|Recorded at Studio 44, Monster, Holland, April 1990.
There would be lots of local talent, of course ó Burrell, Pepper Adams, Milt Jackson when he was in town. But the real bonus for being in the house band was that you got to back up such imported stars as Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, and the man himself, Charlie Parker.
The first five numbers in this interesting program celebrate the Bluebird era and aura. Not that these numbers are nostalgia trips or stylistic re-creations; this is contemporary music. But they are pieces that were played there and performances that capture the spirit of those times. What could be more appropriate an opener than Bluebird, Charlie Parker's own fine blues line, first recorded in Detroit by Bird's working band a few days before Christmas of 1947. The tempo's just right and both Tommy and Kenny take a turn at the theme. The piano solo reveals Tommy's mastery of Bird's blues vocabulary ó the bebop text. Kenny, with that great sound and swing, gets in the groove, as they used to say. Yesterdays is a masterpiece. The vintage Kern song has been the inspiration for many a great jazz performance, but this one ranks with the best. Tommy plays the rarely heard verse ad lib, and Kenny, alone as well, fashions a lovely, nostalgic theme statement. Then Tommy returns, catching the ear off-guard with some harmonies you haven't heard before ó a magic moment after which Kenny and the rhythm section join in and gets into the act for the first time. Long. limber lines are a feature of both soloists' swinging explorations, and then they join in some contrapuntal improvising and other dialog before the theme returns.
Only old friends can play together like this, but don't forget George Mraz and Lewis Nash: they roll out a carpet for easy walking.
Thad Jones' charming^-^ (the street numbers of the Bluebird) was written then and there; Tommy's recorded it once before (with George Mraz and Elvin Jones) on the album Eclypso in 1977. It's good to hear it again; the changes are meat for both Tommy and Kenny, and George gets a solo turn, displaying that phenomenal command. Drummer Nash trades with piano and guitar in turn and shows that he's the baby of the band in age only; his time and ideas have seasoning. (What idiot said that bebop isn't melodic?) Benny Carter's The Blues In My Heart comes in for an interpretation that's certain to be approved by the composer. Tommy states the melody
with his special touch and texture, then Kenny gets bluesy and funky. Tommy's solo is both elegant (with a touch of Tatum here and there) and down with it. He and Kenny go out together.
The first stage of the trip ends as it began, with a Charlie Parker blues. Barbados is a perfect example of how Bird made the blues sing a new song, extending those harmonies. Kenny's up first and tells a story, then Tommy spins a tale of his own, building and creating. George's blues has no trace of an accent; after the bass solo, guitar starts the trades with Nash ó dig Tommy's completely original statement.
The second stage of this musical journey takes us. as in the title of Tommy's lovely original, Beyond the Bluebird, Some deep playing here by all hands. Kenny's solo is one of his best here, and note how smoothly he and Tommy trade oft. The piano solo shows Tommy's mastery of dynamics ó it's intimate. (I'd like to hear the MJQ play this Flanagan composition.) Kenny takes a break for the next two numbers, which gives us a chance to hear the greatest jazz piano trio of the '90s. Barry Harris' Nascimento has the kind of melodic-harmonic substance that Tommy finds nourishing, and it's sheer joy to follow^ his inventions as he dances through this bossa-flavored and blues-tinged romp. His voicings alone will get to you, but it's the ceaseless melodic flow that is the heart of the matter. This is one you'll want to hear again ó and again.Trumpeter Dizzy Recce penned The Con Man, a fast blues in F. It serves as a well-deserved showcase for Nash and Mraz, but we get a nice taste of Tommy as he once again finds new things to say on the blues ó and these three guys can swing! George contributes a dazzling solo turn. Tommy's Something Borrowed, Something Blue brings back Kenny. who makes himself at home on this fetching piece. Tommy has recorded it before: as the title-track of a Galaxy LP of his own. but on electric piano (at the a&r
man's request), and as a duet with Grover Washington on one of the popular saxman's well-selling albums. This version is the best one yet, but the one with Grover, says Tommy, has brought him more royalties than any other record. The closing Bluebird After Dark is by Kenny (and it's remarkable just how long this ageless master has been out front) who outdoes himself here, with Tommy and Co. goosing him. This is happy music, and while perhaps beyond the Bluebird in time, right in there in spirit.
At the Bluebird, a very young Tommy Flanagan was backing a singer, Bobbi Caston. He'd open with a couple of piano numbers, such as Sweet Lorraine, patterned on Tatum. "One night, I'm struggling through my attempt at Tatum when Bobbi, who was friendly with him, comes up and tells me, 'Art Tatum's sitting over there, you know!' In shock, I cast a furtive glance to where she had pointed, and sure enough... it was him.
I played the rest of my piece with my head turned to the wall."
If Art were in the house w-hen Tommy plays these days, they'd be looking at each other and both of them would be smiling.
Dan Morgenstem Director Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University
If you don't have Tommy Flanagan: Jazz Poet (Timeless CD SJP 301), run out and get it. You'll be in good company; it was selected as one of Billboard's 10 Best Records of 1990.
His 1984 Thelonica was voted one of the best albums of the 1980s in the Village Voice. In 1990 also, Tommy placed first in the Down Beat Readers' Poll, and in the Jazz Times Readers' and Critics' Polls. It's been a very good year, but I'd wager the best is yet to come. ó D.M.
Recorded at: Studio 44, Monster, Holland
Recorded: 29-30 April
Engineer: Max Bolleman
Producers: Anne de Jong, Diana Flanagan