On Tommy Flanagan (born March 16, 1930)

By Fritz Byers    

At the end of the 1950s, John Coltrane surveyed the departing decade and its admixture of swing, bebop, cool (and its sibling/cousin/offspring, West Coast jazz), hard bop, and whatever Miles Davis was up to that week, and thought it was time to say goodbye to all that (even to Miles’s modal masterwork, Kind of Blue, to which Coltrane contributed indispensably.)  So he wrote “Giant Steps,” a tune whose chord structure and harmonic invitations are so dense, complex, and hectic that it would be difficult to play even if ‘Trane hadn’t chosen the breakneck tempo he selected. (The tune changes keys 10 times in 13 seconds, with nearly every note of the knotty melody harkened by a new chord.) The 1959 recording of the tune, which opens the celebrated album of the same name, is one of the flagships of the Fifties, of Coltrane’s legacy, and of the imponderable brilliance of jazz musicians.

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The pianist on the recording is Tommy Flanagan, who had already established his reputation as a first-call sideman. Perhaps most gildingly, he was on Sonny Rollins’s clarion statement, Saxophone Colossus, but he also led the rhythm section on more than a dozen other pathbreaking recordings, including a series of dates led, respectively, by the trombonists J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller; one of the trumpeter Thad Jones’s finest early releases, Detroit-New York Junction; nearly all of the guitarist Kenny Burrell’s early dates; and, well, a whole bunch of great 50s jazz.

Tommy was thus an unsurprising choice to lead the rhythm section on “Giant Steps.” But what is surprising is that even as accomplished and deeply knowledgeable a pianist as Tommy could not navigate Trane’s daunting chord patterns, at least not at the chosen speed. As a result, his solo on the tune is a famous flub. After Trane lays down thirteen choruses (and even he resorted to several repetitions to avoid a crash) he backs out and Tommy enters. I don’t know how many choruses Trane had planned for Tommy, but even by the end of the first, it’s evident he’s lost his way in the chord thicket. For I believe the only time in his recording career, Tommy stops – literally stops playing. He resumes and tries a chorus or two, but by the fourth (and final) chorus he almost audibly shrugs, abandons single-line soloing, and plays nearly an entire chorus of chords. 

What’s the point of the story? Fair question. 

Here it is: From May 1959, when “Giant Steps” was recorded, till his last recorded notes before his 2001 passing, Tommy never made another mistake.  He recorded nearly forty albums as a leader and anchored the rhythm section on another couple of hundred. I’ve heard most of them, and I stand by my conclusion. He is as close to flawless as an improvising musician can be. 

Nor long after Giant Steps, he signed on as full-time accompanist and musical director for Ella Fitzgerald, and, except for a brief hiatus, served in that role till 1978. That’s when, fighting his innately retiring and modest nature, he decided to establish himself as a leader of piano trios. He still found plenty of work as a sideman, and doubtless turned down more offers than he accepted. But for the last twenty years of his performing life, he worked primarily in piano trios, and the recordings that document that work are among the albums I most prize.

His favored bassists were George Mraz and Peter Washington; his chosen drummers were Elvin Jones, Al Foster, Billy Higgins, and Lewis Nash. In short, the best.

Bill Evans, who can be reasonably be said to have created the concept and sparked the flourishing of the modern piano trio, passed in 1980, and perhaps it was that yawning sadness that made room for Tommy’s ascension. Or perhaps that’s sentimental nonsense. Either way, Tommy’s recordings and inveterate traveling for live performances made him the premiere exemplar of the form, and its most subtle innovator. Pick any one of his trio recordings and spend some time with it. You’ll get the point. This week on Jazz Spectrum, you’ll hear a micro-slice of his prolific career. From there, follow your ears.

Oh, I almost forgot. In 1982, Tommy recorded his own album called Giant Steps, subtitled "In Memory of John Coltrane.” With George Mraz on bass and Al Foster at the drums, Tommy works out on six Coltrane tunes. The whole release is a gem, among his most dazzling recordings. But you should know, although not be surprised to learn, that the highwater mark of the date is Tommy’s performance of the title tune. Suffice to say, he’d figured it out by then. The track is among the most virtuosic piano performances on record.

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