Tommy Flanagan, a reminiscence

Jim Merod

[April 2002.]

The incomparable pianist Tommy Flanagan passed away on November 16th in New York. He was 71. Jazz lost an artist who set the highest lyrical standards. Those who knew him well lost a brilliant, caring and soft-spoken friend.

My personal memories of Tommy are too numerous to hold in a single grasp. His conversations were mini-seminars on the deep structure of music. Late at night, when Tommy was in the mood to discuss such things, his topic was often the complex nuances of personal feeling at the heart of the jazz artist’s work. No one I’ve talked with about jazz has ever been so quietly eloquent and economical in defining the emotional and private energies that define jazz as an art that joins tradition and surprise. In particular, Tommy was sensitive to the individual musician’s style as a uniquely embodied form of expressive feeling.

Although such topics are difficult for anyone to articulate, and Tommy was somewhat reticent to do so, he nonetheless unreservedly enjoyed talking about one of his musical heroes, Charlie Parker. More than that, he enjoyed demonstrating his affection and respect for Bird. In performance on any given evening, Tommy would ransack the Parker songbook and assert adept professorial commentary through his improvisational art. One of his frequently preferred vehicles was a medley that put George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” together with Parker’s revision of it, “Quasimodo.” Tommy averred that he regarded Parker’s song to be superior to Gershwin’s and yet, in his witty, searching treatment of the two songs joined in seamless melodic dialogue, equal adoration suffused each. Tommy’s pianistic exploration illuminated each song in terms of the other, as if his listener stood before Velasquez’s painting, Las Meninas, and looked simultaneously at Picasso’s cubist deconstructions of that masterpiece and its classical form.

I am convinced that Tommy Flanagan’s artistic talent ran so deep that, had he been inclined, he could have expressed himself in paint or photographic media with similar candor, tact, and feeling.

Relaxed, ruminative, endlessly searching feeling was at the core of his art. Technique was always dedicated to lyric beauty. Few pianists (Hank Jones is the most obvious) have touched the keyboard so lovingly, with such instantaneous command of its harmonic complexity. You will hear, on dozens of recordings, TF’s innate ability to invent gorgeous, perfectly rendered introductions to old chestnuts. Listen, for example, to the two versions of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” on the expanded edition of The Magnificent Tommy Flanagan [Progressive PCD-7059].

The version used for the original album release is take five. It features a buoyant four-bar introduction that puts the song in the sunniest imaginable light, as if everything to follow were in the personal possession of the cheerful pianist now setting up the song’s loping ride. An earlier version, take two, approaches the introduction and melody more obliquely. Both display the sense of delighted semi-bedazzlement that is one of Tommy Flanagan’s characteristic artistic viewpoints.

Much has been written about Tommy’s contribution, early in his career, to important albums such as John Coltrane’s pathbreaking Giant Steps and Sonny Rollins’ classic Saxophone Colossus. Looking back at those sessions, Tommy noted how difficult Coltrane’s material was, how hard to execute, how utterly challenging. He noted, too, how much pleasure he took from working with Sonny Rollins, how much he looked forward to playing with him again . . . an event which finally took place in the last decade of Tommy’s life, much to his delight.

A good deal has been said about the many years of partnership between Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan. Their recorded collaborations reveal Ella at her most relaxed. Only her sessions with guitarist Joe Pass approach them for the degree of unforced ease. But, of all the recordings in the Flanagan archive, his live trio sessions are, for me, the most essential.

Listen closely to his 1977 Montreux concert, on Pablo, with bassist Keter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham. The songful, delicate touch you hear there carries the essential Flanagan signature, an attack somewhat more emphatic than his studio work. That touch is resiliently gentle, even though it nudges the musical pulse forward with the exuberance of a lecturer commanding a room full of awestruck students. Any time one had the chance to hear Tommy Flanagan in live performance, the expectation of an elegant musical voyage ready to depart surrounded the occasion. This great and mild-mannered master brought just such respectful anticipation with him each time he entered a club or concert hall.

Two defining memories of Tommy Flanagan situate my appreciation and my sense of him. The first is whimsical. For several years I had told my family that my dearest wish was to have Tommy Flanagan come to our house on my 40th birthday for a private recital. The request was a joke, of course, since I could not imagine circumstances by which TF would arrive for such an occasion. The mere thought, uttered often, became a source of time-tested humor.

By a serendipity too bizarre to believe even in retrospect, Tommy called to say that he was in the Boston area and, before he left town, we should get together. It was the week of my 40th birthday and, on the very day, he came to our house. After we spent several hours talking and listening to records (among others, to pianist Al Haig), without a word from me, but doubtless from someone else on hand, TF regaled my astonished ears with a private solo performance on our somewhat untamed upright piano. No one could have been more delighted, and flabbergasted, than me.

The second memory, no less personal, collects several moments together in which my dear friend, pianist Jimmy Rowles, and TF each recounted recollections of time they spent together in New York, mostly at Bradley’s jazz pub. Over time, the stories each told of the other built into a wonderful understanding of their mutual respect, a spiritual partnership of the most humorous and generous kind. Each man called the other “Corsican,” a private term of endearment, a sort of personal code designating themselves to be members of their own small Mafia of song-sleuths.

Many musicians have noted over the years that Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan may have known more songs than any other living musicians. Neither denied that nomination, though each attributed greater knowledge to the other. To hear their mutual admiration was to be in the presence of that too-infrequent human (and professional) energy, selfless regard for the worth of another.

For the sake of partial completeness in paying homage to the joy that Tommy’s art has given me, I must point to two recordings that receive too little attention. Each has a unique identity. One is the spare, soul-rending collaboration between TF and tenor/soprano saxophonist J. R. Monterose, A Little Pleasure [Reservoir RSR CD 109].

If you have seen the Mickey Rourke-Faye Dunaway film, Barfly, you have heard John Coltrane’s version of “Theme for Ernie.” It is used in the film twice and sits precisely midway through the film at the moment when the unlikely romantic pairing of the two misfit characters occurs. The Monterose-Flanagan version of the song was recorded more than twenty years after Coltrane’s. It exudes an indescribably haunted and brooding, reflective sensitivity. The entire album is special in the Flanagan canon, special in the body of jazz as a whole.

The second neglected classic here is the live session, recorded in 1962 at the Village Gate in New York: Hawkins! Eldridge! Hodges! Alive! [Verve 314 513 755-2].

The sound quality of this on-location recording is engaging. You are precisely located front and center with every credible sense that the bandstand, the club, and the musicians are before you. For sheer you-are-there presence, this album is ceaselessly compelling.

The interplay between Coleman Hawkins and his irrepressible companions, Johnny Hodges and Roy Eldridge, holds you in its grasp. Jazz does not often achieve more grace and eloquence than what you find here. Although TF’s piano is in the act of being “dialed in” by the sound engineer during the opening cut, Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” its understated precision opens the door for Hawkins to stride forth, all growls and gruff songfulness, the majestic Major Holley on bass, humming along with his bowed solos (an event to be savored again and again), the coy and agile Eddie Locke at the drumkit nudging, spanking and cajoling the whole.

I know that Tommy Flanagan regarded his work with these men to be deeply significant. Although his recordings with luminaries such as Rollins and Coltrane continue to earn attention and republication, these lesser-known sessions demonstrate how powerful Tommy’s selfless artistry was in settings that do not attempt to be “monumental” or classic instances of musical “innovation.” What was in play each time TF came to the keyboard was a depth of personal, artistically-crafted feeling that serves to instruct and revitalize anyone who truly listens.

Alas, TF . . . now gone. No one ever played the piano with more intelligence, rectitude, and gentle fire than Tommy Flanagan. We must be thankful for his recorded legacy. We’ll not hear his like again.

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