Friday, August 23, 2019

How heartbreak led to a breakthrough

The father of a child with health issues, Twin Cities musician Chris Thomson learned to trust his skills and rediscover the joy of creativity.

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 23, 2019

Chris Thomson/Cedar Thoms
Courtesy of the artist
Call it a comeback, a rebranding, or both. After four years of infrequent sightings, Chris Thomson, a highly regarded tenor saxophonist, returns to the Twin Cities music scene — as Cedar Thoms, electroacoustic artist.
The photo for his new album, “Celestial Being,” shows a young boy facing distant mountains. He’s small and slight, and the back of his neck looks tender and fragile. The letters CEDAR THOMS wrap around him almost protectively.
The music is optimistic and uplifting. Saxophones and clarinets float over and twine with electronically generated sounds, plush and layered, rhythmic and percussive.
The title refers to his daughter, Eden, who was born in May 2015. She was sweet and beautiful but small. She struggled with eating and vomited after she ate.
Doctors were consulted and tests were done.
Just after the holidays, a blood test revealed that Eden has a rare genetic abnormality described as “a chromosomal deletion on the q arm of the 12th chromosome.” There are four or five known cases in the world.
“We were told that Eden likely won’t walk and might not talk,” Thomson said. “It was a horror story.”
Over the next several months he and his wife, Emma Nadler, a therapist, helped Eden endure major surgery on a tiny, twisted intestine, a feeding tube, bouts with pneumonia, a hydrocephalus scare, countless doctor visits and multiple hospital stays.
“We’ve seen her in some precarious places,” he said. “It was kind of — your time is not a given. You assume you’re going to be here, but you just don’t know.
“It was a visceral experience.
“I didn’t want to go through the door of despair and hopelessness. [The album] was a way of creating something and staying hopeful and representing something for the kids, my wife and myself.”
A personal breakthrough
Thomson’s first full-length album since 2007’s “The Three Elements,” “Celestial Being” will be available online Tuesday. Two nights later, he will play an album release show at Icehouse in south Minneapolis with Martin Dosh.
Chris Thomson and Dosh. Courtesy of Icehouse.
Except for Greg Schutte’s drumming on two tracks, everything is written, programmed and performed by Thomson (known as C.T. to his friends and colleagues).
In the years before Eden — and her 7-year-old brother, Avi — the saxophonist performed widely and often. Besides gigging with his own quartet, he worked with Delfeayo Marsalis, the New Standards, Mason Jennings, Anthony Cox, Aby Wolf, Chris Morrissey and Dave King, among many others. With support from the Jerome Foundation and the State Arts Board, he created and performed the music for an evening-length work by TU Dance.
Today, if Thomson wants to play a show, “I have to secure a PCA [personal care assistant]. I have to pay someone, often more than I’m going to make, so my wife is not overburdened with the two kids, who both take their own energy. Emma’s super-supportive — I couldn’t ask for a more supportive partner — but I have to really, really care or it’s not worth it.”
Touring with Bon Iver in 2016-17 was worth it, but tough. Thomson was part of the saxophone section for “22, A Million,” Justin Vernon’s third studio album. He played with Bon Iver on the West Coast, in New York and Europe.
“We were playing in some of the most incredible places,” Thomson said. “I was at the peak of my external experience as a musician, and Eden was in the hospital and not doing well. Here’s this high, amazing time, grounded in a daughter in the hospital and my wife trying to hold it all together while I’m across the country. It was really rugged, and really rugged on my partnership with Emma.”
Shortly before they learned the news about Eden, Thomson released an EP called “Empathy” with his jazz quartet (Patrick Harison on accordion, James Buckley on bass and Cory Healey on drums).
The music explored how fatherhood had made him face his own demons, become more patient and develop empathy for his son. Avi is a high-energy child — “his own little force,” Thomson said.
In early 2017, the family sold its two-story house in southwest Minneapolis and moved to a one-story home in Deephaven to be closer to Nadler’s parents. “They are crazy generous and supportive,” Thomson said. “They have been monumental in helping us stay sane and afloat.”
A year or so ago, Thomson and Nadler shared what he sees as a major breakthrough.
“We were on a walk together, and it had been a hell of a run — pretty awful — and we both realized how much joy and happiness we get from creating. Sometimes I wish I had other skills besides music skills, but this is what I’ve got. This is what I’m working with. You’ve just got to own what you’ve got.”
With the new album and the new name, Cedar Thoms, Thomson is also sending a message. “I want to collaborate. I want to find people who think what I’m doing is interesting and work together. I’m sending up a flare. This is what I do. Does anyone else feel this way?
“Cedar Thoms and this music is my reopening to the love I feel for music, the community of musicians we have in this region, and the creative process. It’s saying I don’t want to have despair. I want to have hope. … The end goal of all of this is I just want to make good music.”
‘The hope is there’
As Thomson sees it, “ ‘Celestial Being’ is Eden.”
“She was a small, ethereal creature. She is so sweet and innocent, and she’s gone through such an insane journey in her first four years. She’s also so joyful, considering what she deals with. Not to be too graphic, but she throws up multiple times per day. She goes through it, and it’s done, and she pops right back into her little sweet, joyful spirit.
“It’s crazy. I don’t know how she does it.”
Eden is on her way to being 5. She’s growing, she’s walking (with braces), she’s talking and reading. Starting in the fall, she’ll attend preschool three hours a day, four days a week.
She still has a feeding tube, but her parents are hoping that won’t be forever. “The problem is, for the first chunk of her life, she equated eating with pain. … There’s a doc we went to in Boston, a highly regarded gastroenterologist, who did a study on Eden a couple summers ago. He’s seen kiddos in her situation outgrow it. So the hope is there.
“We’re in consultation with occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, gastroenterologists, a developmental pediatrician and pediatric neurology. It’s a treadmill of medical appointments. … With Eden, I have no expectations of what will or won’t happen. I’m mostly at peace with that.
“You know how you have a lot of expectations for your kids and what you want them to be? All bets are off with her. It’s heartbreaking. And in a way — in a really interesting alternate universe — it’s liberating.
“I feel these songs come from an unconscious place. From being open. I let go of the theory, trusted in my music skills and let my unconscious speak. That’s totally Eden’s effect on me.”

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