Thursday, March 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 249: Tommy Flanagan

Tommy Flanagan went a long way to record this one: Sweden, which if it wasn't quite the Mecca for American jazz musicians that it had been a few years earlier, was still one of the great jazz centers of Europe. Stockholm was a long way from New York, where Flanagan, Wilbur Little and Elvin Jones had been playing in J. J. Johnson's group, and had joined Johnson's European tour. It was even farther from Detroit, where both Flanagan and Jones had gotten their start.

I've written a lot about Detroit in this blog, because it keeps coming up. Detroiters made such a contribution to Prestige Records, and to modern jazz as a whole. As Pepper Adams said, when he joined the army, he was thrown in with older and more experienced musicians, and he looked forward to learning from them, but he discovered that because of his apprenticeship in Detroit, he was more advanced than they were.

A history of jazz in Detroit was waiting to be written, and it waited a long time. It wasn't until 2001 that a book-length history of Detroit jazz was published, and it was worth the wait. The book is Before Motown,  by University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Lars Bjorn, with assistance from Jim Gallert, jazz DJ and journalist. I, of course, have been focused on the musicians (like Flanagan and Jones) who emigrated from Detroit to New York in the 1950s, but the book goes back to the 1920s--the society bands that morphed into jazz bands, and the contributions to music that the Motor City was making even then: Jean Goldkette's bands that were the first to feature Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, McKinney's Cotton Pickers with their great arranger Don Redman. The book is both scholarly and readable, Highly recommended.

J. J. Johnson's European tour may not have produced the number of splinter group recordings that Lionel Hampton's 1953 tour did, but this session makes up for it quality. It is the first recording by Tommy Flanagan as a leader, but certainly not the last. In a career spanning four decades, he became one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed musicians of his time.

Most of the cuts here are Flanagan originals, the exceptions being "Willow Weep for Me," by Gershwin protégé Ann Ronell, "Chelsea Bridge" by Billy Strayhorn, and "Relaxin' at Camarillo" by Charlie Parker. Playing a Bird composition means that you still have at least one foot planted firmly in bebop, and if you're a piano player and have that planted foot, you've done a lot of listening to Bud Powell. Flanagan has named as his chief early influences Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, two masters of the piano, and Powell, the pianist who steered him to bebop.

I went back and listened to Bud Powell's version of "Relaxin' at Camarillo," and then to Flanagan's again. Both feature great piano, and certainly no one wrote springboards for improvisation like Charlie Parker, but the big difference between the two is Elvin Jones. Powell's "Relaxin'" was recorded at almost exactly the same time as Flanagan's, in late 1957, and with Art Taylor on drums, but Jones, who had been restrained on previous Prestige sessions, really breaks out here,

I went back and listened to some of Powell's earlier recordings, from the 40s, with Max Roach on drums. Roach was certainly one of the most important drummers in his day, one of the pioneers of modern bebop drumming, and in a club, in a trio setting, he must have been wonderful to hear, but on record, you can hear very little of him. And that makes you realize what a difference arriving on the scene in the era of advanced recording techniques pioneered by Rudy Van Gelder and others, when the bass and drums could be miked so as to show the full range of the players.

But the other difference in Jones's playing on this session is Tommy Flanagan, who brings him to the forefront, and provides a framework for him to show himself at best advantage. Flanagan was one of the great accompanists in jazz, working with Ella Fitzgerald for many years, and of course a vocalist like Ella is going to be able to find and hire the best accompanist, but it turns out that Flanagan is also a great accompanist to a drummer, which is a little more unusual.

Just listen to "Beat's Up," a Flanagan composition which is a showcase for Jones, and listen to the piano, the way Flanagan provides melodic and rhythmic prods that move Jones into new directions and new innovations.

You can tell this was recorded outside of Bob Weinstock's purview because there are alternate takes. It was released as Tommy Flanagan Trio on the Swedish Metronome label, then licensed to Prestige, where it became Overseas.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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