Art Themen – Thane & The Villeins(Hadleigh Jazz Records. CD review by Leonard Weinreich)
In the good ol’ days of American legend, when men sported hand-painted ties and automobiles sprouted fins, cruising the freeway with half-a-dozen cocktails under the belt was considered a manly act (as opposed to the Mann Act, which was something very different). This was the heyday of the roadhouse in distant ’burbs where folks sought furtive nirvana by absorbing significant quantities of alcohol and tobacco tar against a soundtrack of tenor saxophone breathing raunchy riffs against the burble of a Hammond B3.
In August, 2019 at the University of Nottingham, sound engineer Simon Patterson expertly reproduced this atmosphere of depravity by recording a trio consisting of organist Pete Whittaker and drummer George Double supporting leader Art Themen on tenor saxophone.
British jazz is singular in having produced a raft of musicians with supplementary talents (Humph: renowned broadcaster and cartoonist; Ronnie Scott: incomparable raconteur and club-owner; Benny Green: incisive writer and cricket maven; George Melly: art critic; Diz Disley: superior caricaturist; Sandy Brown: acoustic engineer) but, uniquely, Themen is a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, meaning he knows his way around human bones and joints. And he’s recently celebrated his 80th birthday. In any other country, he’d be regarded as a National Treasure.
Eighty maybe, but Doc Themen doesn’t sound like a veteran. No hesitance or shakiness here. Over eight decades, he’s shaped an individual style (think of heavyweights Ben Webster, Gene Ammons and Sonny Rollins in a blender) packed with swagger, loose and swinging, characterised by eccentrically placed smears and smudged flurries delivered in a warm, gruff tone. His song list pays respect to an impressive list of jazz masters: fellow tenorists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, plus Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd and both the Adderley brothers.
The album kicks off in sensual samba mood with a sultry version of Djalma Ferreira’s Recado Bossa Nova. On Dexter Gordon’s Hanky Panky, introduced with an insistent press roll and marching rhythm before slipping into 4/4, Themen moves acrobatically through the registers before Whittaker’s object lesson in soulfulness. Sonny Rollins’ First Moves with suspended phrases and implied R&B beat would have delighted the dancers creeping slowly around any roadhouse floor, as would Herbie Hancock’s And What If I Don’t and the boogaloo inspired version of Rollins’ Playin’ In The Yard.
Johnny Mercer wrote I’m An Old Cowhand (FromThe Rio Grande) with his tongue firmly in his cheek but it will forever be inextricably linked with Sonny Rollins’ incandescent performance on the indispensable Way Out West album. After accompanying Themen and Whittaker by trotting on woodblocks, George Double takes the reins for a drum feature. Sack O’Woe was a Cannonball Adderley feature during his band’s successful soul period and both Whittaker and Themen grasp opportunities to wail. Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower and Ann Ronell’s Willow Weep For Me allow the band to display its more tender side. Both would have been much appreciated on the roadhouse dancefloor before Nat Adderley’s gospel-tinged Sweet Emma reminded the dancers why they were there in the first place.
On an otherwise cracking album, your reviewer has a major beef: why, on a venture that so accurately recreates the atmosphere of a Cold War-era U.S. roadhouse, is the album called Thane & The Villeins and why is it clothed in faux mediaeval drag? The accompanying PR puff suggests an hilarious in-joke, ignoring the fact that, most often, in-jokes exclude the record-buying punter. Sadly, it’s sloppy marketing that misrepresents and undersells the valuable sounds inside. I’d recommend instant repackaging.