Houston bassist and composer Thomas Helton is a multifaceted improviser and skilled interpreter of contemporary bass repertoire. Equally adept at playing jazz, classical, experimental and avant-garde music, Helton continues to push and redefine the possibilities of his instrument by embracing extended performance techniques and new compositional forms.
Helton has studied with several bass masters, including Eric Late, Dennis Whittaker, Mark Helias, Rufus Reid, Lynn Seaton and William Parker, and performed with such celebrated musicians as Tim Hagans, Milt Jackson, Daniel Carter, Monty Alexander, Frank Gratkowski, Ernie Watts, William Parker, Weasel Walter, Robert Boston, Damon Smith and Steve Swell. Helton has composed music for solo bass as well as small and large ensembles, including several pieces for choreographer Michele Brangwen and the experimental dance company Group Acorde.
In 2004, Helton was awarded an artist residency from DiverseWorks Art Space for the commission and premiere of Pride, a work for ten-piece ensemble and projected video created in collaboration with artist Maria del Carmen Montoya. Helton’s tango suite for MBDE, Desesperados (2005) is featured on Houston Public Radio’s CD The Best of the Front Row, and his composition Black Rain (2005), for saxophone, guitar, string bass, percussion and dancers, was selected for performance at FotoFest 2006: the Eleventh International Biennial of Photography and Photo-related Art. In 2007, Helton received a Houston Arts Alliance Individual Artist Fellowship Grant for the commission and premiere of a new work for his fifteen-piece Torture Chamber Ensemble. In 2010, he was awarded a three month TAKT Artist Residency in Berlin, and performed at many of the city’s avant-garde venues with local musicians Simon Rose, Matthias Müeller, Klaus Kürvers, Chris Heenan and Clayton Thomas. Later that year, Helton toured the U.S., performing solo and as a collaborator at the Norcal Noisefest, University of Southern California and University of North Texas. In 2011, a DVD collaboration with videographer Jonathan Jindra, which features Helton performing his original composition I in various industrial settings, screened at the International Society of Improvised Music Conference.
Helton is a founding member of The Core Trio, which includes Houston saxophonist Seth Paynter and New York-based drummer Joe Hertenstein. In 2014, The Core Trio released their critically acclaimed vinyl album/CD/download The Core Trio , featuring Matthew Shipp, a completely improvised performance with legendary pianist Matthew Shipp. in 2015 that same ensemble with Shipp released a second “live” record. That same year, Helton commissioned and premiered a composition by Shipp for the Houston Composers Salon. He performed in Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger at New York’s Park Avenue Armory with the Houston Grand Opera.
His recent projects include leading and tubaist with his traditional Dixieland jazz band Boomtown Brass Band, playing electric bass in the original heavy metal band Echo Temple, collaborations as the duo pH with New York-based electronic composer Kevin Patton, performances of “improvised opera” with opera singer singer Misha Penton and pianist Hsin-Jung Tsai. A new music ensemble, Relative Dissonance. Thomas is the primary bass luthier at Quantum Bass Center in Houston. He is also a founding member of Swing Rendezvous, a “gypsy” jazz band. 2016 saw the premiere of his composition A Siren’s Dream for eight double basses. He is also the artistic director of the non-profit organization Houston Composers Salon, which presents seasonal concerts of contemporary music by living composers.
In 2016, Helton toured the east coast as a soloist and performed on programs with bassist Michael Formanek, steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and saxophonist Tony Malaby. He also traveled to Taiwan to perform and lecture in several music venues and schools. In the Summer of 2016 he helped form the non-profit modern dance ensemble Group Acorde with dancers Roberta Cortes, Lindsey McGill and long time collaborator Seth Paynter. In October of 2016 Helton began Odd Gravity, a collaboration with New York musicians Jaimie Branch and percussionist Michael Evans.
In 2017 he performed with Steve Swell in a commission from the Houston Composers Salon. That summer also included performances with the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble featuring Tim Hagans in New York as well as Houston. Thomas was a featured performer at the International Society of Bassist in Ithaca, NY. Later that year we was accepted to the Atlantic Center for Art Residency in Florida to study with bassist/composer Michael Bisio. While there he began the development of a new music notation system based on his unique style of improvisation. While on tour in 2017, Mr. Helton shared the stage in a 11 member bass ensemble at John Zorns venue, The Stone. Other bassist included Rufus Reid, Trevor Dunn, Mark Helias, and Mark Dresser.
Helton has released three CDs of original compositions and improvisations, Doublebass (2003), Experimentations in Minimalism (2004) and Saga (2006), all of which received positive reviews in both U.S. and European press.