Will Thompson with Layne Garrett and James Singleton
10 p.m. Sun., Dec. 13
Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude Ave., 945-4446
10 p.m. Mon., Dec. 14
Dragon's Den, 435 Esplanade Ave.
Listening to Will Thompson's Baghdad Music Journal (High Mayhem/Kindred Rhythm) is like viewing snapshots of the Iraq war through a smashed kaleidoscope. Snippets of Arabic dialogue are stitched together and looped into a hypnotizing rhythm. Penetrating, metallic pulses ring out from a bed of shortwave static as if alien transmissions from another planet. An already unsettling minor-key phrase is made even more so by the punctuation of gunfire.
"There's still hopefully a certain amount of shock value," says the New Orleans jazz musician and former National Guard reservist, describing his aural record of a year (2004-05) spent deployed in Baghdad. "I want to get [people] out of their comfort zone."
Thompson, 29, had signed up with the Guard 10 years ago, as a high school senior in Mississippi. A music student at the University of New Orleans in 2004, his five-year enlistment window was about to close when his unit's number was called in April. "Stop-loss — the backdoor draft," he says of the U.S. Army policy of involuntary service extensions. "I got caught in that."
Along with standard-issue gear, Thompson brought with him a keyboard, a MIDI controller and an Apple PowerBook laptop. The rest of what makes up his dark, electro-jazz Journal was supplied in the field.
"The main thing I did was manipulate samples. Taking dialogue or weird sounds — machine gunfire, whatever — I would transcribe the pitches, because all sound has pitch and rhythm, regardless of whether it's music or not. I transcribed all those things, wrote them down on standard staff paper, and just played either the same thing or something that [harmonically] goes with what was actually recorded.
"I just messed with it a lot," he adds. "It was really my escape while I was there. I don't know how well I would've come out had it not been for that."
The musical therapy helped. Thompson is currently pursuing a master's degree in piano at the University of New Orleans, and teaches band and choir at St. Martin's Episcopal School in Metairie. He also leads WATIV (read: William A. Thompson IV), a "brighter" progressive jazz quartet featuring bassist James Singleton, drummer Simon Lott and guitarist Chris Alford. But the other motive for making Baghdad Music Journal, which he's revisiting this week in a rare solo show at the Hi-Ho Lounge, persists: to show one soldier's viewpoint of the war, from the war.
"It's hard to listen to it," he says. "I really haven't been able to until the past year. It really makes me remember what I felt like at that time. Which was the purpose of the album: I wanted other people to feel how I felt. I had a mission in the military, but I had a mission otherwise, something that I had to do. ... I was very serious about this mission that I saw myself having, to really make other people understand what's going on. And I still think that's an important thing. People really have no clue."
The dichotomy of his occupations is not lost on Thompson. "I can't think of two more opposite lifestyles, soldier and jazz musician," he says. "One of them you stay up all night long and sleep all day; the other you wake up early in the morning and run."
And how did a counterintelligence operative get permission from the Army to capture audio for a personal recording? "Well, they never knew," he says, laughing. "I'm sure they would have (objected), because I was intelligence. Everything was super classified. I had top security clearance, and I was working on a lot of classified stuff.
"I never used anything classified for the recordings," he notes quickly. "At this point it's not a big deal."