It's a great thing that happened with them. One of the problems I've encountered as a teacher is the fact we're in an age now when too often parents are more interested in what they think they see coming down the road fiscally than the long term benefits of their children playing music. I've had to caution parents about not expecting so much quickly, and about making sure whatever they're suggesting is really in the child's best interest.

"Another problem I see a lot is the general lack of familiarity with a lot of music before they come to me," Thompson adds. "There's been a lack of exposure to some basic things, and that's where you as a teacher have to fill in the blanks and help them overcome those problems."

Thompson will soon begin work on the next single, "You Still Love Me," from her current release In His Presence. She had her CD release party in Nashville last year during Awards Weekend. The disc frames her rousing, powerful playing in several contexts. One is a duo setting with Clark-Cole. Another is the dynamic "Church Medley," a song that's equal parts New Orleans brass-band fervor, gospel stomp and jazzy fire. "Make A Way" proves a double showcase. It's tailor-made for her trumpet flourishes, but also structured and produced in a manner that gives energetic vocalist Dwayne Woods a solid platform for his skills.

Syreeta Thompson knows she could no doubt be a bigger star in the mainstream sense if she chose the secular world. But she's not only happy with her current genre, she feels there's more opportunity in it than ever before for diverse, expressive artists.

"There is a lot more freedom within gospel music than ever before," Thompson says. "You've actually got some gospel jazz artists like myself, there's the holy hip-hop movement, you still have the large choirs, and of course the smaller singing ensembles and individual vocalists. The church has really opened itself up to music from many different places, so long as you keep the lyrics and message squarely anchored in the gospel.

"I feel there's nothing I can't play within the gospel world and be fully satisfied, and I don't have any plans to switch to any other type of music."

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