Tommy Flanagan – In his Own Sweet Time
(enja ENJ9687 2. CD Review by Leonard Weinreich)
By all accounts, Thomas Lee Flanagan (1930-2001) was a modest chap, shy and retiring. But modesty didn’t prevent his being a scintillating pianist and jazz master (among tenor giants alone, he worked with Coltrane, Rollins , Hawkins and Dexter Gordon). And, until forced to quit by a heart attack in 1978, he’d spent ten arduous years on the road as Ella Fitzgerald’s musical director. Once, an inquisitive chum of mine chanced to dine with Flanagan and enquired about his experiences on tour. He extracted no more than a tight-lipped: “she never forgot our birthdays”. A veteran of over 300 jazz recordings, many of them revered classics, Flanagan’s lack of self-confidence means that albums of his unaccompanied performances are about as common as unicorn hooves.
And that’s why the release of a long-delayed, previously unheard solo album by the maestro, later in date than any of the handful of others previously released, is worthy of celebration. Especially when considering that it almost didn’t happen. In 1994, Flanagan was offered a solo recital at Birdland. But not New York’s fabled Birdland, hyped as the ‘Jazz Centre of the World’. This other Birdland was underground in an ancient cellar in Neuburg, a small town in Bavaria that laid no claim to being the jazz centre of anywhere. Flanagan, who’d never heard of neither the club nor Neuburg, couldn’t be arsed to make the gig and, anyway, was pessimistic about carrying an entire evening without accompaniment.
Furthermore, when Matthias Winckelmann, head honcho of Enja records, hinted that the performance might be recorded, Flanagan dug in his heels and rejected the gig. But over time, applying buckets of patience and gentle persuasion, Winckelmann coaxed Flanagan to reconsider and accept the solo date, even including the recording gear. All in his own sweet time.
Decades ago in a New Yorker piece, the late Whitney Balliett, most perceptive of all jazz scribes, characterised Flanagan as “a poet”, commenting: “he is never less than first-rate. But once in a while – when the weather is calm, the audience attentive, the piano good, the vibes right – he becomes impassioned. Then he will play throughout the evening with inspiration and great heat, turning out stunning solo after stunning solo, making the listeners feel they have been at a godly event”.
Balliett’s requirements for a “godly event” are worth revisiting: 1. ‘Calm weather’: judging by the results on the ninth of October 1994, the benign Bavarian autumn held its breath. 2. ‘Attentive audience’: it was totally absorbed and also held its breath without coughing, sneezing or spluttering.
Finally, requirement No. 3: ‘Good piano’. To describe Bavarian Birdland’s piano as “good” either risks being offensive or courting gross understatement. Because it was the pinnacle of pianos, the colossus of keyboards, a majestic Bösendorfer Grand, painstakingly built to the finickiest of standards by trained elves in Vienna (Oscar Peterson, admittedly a more extrovert pianist than Flanagan, worshipped the Bösendorfer, preferring it to a Steinway). Using solid wood where other manufacturers would have used veneers and a higher string tension than lesser brands, it’s prized for clarity, delicate treble and powerful bass. The lure of the Bösendorfer might well have changed Flanagan’s mind. Whatever, his unrivalled touch made it sing like no other.
Flanagan’s programme choices reflected his poetic sensibility: two songs, Smooth As The Wind and If You Could See Me Now, by Tadd Dameron, gifted composer of the bebop era; his own Untired Blues (odd title. Perhaps a mis-spelling of ‘Untried’?); Irene Kitchings’ Some Other Spring; the Gershwin’s How Long Has This Been Going On; Alec Wilder’s Who Can I Turn To; a brace of Ellington/Strayhorn compositions: Just Squeeze Me and Day Dream; Sonny Rollins’ Valse Hot; and, the final touch, Gordon Jenkins’ poignant Goodbye.
Flanagan, adroitly poised between abandon and restraint, took full advantage of the Bösendorfer’s expansive dynamic range. Familiar songs emerge in unfamiliar guise as melodies are remodelled with fresh voicings. He engaged a seesaw bass figure to counterbalance the melody of Just Squeeze Me; explored the opulent harmonic possibilities of Day Dream; on Valse Hot, he introduced intricate textures and triple time subtleties courtesy of the Bösendorfer’s enhanced resonance. And follow his excavation of concealed levels of lyricism in Some Other Spring by Irene Kitchings (herself a pianist, briefly married to Teddy Wilson, one of Flanagan’s three primary influences. The other two? Art Tatum and Nat ‘King’ Cole).
Three miracles: that the gig ever happened. And that it was recorded. And that it’s been released a whole generation later after languishing ignored/forgotten/misplaced behind a filing cabinet (delete where applicable). Fortunately, in this case, ‘late’ suits us a whole lot better than ‘never’.
So, if you’re inclined to enjoy fifty-three minutes of “stunning solo after stunning solo” (thanks, Whitney Balliett) by a first-rate pianist on a stupendous piano in immaculate sound (thanks, engineer Wolfgang Meyscheider), try not to whinge that you weren’t tipped the wink.
Tommy Flanagan, piano. Recorded live at the Birdland Jazz Club, Neuburg on the Danube, Bavaria, Germany, 9 October 1994.
Categories: CD review