The Soul of a Man: Chester “CT” Thompson plays Berkeley

Chester “CT” Thompson: played for 25 years with Santana, and before that with Tower of Power during its 1970s heydey

Four decades is a long wait between albums, but Chester “CT” Thompson hasn’t been wasting his time. A rising Hammond B3 organ star on the chitlin’ circuit jazz scene in the late 1960s, he recorded his first album as a leader in 1971 for the Black Jazz label, Powerhouse, an LP that’s now a pricey collector’s item (listing for $175 on eBay).

When Thompson gained national notoriety with Tower of Power during its 1970s heyday he gave up his solo career, and went on to a quarter-century run with Santana from 1983-2009, including key contributions to the smash album Supernatural. Since coming off the road, he’s started to delve back into his original soul jazz bag, and he celebrates the release of his second album Mixology (Doodlin’ Records) Friday at Freight & Salvage.

“It’s a little different for me, but I’m having a ball,” Thompson said from his house in Millbrae. “Normally I’m in other bands as one of the supporting cats. I’m working with great players, and that says it all for me. We’ll be featuring cuts off the new CD, and maybe a couple of surprises.”

Thompson’s working band is a distilled version of the Mixology combo, featuring the prodigiously talented Berkeley tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, drummer Ron E. Beck and veteran guitarist Barry Finnerty, who was hanging with Bruce Conte at the gig where the Tower of Power guitarist first heard Thompson in 1973. Finnerty, a San Francisco-raised master whose career includes stints with Miles Davis and the Crusaders, stayed in touch with Thompson over the years, and he’s ideally equipped to explore CT’s repertoire, which ranges from stinging blues and post-bop standards to insistent boogaloos and soul jazz burners.

“His groove is just so strong,” Finnerty says. “It’s really powerful, and rip roaring. I have to step back and really try to relax, or I can find myself trying to over play, to get on top of the beat, because he’s just so ferocious.”

Thompson comes by his soulful sound directly from the source. As a budding musician growing up in Oklahoma City in the late 1950s, he would have made a deal with the devil to get access to an organ. It turned out that the New Hope Baptist Church was far more convenient, and he didn’t even have to sell his soul.

“When I was growing up, school or church was the only place to find a Hammond organ, so I started playing at church,” Thompson said. “The church had a large influence on my style, where it all developed from.”

Chester “CT” Thompson celebrates the release of his second album, Mixology, Friday at Freight & Salvage

Before he made his mark as a key component of Tower of Power’s patented East Bay grease, he followed in the footsteps of Jimmy Smith, the man who transformed the organ from a rarely heard jazz novelty instrument into a populist force in the mid 1950s. Like many young musicians, Thompson started out by memorizing his favorite solos, learning every note on Smith’s classic Blue Note track “The Sermon.” He also paid close attention to Don Patterson, who honed a bebop-infused sound after hearing Jimmy Smith and taking up the B3 in 1956.

“After a while I started to feel I should find myself,” he said. “I listened to everybody, everybody who had something to say, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and everyone in between. I loved Johnny Griffin. I was like a sponge and tried to soak it all in.”

Playing around Oklahoma as a teenager Thompson earned enough of a reputation that veteran Los Angeles saxophonist Rudy Johnson recruited him for his trio when he came through town in 1966. After three years on the road, playing an endless stream of chitlin’ circuit gigs, Thompson settled in San Francisco. He played around the region, but by 1973 he was working for Bank of America, having soured on the rigors of the road.

“The music scene is nothing you can rely on,” Thompson said. “You have to be a young man to do that kind of touring, totting that B3 around, living in cots in that little van.”

Landing the gig with Tower of Power provided him with reliable work for a decade, but by the early 1980s things were slowing down for the horn-powered combo. Still nursing big league ambitions, he accepted the call from Santana in 1983, joining the band as second keyboardist, playing Wurlitzer, Yamaha, synthesizer and a little B3 alongside Tom Coster.

He made his first Santana appearance on 1985’s Beyond Appearances, a lightly regarded pop-oriented album, but was in the thick of the mix when the band returned to form with the fiery Latin rock session “Freedom” in 1987 (the same year the guitarist featured Thompson prominently on his solo album “Blues For Salvador”).

While the band always maintained a strong fan base, the phenomenal success of 1999’s special-guest-laden Supernatural catapulted Santana back into the ranks of top drawing acts. The success was gratifying, but for Thompson the biggest thrill was the opportunities to collaborate with his musical heroes.

“We were playing to a lot of people already, but after Supernatural the transition was amazing,” Thompson says. “But I think my biggest highlight was when we worked with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. That’s something I’ll always cherish.”

Recommended gig: Hossein Alizadeh and Pejman Hadadi

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Hossein Alizadeh and Pejman Hadadi at Berkeley’s Rudramandir Center in Feb. 2012. They play there again on Sunday

The meeting of Tehran’s Hossein Alizadeh and Los Angeles-based Pejman Hadadi at the Rudramandir Center was one of last year’s most memorable concerts. They reprise the classical Persian recital, an encounter rife with improvisation, Sunday at the West Berkeley meditation center.

Alizadeh is best known in the West as a founding member of the Masters of Persian Music, an ensemble that has helped raise the international profile of Iran’s ancient classical tradition. Hailed as his generation’s most vivid and eloquent instrumentalist, he’s a visionary composer, and virtuoso of the Persian plucked lute, or tar. In Iran, where the 1979 Islamic revolution led to a stark generational gap as older masters fled overseas, Alizadeh provides invaluable continuity as an artist steeped in the vast body of traditional melodies known as the Radif, a vocabulary intimately intertwined with the cadences of classical Persian poetry.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • bayareamusicfan

    One of the greats, a musical hero! So happy to know he’s done a new album, long live CT!