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Lucky Thompson

Lucky Thompson was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1924, a hotbed for the very best in jazz pianists. Growing up in such an atmosphere left him with an appreciation for the sort of accompaniment that Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan exemplified. Thompson played and recorded with not only them, but also with their peers in the top echelons of jazz pianodom: Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and the gentleman whose work graces this album, Martial Solal. It is the interplay between Thompson and Solal (facilitated by the unobtrusive drumming of Gerard "Dave" Pochonet) that raises the level of this recording to the sublime.

Much has been rightly made of the mutual inspiration that goes on between a horn soloist and a drummer. Pairings such as Lester Young/Jo Jones, Charlie Parker/Max Roach, Miles Davis/Philly Jo Jones Louis Armstrong/Big Sid Catlett all point to the fact that jazz is at its root a rhythmic music. Thompson first sprang on the jazz scene with Lionel Hampton's band in 1943. Within a year he had taken over two of the hottest tenor saxophone chairs in jazz. The first was with the Billy Eckstine band, where he played alongside both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

The tenor saxophone had already come to represent the essence of jazz to many, with its sleek looks and vocal tone that matched that of most men (and some women). From the beginning, Thompson extracted a variety of sounds from his tenor saxophone, favoring a hoarse-toned shout that reflected his admiration of Ben Webster, Don Byas, and their mentor, Coleman Hawkins. It's worth noting that he was a very, very young man to be in such heady company. The music was evolving tangibly on an almost daily basis as players of every instrument grappled with the additions and modifications to the jazz vocabulary that were being sown by Bird and Diz. On a harmonic level, Thompson managed the new way around the chords with ease; after all, it was just a hop, skip and jump from the sophisticated substitutions of Hawkins and Webster. His rhythmic sense seems to have developed more gradually.

The Eckstine band was plagued by the erratic habits of some of its star players who were battling many of the addictive scourges that began to plague jazz in the mid-'40s. Their recordings were made for a second-rate label whose poor sound quality was matched by equally pathetic pressings. They were not even pale reflections of the magic the Eckstine band created on the bandstand every night. Luckily for Thompson, a position with Count Basie opened up upon Lester Young's induction into the army late in 1944. This was the spot from which innumerable magic moments had leapt out directly into the main vein of the music. Young had left for the first time in 1940, and Basie hired another player who had developed directly out of Hawkins - Don Byas. So many of the solos he inherited from Young were so well known that he was forced to start off his own solos with paraphrases of Young's. When it was Thompson's turn in that same chair, he went out of his way to assert his preference for a more macho approach. He recorded a handful of classic sides with Basie, and participated in many small group sessions with his bandmates.

With the Basie imprimatur, Thompson was able to go out on his own, which he did while the band was in California in late 1945. This coincided with the West Coast debut of the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie Sextet. Parker was going through a particularly rough patch during those months, and eventually wound up committed to Camirillo State Hospital. His frequent absences from the bandstand prompted Gillespie to hire Thompson to make sure he had the contracted amount of men on the bandstand every night. This brought Thompson right back into the forefront of modern jazz, and his appearance on the recordings Parker made under his own name at the time cemented his reputation. He also recorded a session with the pianist Dodo Mamarosa that was especially treasured by musicians at the time. Thompson was still in his early 20s at this time, and had attained an exceptionally high level of instrumental technique on a level with that of the late Chu Berry and Don Byas. In light of how he developed in the '60s, when a strong dose of Young and Parker (and at times what even sounds like a glint of Getz) became apparent, his work of the mid-'40s seems to have a quality bordering on bravado.

The following decade was full of ups and downs for Thompson. He became the prime practitioner of his type of tenor playing, with Byas setting up shop in Europe in 1946. All did not go smoothly, as Thompson confronted a music industry built on the exploitations of musicians. Not that this was or is anything new; it's just that Thompson was not going to take the injustices and indignities he had to suffer sitting down. It's also fair to assume that Thompson's sensibility made it impossible for him to deal with the vagaries of the music business as effectively as men of principle such as Ellington, Benny Carter and John Lewis did.

He did play and record some marvelous music, with Miles Davis, Milt Jackson and Oscar Pettiford. There were also albums under his own name for ABC-Paramount with pianist Hank Jones and guitarist Skeeter Best that highlighted the growing sense of relaxation that makes this rare French session so entrancing. France had been his home since 1956, when he was brought over by the drummer Gerard "Dave" Pochonet at the recommendation of Mary Lou Williams. He stayed there for six years, with the exception of a brief stint playing baritone saxophone in the Stan Kenton band, of all things. There were dozens of recordings with the Pochonet band, most of which featured original material, arranged for mid-size bands. This session, done in January 1959, was the last one with Pochonet, and is notable for its free-blowing feel. This appears to be Thompson's recorded debut on the soprano saxophone. Although he disparaged these early efforts in an interview a few years later with Dan Morgenstern, Thompson gets a svelte and singing tone on the instrument. This makes it all the more regrettable that his efforts on it are rarely factored into the "Coltrane re-introduced the soprano to jazz" cliché that also ignores the vital contributions of another soon to be American in Paris, Steve Lacy. By the time of his classic Prestige sessions of the mid-'60s, almost all of the vestiges of his earlier Byas/Webster inspired style were gone. This session lets us hear Thompson midway in that evolution, playing with great passion, yet with a note of reflection that was not there five years earlier.

Thompson must have reveled in the company of Pochonet's pianist Martial Solal, born August 23, 1927 in Algiers. One of the most original jazz voices to come out of Europe since the advent of Django Reinhardt (with whom he worked), Solal developed a unique style that has continued to sound fresh to this very day. Never content to play the common vernacular, the pianist nonetheless functioned superbly in a variety of genres that ran the gamut from Sidney Bechet to free improvisation with Lee Konitz. As Max Harrison has noted in his indispensable A Jazz Retrospect (Quartet Books, London, 1976), the specters of musical humor and Art Tatum loom large in Solal's oeuvre. On this album, the arrangements are informal, yet still well knit enough to yield a sense of variety. Some brief notes:
How About You is introduced by Solal's descending chords and rubato accompaniment to Thompson's soprano that reflects his admiration for Tatum. The rhythm section sneaks in as the chorus ends at a relaxed medium tempo, setting the stage for Thompson's solo. His chorus is a revelation. Gone are the impassioned declamations that marked so much of his earlier work, and it's just not the manner that has changed, but also the content. Most musicians are set in their ways by their mid-30s, and Thompson's willingness to continue evolving beyond the style he became known for a decade earlier is the mark of a rare artist. Vibist Hausser and Solal follow, before the rubato introduction is reprised for the coda.

Solal sets up the descending melody of Midnight Sun eloquently in his short introduction, leading to Thompson's singing statement of the melody. Listen for the sense of discovery as Thompson set out the sequential melody and harmony that in lesser hands frequently loses its luster. This soulful rendition is limited to just one and a half choruses, never straying too far from the melody, and reminiscent of those marvelous 78 r.p.m. vignettes that were once the core of recorded jazz.

Drummer Pochonet (whose preference for the playing of Sid Catlett and Dave Tough comes shining through) showcases his good time and open cymbal sound, providing a cushion for this swinging version of Pennies From Heaven. Following the vibes solo, Thompson and Solal create a pair of solos in which the feeling of spontaneity that is all too often lost when dealing with a well-worn standard is tangible. The piano lays out, leaving the bass and drums to "stroll" behind our first taste of Thompson's tenor, with its jug-like tone. Without the piano's harmonies, the saxophonist is free to range a little bit wider of the chords than was his wont. This device was a staple of 52nd Street Jazz, and serves to heighten the tension of the piano's reappearance. Solal charges right in, and starts his second 16 bars with some (swinging) bi-tonal phrases. Though he could not have heard Paul Bley's work with Ornette Coleman at the time, they intersect in some regards, and presage certain aspects of Keith Jarrett's approach. Once again, how refreshing to hear such brief (by today's standards) but complete performances.

This soulful rendition of Solitude can't help but make one wish that Thompson, who seems to have been a natural for the spot, never got to play with the Ellington band. Very few players achieve a musical rhetoric that is so personal as to make every song they play sound as though they wrote it - Thompson appears to be on one those chosen few. Solal similarly packs so much of his personality into his eight bar solo that it carries the same musical import as if he had had an entire chorus to himself. These are dense improvisers.

The aforementioned change in Thompson's melodic sense is nowhere more apparent than on his one chorus Have You Met Miss Jones solo. It bears virtually no relation to the Thompson of Just One More Chance, his famous 1947 ballad recording that is so frequently referred to as his "masterpiece", though it is relatively, given what he accomplished later, an immature work. Hausser's chorus leads into another wonderful Solal episode that develops logically and spontaneously into an integrated whole that remains one of the primary goals of jazz.

Lester Young's famous adage about knowing the lyrics to a ballad before playing it bears at least some relation to getting the precise rhythms of the notes correct as it does to the literal meaning of the words. As you listen to Thompson's exposition of We'll Be Together Again, imagine a voice singing for proof positive of what a great musician can do with a relatively verbatim rendition of a great melody. Vestiges of Hank Jones' elegant touch (heavily influenced by Tatum and Teddy Wilson) can be felt in Solal's spare yet deeply felt half chorus. Thompson opens the improvisatory valve just a tad for the last bridge before crooning the tune out. This is truly timeless music.

Thompson appeared at the recording with the percussionist Gana M'Bow, and insisted on recording both Soul Food and Brother Bob (with its allusions to Gene Krupa's Drum Boogie) as duets. It is a credit to Pochonet that he didn't interfere - after all, how many drummer/leaders/producers would let another drummers be featured on their own record? M'Bow had sat in with Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers on their album [Au Club St. Germain Vol.1 (RCA (F)430043) a few weeks earlier. Although Solal's presence is missed (he might have added some welcome harmonic and textural leavening), these tracks show Thompson dealing with current trends in the music.

Pochonet, it is worth repeating, was a rare drummer/leader. Content to stay in the background, he nonetheless plays a large role in the success of Tea for Two with his pithy bass drum comments. They stay close to the downbeats behind Thompson's solo, but begin to branch out in the measure when Hausser enters. Not compelled to be the rhythmic counterpoint to the train conductor who shouts out all the various stops on the line, Pochonet lets the form flow and chooses his spots. Among the highlights is the way Solal starts his solo by continuing to comp for the vibes solo for 8 bars, and how he skirts the chromatic quicksand of chord substitutions so many post-Tatum and Bud Powell players sink into on this tune. In the closing choruses, note how the upper register of Thompson's tenor sounds remarkably like his soprano.

O.W. captures a minor blues-tinged mood that makes for an effective contrast with the rest of the program. It may have been the prospect of playing tunes such as these that led Thompson away from the fire-breathing choruses he had perfected in the decade 1945-55. Not that the fire isn't still hot, it's just at a different intensity. Solal uses low, low notes to bind his solo together, and also incorporates "out of the chord" tones that still sound provocative in his accompaniment to great effect. He seems utterly incapable of playing even the hint of a cliché.

Lucky Thompson has left behind a tremendously varied recorded legacy. His last recordings were made in 1972, and he ceased public performance two years later. Rumors about his demise have circulated for years, as they have about his whereabouts. Thompson moved from city to city, and one point lived in the Canadian wilderness, growing his own food. He has been in Seattle, Washington since the early '90s, and has shown up at local jazz clubs to hear fellow tenormen Johnny Griffin and Stanley Turrentine. The British writer Mike Hennessey recently wrote an article originally published in the ItalianMusica, and published this quote from Thompson: "You know, I lost my interest in music. I had to run from place to place at the mercy of people who manipulated me. I never rejected music; it constitutes a great part of my soul." Luckily for us, we can still experience the sensation of hearing new music from Thompson with the issuing of this beautiful music for the first time in the States. It comes from a fascinating period in the evolution of a great American artist.