In June 2014, Ian Thomas donated his musical archives to his alma mater, Hamilton’s McMaster University. In appreciation of Thomas’s donation, Hamilton saxophonist Darcy Hepner staged a concert in which a couple of Thomas’s key compositions were performed by a small orchestral string section.
The response was so positive that Thomas, Hepner (whose father Lee, founded the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra) and film producer and composer Paul Intson quickly seized upon the idea of recording Thomas’s next recording as a live concert event with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.
The resulting recording, `Life In Song’ has just been released but to Thomas’s regret, was recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in early January of this year due to budget constrains.
“The whole thing sprung from a chat Darcy (Hepner) and Paul (Intson) and I had after the Archives ceremony,” noted Thomas on the phone from his Dundas Ontario residence. “The performance had gone so well that it was suggested we make a live recording of some of my songs with a full orchestra. Carol Kehoe, marketing director with the Hamilton Philharmonic, was really excited about a Hamilton native recording with the Hamilton Philharmonic that she got right behind the project.”
However, understanding that select Thomas tracks would have to undergo a complete re-think to chart them for an orchestra, it was agreed that the re-vamped compositions for six Thomas classics plus five more recent compositions and one new song (“So Cold In The City”) could have a run-through during a live event staged so that modifications could be made prior to the actual recording sessions..
“I’ve always loved orchestral stuff, most of the 23 movies I have scored have included orchestration but a lot of that was synthetic orchestration,” Thomas explained. “I’ve always had a deep respect for orchestras as an emotive tool. You can’t mock up how a real string section sounds, it’s not what is on the microphone, it’s the air in the room, when you have a complete orchestra playing together, it really is a remarkable thing.”
Thomas, whose connection to the Hamilton Philharmonic goes back to 1970 when he performed in a pop group connection to the Philharmonic called Tranquility Base, eventually scored with his 1973 hit Painted Ladies, winning a 1974 Juno Award for Most Promising Male Vocalist and launching an impressive solo career which has now included 14 studio albums, a string of hit tracks (“Right Before Your Eyes”, “Hold On”, “Pilot”, “Liar”, “The Runner”) plus, later in his career, four albums with off-shoot band The Boomers and four more records with pals Murray McLachlan, Marc Jordan and Cindy Church, know collectively as Lunch At Allens.
In selecting the 12 tracks for Life In Song, Thomas knew he had to include a number of standards for his long-suffering fans but the project also allowed him to rework the three tracks from Little Dreams and even include one track from his Boomer recordings “25 Thousand Days”, one track from Lunch At Allens’ Art Of Living release; “To Comfort You” plus the new track.
“We needed to rework songs like “Painted Ladies”, “The Runner”, “Hold On”, and “Right Before Your Eyes” but my former arranger, the late Milan Kymlicka had done such a good job with “”Long Long Way” and “Pilot” that we could work with the original arrangements,” explained Thomas. “The process was like underscoring a film, with some of the songs, we had to totally re-harmonize the vocals and in some instances completely eliminate the guitar parts to allow the orchestra to speak freely.”
Thomas tells the story of how he and Hepner had worked on new arrangements for “Painted Ladies” independently. “I didn’t like parts of what Darcy had done but I also didn’t like parts of what I had done,” he explained. “But when we cobbled the two arrangements together the end result was fabulous!”
The October 17th 2015 concert was set up as a dry run for the material’s new arrangements and although the event was deemed as both a creative and critical success, the task of finding a record company to fund the subsequent recording project proved to be a challenge.
“One record company executive told me flat out that he hated orchestrations and to try public funding. Someone else told me such a record was economical not viable,” bemoaned Thomas. Universal Record’s president Randy Lennox was excited about the project after hearing about it and seeing the excitement created by the Indiegogo campaign and thought it was right for Peter Cardinali’s label, Alma Records’ which Universal distributes. I had held off approaching Peter (bassist with The Boomers) because he is a good friend of mine and I knew an orchestral undertaking was probably a ball-busting uphill undertaking that didn’t want to drag him into. As it turned out, Peter is as much an orchestra junkie as I am. So it was a serious labour of love for orchestral music that drove it to fruition.”
Thomas successfully raised a chunk of the budget through crowd-sharing (Indiegogo) and with Alma and Universal involved, the project was a go. Even with everyone on board, Thomas realized he couldn’t afford to utilize the Hamilton Philharmonic and instead opted for the Prague Philharmonic, flying over for an intense two-day session January 4th and 5th before completing the recording back home.
Cardinali not only agreed to release the record on his Alma Records label but also offered to co-produce the project and conduct the orchestra in Prague. John Bailey served as engineer and Thomas’s son Jake worked as photographer/videographer for the project.
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Prior to the trip, Thomas recorded the vocals and bed tracks at Phase One Studios in Toronto and then split the strings, brass and woodwinds into two separate sessions once he arrived in Prague. “We had all the guitars and percussion on the bed tracks but in some instances we took the guitars out completely so it was just my vocals with the string arrangements. Some songs like “Right Before Your Eyes” were totally rearranged and re-harmonized.”
“The budget for recording in Prague was less than a quarter of what it would have cost us to record anywhere in North America,” bemoaned Thomas. “I would have loved to record `A Life In Song’ here but it just wasn’t economically feasible.”
Upon returning home, vocals and other overdubs were completed at Thomas’s home studios and the project was mixed at John Bailey’s Drive Shed Studios in New Hamburg.
The resulting project is an acknowledgement of Thomas’s illustrious career so far. A career that has spanned, solo recordings, group recordings with The Boomers and Lunch At Allens, movie scoring assignments (including writing and recording the theme track for `A Strange Brew’, the Bob and Doug MacKenzie movie which co-stared his brother Dave Thomas of SCTV fame), a published author and even acting appearances on SCTV and a re-occurring role in The Red Green Show.
Next up for Thomas is a Fall tour of Western Canada and a planned new recording with Lunch At Allens’ cohorts Murray McLachlan, Marc Jordan and Cindy Church, an all-star group that was initially formed by Thomas, Jordan and McLachlan in 2003 when they met for lunch at a Toronto pub called Allens – go figure!
“What I love about Lunch At Allens is that playing with them doesn’t feel like work, Murray and Marc are great friends and Cindy is the sister I never had,” enthused Thomas. “We back each other up, play each other’s material, tell stories, it’s a lark, it’s a wonderful reminder to me about the celebration and joy of creating music is all about.”
As for The Boomers, Thomas says getting these guys together is like “herding cats’ but also plans to hook up with band mates Cardinalli, Bill Dillon, Rick Gratton plus keyboardist Lou Pomanti later this fall with an itinerary that includes Toronto’s Hugh’s Room on November 10th. The Boomers were launched in 1991, as Thomas’s first off-shoot project and although they enjoyed a successful tour of Germany in support of their debut self-titled release, the band struggled to pull an audience at home.
“I think we played more dates in the U.S than we did in Canada,” allowed Thomas. “We had one gig at the Horseshoe in Toronto and one at Ontario Place and I think that was about it. `Everyone says to me, `when are you going to get The Boomers back together again’. My response is; if I could get you all in the same room together, may be we could do something.”
In reflection `Life In Song’ is an appropriate bench mark in Ian Thomas’s long and creative musical sojourn – one that combines his love of orchestration with his success as a creator of hit songs. Songs that have been covered by the likes of Santana (“Hold On”), Manfred Mann (“The Runner”), America (“Right Before Your Eyes”) and Chicago (“Chains”).
“I look back at all of those songs and they are like little flags on the road behind me,” Thomas concluded. “I remember where I was, what I was doing and what I was thinking at the time I wrote those songs. Some of those song ideas just land on you and you wonder `Where the fuck did that come from?”.
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