Katie Thiroux is a Jazz bass player and vocalist who is performing with drummer Matt Witek every Friday night from 9 – 11 PM at Utopia Restaurant in Downtown Long Beach. When I saw her play last week, it seemed impossible that someone so young (she’s 25) could play with so much technical mastery and musicality. She attended the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles and, subsequently, went on to be an award winning student at the Berklee College of Music, taught in Ecuador, and has toured the world.
Still, I suspected that her educational credits didn’t tell the whole story.
“I come from a musical family,” Katie said, “and I’m the youngest of four children. At the age of 4, we all started playing the violin. Then the rule was, after four years, you could switch to another instrument. My mom plays bass and one of my brothers does too. I remember my mom telling me that if I played bass I would make more money because everyone always needs a bass player! We played together as a family, kind of like a “family-band.” And we would play in church.”
I asked her when she figured out that she wanted to pursue performance as a career.
“Probably when I was in the fifth grade,” Katie recalled. “I got my first taste of real professional work when I sang and performed in a show for LA Opera, and one for Opera Pacific. I thought it was pretty cool that I got to be involved with music, get paid and miss school. The LA Opera was the world premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Opera Pacific was a short opera called Brundibar. In Fantastic Mr. Fox I was just part of the choir of ‘trees,’ but I was the Milkman in Brundibar!”
I asked Katie what moved her from classical to Jazz.
“Both of my brothers were in the Jazz program at Colburn,” she explained, “taught by Lee Secard. I was just in the building when I was 12 years old and Lee came out and said he needed a bass player. I told him that I don’t play jazz or know anything about it. He said that was fine, I’ll learn fast. And I did learn fast and loved everything about it from the start. I loved the instrumentation, the songs, the different tempos and I loved that as a bass player in a jazz setting, I had a better and more interesting role than in an orchestra: The foundation! It just felt more important than sitting in an orchestra where my part was already predetermined. I learned that in the combo setting, I still had to follow a harmonic structure, but I got to choose all of the notes.”
I asked Katie how improvisation relate to composing.
“When you’re improvising,” she said, “you learn how to fit melodies over chords, which is also how you compose. I feel that they are interchangeable. From improvising you really learn what you like harmonically and that makes it all the easier to compose.”
During her tenure at Utopia, she’s performed with some amazing pianists.
“Yes, I have been quite lucky,” Katie admitted. “Last week we had David Witham join us. He is such an exciting player and plays the whole piano. I saw him play a few weeks ago with Ernie Watts [at the Alvas Showroom in San Pedro] and he really filled out the Quartet. We’ve also had Llew Matthews, another giant. He knows every song and then some! And I’ve never seen him without a smile. I enjoy playing with both of these pianist because they challenge me harmonically and do not play predictably. I like it when the dynamic changes suddenly or when the harmony goes in a different direction.
“Tonight,” she continued, “we’ve got another great pianist, John Campbell. There seems to be no shortage of great pianists, and he has quite the pedigree. He’s played with jazz legends like Clark Terry to Mel Torme.”
As was mentioned earlier, she’s played with some heavy hitters. I asked Katie if a specific performance stood out in her mind.
“I did two international festivals with drummer Terri Lyne Carington,” she said, “and I learned a lot about learning new music fast and try to execute fast! I also had the opportunity to play a concert with Dr. Billy Taylor, which I will never forget. I was playing a concert at Berklee with Dr Taylor and Terri Lyne and it was such a swinging experience. Terri had an idea of the tunes that Dr. Taylor was going to play. Some of the tunes we played were All the Things You Are, Caravan and Body and Soul. It was a humbling situation and when you’re playing with people who are that great, you kind of have to ignore whatever nervous feelings you have and just play. Dr. Taylor was encouraging and such a beautiful player. And he gave me the greatest comment of all after we played when he said that I was ‘real straight ahead.'”
To learn more about Katie, including upcoming gigs, visit KatieThiroux.com.
To learn more about Utopia, including the menu and art installations, visit UtopiaRestaurant.net.
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