Thomas Heflin | Morning Star Review
by Jeff Becker
Trumpeter Thomas Heflin grew up in Tennessee, where he started on piano at an early age, but it was not until he took up the trumpet at the age of eleven that all things musical came into sharp focus. Heflin attended the University of Tennessee, where he studied with one of his biggest musical influences, pianist Donald Brown. Heflin was drawn to Brown’s music, which features tuneful melodies, complex harmonies and arrangements, and a deep rhythmic pocket. Upon graduation, Heflin moved to New Jersey to attend William Paterson University for his master’s degree and to study with another Memphis-born pianist, James Williams. Heflin completed a doctorate at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2009. Heflin currently serves as Assistant Professor of Jazz Brass at the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Heflin’s newest album, Morning Star, pays tribute to Williams by featuring one of his compositions, “Self-Esteem.” One unique thing about Morning Star is that the collection of songs is presented as a late-night radio show, complete with a radio intro and outro.
Listening to the title track, “Morning Star,” one can instantly hear that Heflin is a musician of the most profound understanding of the jazz language. Flowing from an intimate whispering trumpet tone to an exciting crackling intensity of his upper register, Heflin always keeps melody and rhythm in mind. The composition is an opportunity to hear him grow an improvised melody, which he does with confidence. The supporting sounds have many layers over a lively, funky jazz feel. The ensemble invites every one of us to pay attention to the flow of the music as they take us through the journey of “Morning Star.”
The only song on the album that is not a Heflin original is “Self-Esteem,” by James Williams. Vocalist Mavis “Swan” Poole sings the uplifting lyrics written by Pamela Baskin Watson. The lyrics are inspirational and effortlessly embrace the positivity and soulfulness of Williams. Poole has elements of blues and gospel that transform the melody into a passionate expression. The song is set to a relaxed groove, and the ensemble builds a sensual mood of expression that is entertaining and supports the soloist and vocalist. The interplay between the horn section and Poole’s voice is outstanding. Throughout Heflin’s solo, he seeks melodies that express the power of the lyrics and mood of the harmonies to form a relationship that is felt and meaningful. His warm and powerful trumpet voice gives expressive persuasion over the feel, uplifting the spirits and elevating the soul.
Morning Star is music infused with blues, gospel, soul, and jazz and tends to be driven by an emphasis on rhythmic substance. However, the ensemble remains comfortably distinctive, playing the many shades with an outstanding grip on American jazz and groove music while defining the songs’ structures. Heflin has a strong themed project in Morning Star, and you should undoubtedly explore its many offerings deeper.