The Sirens Records

SR5015: Madam Queen   -- Ari Brown, Earma Thompson, John Brumbach

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"… Thompson reminds us that jazz can be soulful entertainment without compromising quality. Surrounded by a crew of old and trusted friends, the pianist revisits some bop and hard-bop staples … The two [tenor saxophonists Ari Brown and John Brumbach] play with a rare honesty, dedication and soulfulness. ... The pianist is not interested in virtuosic displays and focuses on the melody, which she peppers with witty lines and decorous ornaments. Bassist Yosef Ben Israel and drummer William “Bugs” Cochran have enough experience to understand that their role is to support the music without standing in the way. As a result, Thompson has produced a solid set that never gets dull and qualifies as serious foot-tapping and head-bobbing fun."

Alain Drouot, DownBeat July 2008

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Press / Music CD Reviews

In her 80s, pianist Earma Thompson has remained in Chicago and never got the exposure she deserved. This is only her second recording as a leader, and she epitomizes the Chicago jazz scene – a relaxed feel devoid of any tension permeates the spirited session.

Thompson reminds us that jazz can be soulful entertainment without compromising quality. Surrounded by a crew of old and trusted friends, the pianist revisits some bop and hard-bop staples as well as an original by saxophonist John Brumbach that fits right in. Madam Queen pays tribute to Thompson's generosity, as she leaves the spotlight to tenor saxophonists Ari Brown and Brumbach. The two play with a rare honesty, dedication and soulfulness. Brown features his beautiful tone in a straightahead setting. In contrast, Brumbach sounds more gruff.

The pianist is not interested in virtuosic displays and focuses on the melody, which she peppers with witty lines and decorous ornaments. Bassist Yosef Ben Israel and drummer William “Bugs” Cochran have enough experience to understand that their role is to support the music without standing in the way. As a result, Thompson has produced a solid set that never gets dull and qualifies as serious foot-tapping and head-bobbing fun.

Alain Drouot, DownBeat July 2008
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Earma Thompson has been a respected pianist on Chicago's jazz scene for over half a century. This set teams her up with saxophonists John Brumbach – a straight-ahead blower equally comfortable in swinging jazz settings and blues-drenched funkfests – and Ari Brown, a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Chicago's fabled free-jazz collective, who is likewise versatile and eclectic in his approach.

Thompson's technique, developed during the days when swing was morphing into bebop, captures the best of both genres: there's an easy-rolling elegance to her solo style and a broad, symphonic approach to her chording, but she's equally capable of unfurling angular, sharply delineated lines spiced with astringent seconds, flatted fifths, and other boppish seasonings. As usual, she eschews showing off, preferring instead to craft succinct solos whose eloquence is as much a product of what she doesn't play as what she does.

Brumbach's brawny tone is reminiscent of such Chicago “tough” tenor titans as Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin: his lines dig deeply into the heart of the songs' chord structures, but usually without pushing their boundaries too far. Brown, with a reedier, slightly acidic tone, shoots off in more challenging directions, never losing the main theme but always reminding us that improvisation is the art of discovering new beauty, often in unexpected places.

What could have been a self-conscious exercise in nostalgia is instead an innovative and pleasing dash of straight-ahead jazz with a strong blues chaser.

David Whiteis, Living Blues February 2008
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Fans of straight-ahead, old-school be-bop have much to enjoy in this clean and beautifully executed jazz album showcasing the work of three remarkable Chicago-based performers. Critically acclaimed but largely unrecognized pianist Earma Thompson is joined by two tenor saxophone greats -- Ari Brown and John Brumbach -- on seven works, including standards such as "The Way You Look Tonight" and "In a Sentimental Mood," as well as surprises like "Sunny." There is a strong dose of the blues on these tunes thanks in no small part to Brumbach, who has played with numerous Chicago blues masters. The title song by Gene Ammons is particularly fitting given Thompson's friendship with the Chicago-born tenor sax giant. Congrats to Highland Park's own Siren Records for a classic jazz gem.

Michael Bonesteel, Pioneer Press
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To honor the veteran if greatly underrated Chicago pianist Earma Thompson, tenor saxophonists Ari Brown and John Brumbach joined her in a quintet for a set of standards and basic originals. While Brumbach and especially Brown are best known for playing in more adventurous settings, they sound very much at home on this hard-swinging date, recalling such Chicago tenors as Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin. Brumbach takes "Ceora" as his feature while Brown swings on a medium-tempo version of "In a Sentimental Mood." Otherwise, the two tenors are on each number, challenging each other and inspiring Thompson. With fine support supplied by bassist Yosef Ben Israel and drummer William "Bugs" Cochran, this is a classic hard bop set; highly recommended.

Scott Yanow, All Music Guide
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A caveat seems in order for my take on this new album by octogenarian Chicago pianist Earma Thompson: I'm an easy mark for tenor saxophone tandems. Thompson teams with the contrastive tenors of Ari Brown and John Brumbach and the two horns generate a rich Ammons and Stitt influenced repartee on several occasions. Brown is probably best known for his collaborations with various AACM members, most often as a regular member of Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio. He was also Anthony Braxton's choice on the controversial Charlie Parker Project for the Hat Art label. In the employ of Thompson, the more outré elements of Brown's style are left at the studio door, but the granulated textures in his tone give the ensemble a healthy dose of grit and the energy infusing his phrasing remains. Brumbach's smoother delivery fits better with the pianist's own proclivities, but he's also shows himself Brown's understudy in terms of technique. The program follows a fairly predictable schedule in terms of solos, with solos apiece from each horn on all but two of the tracks. Lee Morgan's lush ballad “Ceora” works as fine single tenor fodder with Brown sitting out. Brumbach returns the favor on a generous rendering of “In a Sentimental Mood”.

A DuSable graduate and former pupil of the estimable Captain Walter Dyett, Thompson is still spry at the keys with an astute comping style that belies her eighty-odd years and a preference for solos that exude a simple elegance. Bassist Yosef Ben Israel and drummer William “Bugs” Cochran complete the rhythm crew and both do decent if conventional jobs in their respective roles, though Israel has a bit too much amplification for my taste. Their joint avant jazz pedigree, Israel with the AACM and Cochran an Arkestra alum, makes for a seemingly odd fit with Thompson, at least on paper. In practice, it effectively dismisses the fallacious notion that a musician need limit activity to any one bag. The five dip into a soul jazz direction with a version of “Sunny” and close the set out with a Brumbach blues original “Trouble in the Day Room”. The Sirens is something of a more roots-oriented sister to Delmark with a catalog that mainly encompasses Chicago-bred blues, gospel and traditional jazz. The last release on the label that grabbed me by the lapels was Skinny Williams and Erwin Helfer's St. James Infirmary. That infatuation started several years ago, so it's good to be smitten by the spell of The Sirens once again with this quality release.

Derek Taylor, Bagatellen October 2, 2007
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[Madam Queen] is the kind of album I thought they hardly made anymore. … this is a tribute to pianist Earma Thompson, who had a previous release out on Sirens, and is a fairly well known figure on the Chicago music scene. A graduate of the famed DuSable High School music program, she likes to mix nimble single note lines with clusters of locked-hand chords in an economical style that mixes Swing and BeBop. Making up the front line are two Windy City tenorists of different persuasions that meld together for a satisfying blend atop the sturdy rhythm section. Ari Brown is perhaps best known from his work under the Delmark logo with credentials in many free-blowing settings but he can hunker down with the most Blues oriented of them, as he demonstrates on the leadoff, “Next Time You See Me,” and on the intro to Duke's “In A Sentimental Mood” where he digs in and waxes a soulful statement. John Brumbach is more out of a R&B background and has been heard in a sideman capacity on other issues on the Sirens label. His playing is steamy and full toned, what might be called a “tough tenor.” Check out his preaching spot on the title tune written by the dean of Chicago tough tenors, Gene “Jugs” Ammons. Lee Morgan's sweet samba “Ceora” breaks up the tempo effectively and features Brumbach, who also contributed the closing tune, “Trouble In The Day Room.” This delightful listen reminded me of some of the old Prestige pairings of saxmen with an ambient rhythm section for some nice, laid-back blowing. Ah yes … let it flow.

Larry Hollis, Cadence Jan-Mar 2008
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Based just outside of the Windy City, longstanding label The Sirens is well poised to tap into Chicago's deep well of musical talent and has already done so over the years, particularly with regard to the sometimes-neglected piano Blues. There are other forms of music though that often intertwine with the Blues and these two releases document a couple of these other traditions. Earma Thompson has been playing jazz for well over half a century, and saxmen Brown and Brumbach are both jazz veterans, though both have plenty of experience in the Blues field – in Brumbach's case ranging from traditional pianists Erwin Helfer and Sunnyland Slim to Otis Clay and Taka Boom. The result is a lovely swinging collection of straight-ahead instrumental Blues and jazz, the sort of thing that was relatively common up until a couple of decades ago. The brother and sister team of Geraldine and Donald Gay are now all that remains of the once-famed 50's gospel outfit The Gay Sisters Trio. Donald often performed with them as a child, and recorded with them for the Chess label in the 60's; he is a Bluesy, soulful singer with a strong voice, which sometimes harks back to the older style of the 40's – just as the gospel revolution was taking place. Geraldine is a fine swinging gospel pianist, endlessly inventive and able to play in a variety of styles from almost ragtime to modern jazz. Backing is courtesy of a fine no-nonsense rhythm section and a couple of new generation family members help out, too. This is, again, a very listenable selection of slightly old fashioned music, not Blues but Bluesy enough.

Norman Darwen, Blues Matters Mar-Apr 2008
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Steve Dolins' The Sirens imprint continues it's exploration of piano based blues, gospel and jazz with these two new CDs reflecting the Chicago gospel and scenes.

Madam Queen features pianist Earma Thompson along with saxophonists Ari Brown and John Brumbach backed by Yosef Ben-Israel (bass) and William “Bugs” Cochran (drums) on a set of instrumentals that sit firmly in the be-bop field, albeit infused with “strong doses” of soulful blues.

Earma Thompson's piano playing is permeated with an innate sense of rhythm and swing liberally laced with the blues – the influence of Gene Ammons, who was a great friend of her and her husband, jazz drummer Marshall Thompson, being plainly evident on Ammons' own “Madam Queen”.

The set opens with “Next time You See Me”, which swings irresistibly – Thompson's Jay McShann influenced piano the perfect foil to Brumbach's sumptuous blues inflected sax and Brown's “dirtier” stylings.

Throughout this set Brumbach's sax has the bluesier and more soulful edge – which is unsurprising as he has worked with the likes of Sunnyland Slim, Otis Clay and Chaka Khan – whilst Brown's style is more reflective of the avant garde and be-bop jazz scene – the combination of styles adding multi-faceted shades of richness and texture to the salacious swing of Jerome Kern's “The Way You Look Tonight” and the smokey, effortless swing of Bobby Hebb's “Sunny”. Add in the sublime tapestry of Thompson's piano as it weaves a web of melancholy around Brown's heartfelt sax on Duke Ellington's “In A Sentimental Mood” and you have a set that will appeal to jazz and blues fans alike.

“Soulful Sounds” could just as easily have been called “Bluesy Sounds” – but whatever title you give it, this is a set that emphasises the greyness of the line that separates downhome gospel from the blues.

Geraldine Gay has been described as the Errol Garner of the gospel music scene – her playing demonstrating a uniquely intricate, spontaneous and soulful feel that is fuelled by her passion for her music and her religion. Her bother Donald has a voice that is imbued with an infectious and irrepressible passion that again reflects the depth of his faith but could just have easily been a vehicle for the trials and tribulations of the early blues singers.

The set opens with “This May Be the Last Time”, Geraldine's “finger snapping” swinging piano the perfect complement to Donald's rich baritone which had me visualising him as the Joe Williams of the gospel scene. Donald's tender and heartfelt vocals are enhanced by Geraldine's cascading piano which weaves intricate patterns in and around his vox on “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” – “Sing On My Singer” finds Geraldine playing what could almost described as barrelhouse piano underpinning Donald's wistful vocals – whilst “Just Another Day” with it's rolling piano and moaned vocals could be classified as either gospel or deep blues – but who cares – it's just great music.

“You've Got To Move” finds Donald sounding like the Muddy Waters of the gospel world underpinned by the irresistible swing of Geraldine's piano – “Tell Heaven I'm Coming” features anguished vocals and more barrelhouse piano stylings – whilst “Hell Understand And Say Well Done” is song in a preaching style replete with glorious cascading piano.

The set ends with the superb “God Has Been Good To Me” – Geraldine's six and a half minute virtuoso introduction segueing into gospel (or should that be blues) shouting of the highest order.

Gospel? Blues? Who cares! Just buy it!

Mick Rainsford, Blues in Britain
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Music for connoisseurs, and that in a double pack. The Sirens published two remarkable albums to us back in the good old days of the blues, jazz and gospel move. Geraldine (piano) and Donald Day (vocals) played in the 50ern/60ern panels for Savoy and Chess, on "Soulful Sounds" convince the two with bluesy jazz and gospel. The predominantly traditional song material was almost exclusively in small ensembles with bass and drums recorded. Something is faster at "Madam Queen" to meet two of the best Tenorsaxofonisten from Chicago to the pianist Earma Thompson. Together with William "bugs" Cochran (drums) and Yosef Ben Israel (bass), they play mostly swinging jazz with a small pinch of blues, including the Ellington classic "In A Sentimental Mood" and a thrilling version of "Sunny" (Bobby Hebb ). The seven pieces with lengths of up to about ten minutes, especially the saxophonist room for impressive solos.

Peter Margasak, Post No Bills Blog “Living Jazz History” 10/31/2007 Since relaunching his label the Sirens six years ago, Steven B. Dolins has been feverishly redressing some of the injustices that have affected a handful of Chicago's finest musicians. Thanks to his efforts the discography of folks like Erwin Helfer, Geraldine Gay, and Earma Thompson have expanded significantly. This week he's been celebrating the release of two new titles with some gigs at Katerina's. Last night gospel pianist Gay and her brother Donald, who's a fine if slightly mannered singer, played in honor of their new Soulful Sounds, while tonight Thompson is joined by saxophonists Ari Brown and John Brumbach, bassist Yosef Ben Israel, and drummer William "Bugs" Cochran to officially launch Madam Queen.

A few years ago the label released Thompson's superb duo album Just in Time–astonishingly, the first album under her own name–and it was a gorgeous time capsule of jazz history, where boogie-woogie, bebop, swing, and the blues all happily coexist. Thompson attended the storied DuSable High School, where her classmates included Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Hartman, and Dorothy Donegan. Madam Queen is also a good record, although the quintet setting relegates the pianist to a support role, which she handles nimbly much of the time. The music is more specific in its focus than the debut, zeroing in on gently but sturdily swinging bop turf, with takes on tunes by Ellington, Lee Morgan, and Gene Ammons, an old pal of Thompson's. The two saxophonists do a typically fine job, but frankly I'd sure like to hear the pianist in another stripped-down setting. Then again, beggars can't be choosers.

Dirk Föhrs, Bluesnews (translated from German)
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