Promise on the Horizon: Rayah Thomas on Upright

Without a list of CDs or even EPs yet to share, how are we to know what will become of a new artist on the scene?

Bassist Rayah Thomas, based near Raleigh, NC, has all the right ingredients: a great musical education, experience with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Summer Jazz Academy and the Essentially Ellington Competition, plus drive, poise and admiration for those who have come before her. All signs point to success.

Why and when did you start playing bass?

In the 7th grade. I was in my school orchestra learning cello, and one day I just decided on a whim that I should play bass. I still don’t entirely know what drew me to it. It just felt right.

Who are some of your favorite bassists, either past or present?

I especially love the sounds of Jamil Nasser, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, James Cammack, Rodney Whitaker… 

What was the biggest challenge in learning it?

Initially, my biggest challenge was learning to be confident in what I know, how I play (good or bad) and just to let the music flow. There’s so much that goes into it physically that I didn’t realize how much I relied on my mentality.

How did you get involved with the JALC Summer Academy and how would you rate this experience? What specifically have you learned, either about music itself or about music as a career?

I was selected to attend based on my performance with The Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble [under Dr. Gregg Gelb, director] at the Essentially Ellington Competition. I can easily say that my time at SJA was one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had as a musician. There was such a great group of people involved. Overall, I learned a lot about being deliberate and having intention while playing and how to channel those aspects of musicianship.  

What was it like performing at Caramoor and what do you like about doing a festival? Do you want to do other festivals?

It was so much fun and such an honor to share the stage with so many great musicians and genuine people. I had the opportunity to meet so many more amazing people in the audience as well. I definitely look forward to many more experiences like it. 

Do you want to play in an established ensemble or start your own?

Both. I hope to explore as many musical scenarios as I can. 

What is your favorite instrumentation while playing in a group and how big a group do you prefer?

I love any group where a bass is involved! Personally, I love the accountability required within a tightly knit setting where everyone’s ears are open, whether in a group that’s big or small. 

Who are your favorite artists and composers?

I have very many favorites and I’m always adding more but for now I’ll say Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Wayne Shorter. 

Do you write music and if so, do you generally write (or hear) the bass parts first?

I do not write music yet but I definitely have ideas. I suppose right now I’m just working on how to be more poetic within my own lines at first.

What are your plans for your career?

Aside from wanting to call myself an artist, I want to be a professional student. One day I hope to be a musician fit enough to pass down a very dense culture so I think it’s very important that I always make learning my priority. 

How difficult is it to find ways to learn from some of the more established musicians?

I wouldn’t say I find it difficult, but it has definitely been challenging. Each musician has a specific perspective on music and it takes a certain effort to learn from each of them. 

What do you hope to achieve this year? Next year?

I hope to use my last two years of high school to really push forward and always put myself in more challenging and intense environments within jazz, wherever they may be. 

Sometimes, it’s easy to “lose” the bass when an audience is listening to a band. How does a bassist take their space and make their mark?

I’ve learned so far to focus on creating a sound that is supportive of all the other musicians I might be playing with. Usually, as long as I’m helping the focal point of the music, consciously or not, the audience generally tends to recognize the importance of the bass. 

What has your experience been like playing bass for the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble?

I’ve had a great experience so far. This is where I’ve gotten my start in jazz and I’m so thankful for that. I really appreciate everyone in our ensemble, and our director, Dr. Gregg Gelb. The faculty within our program has been so supportive but equally serious about the music, and for that integrity to stand even through the pandemic says a lot about the program and everyone involved. 

Keep an eye on Ms. Thomas. No website yet!

Photo courtesy of the artist.

(c) 2022 Debbie Burke

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