Isaiah J. Thompson Wins American Pianists Awards


Isaiah J. Thompson performs during the finals of the 2023 American Pianists Association’s Awards in Jazz.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Isaiah J. Thompson won the jazz pianist competition led by the American Pianists Association on April 22. The year-long competition, held every four years, offers the largest award in the world to rising American jazz pianists, including a $50,000 prize, the opportunity to record with Mack Avenue Records, two years of career assistance and a two-year stint as artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis, for an overall value of $200,000.

Five finalists in the competition were announced last May: Caelan Cardello, Esteban Castro, Paul Cornish, Thomas Linger and Thompson. All five finalists brought their style and creativity to the events of the competition, which saw pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Bill Cunliffe, Sullivan Fortner, Rio Sakairi and Will Wakefield serve as judges during the final week.

“As pianists, we don’t get to hang around a lot, and I have gotten to know these pianists even more than I already knew them,” Thompson said. “I met some when I was really young at Jazz House Kids, among other things, and it was really wild getting to see them and to see how everyone has grown and how we can learn from each other. I have always been overwhelmed by the piano, but it is wonderful to be part of a piano competition. Winning a piano competition is really humbling, actually, and very affirming; I am just really humble and grateful.”

The competition format included each artist spending a week in Indianapolis during the fall and winter months to be judged playing two sets at The Jazz Kitchen in solo and trio format as well as spending a three-day residency teaching and mentoring in a local high school.

In the final week of the competition, all five finalists performed a noon community concert at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis in advance of the juried events Friday and Saturday night. On Friday, the five finalists performed two sets at The Cabaret with Nick Tucker on bass and Kenny Phelps on drums. Thompson performed his own composition “Citizen Of The Blues” along with his take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness Of You.”

On Saturday, the finalists accompanied vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at the Hilbert Circle Theatre and performed with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra one of their selected tunes arranged for big band by Brent Wallarab and commissioned for this engagement. Thompson kicked off the performances with Salvant playing the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II tune “Nobody Else But Me” and delivered a playful romp of Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. Pianist Bill Charlap was the charming host of the event, which was broadcast live on webcast around the world.

Joel Harrison, the American Pianists Association’s senior artistic adviser, reflected, “If the five finalists for the 2023 American Pianists Awards in Jazz are any indication (and they are), the future of jazz in America looks bright. Our winner, Isaiah J. Thompson, is a strong, solid, well-grounded performer who consistently delivered superb performances, without exception, throughout the awards process. That said, all finalists had moments of brilliance and show-stopping charisma, and all were — and will continue to be — an inspiration. “

Thompson joins an illustrious lineup of past winners including Emmet Cohen (2019), Sullivan Fortner (2015), Aaron Diehl (2011), Dan Tepfer (2007) and Adam Birnbaum (2004), with jazz pianist awards dating back to 1992. DB

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