Recent Listening: Lucky Thompson

Lucky Thompson: New York City 1964-65 (Uptown)

Uptown’s two-CD Thompson set, released in 2009, inspired a brief flurry of comment and soon slipped under the radar. It deserves renewed attention. The album documents two live appearances of a musician who reached less fame than his ability and importance warranted. Thompson worked in the 1940s and ‘50s in Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet and with the big bands of Billy Eckstine, Tom Talbert and Count Basie. Hank Jones, Oscar Pettiford and Milt Jackson were among the colleagues who cherished their relationships with him. Thompson became bitter about the business part of the music business. His life began to unravel in the sixties. In the early seventies, he played little. He eventually all but dropped out of performing to raise two sons as aThompson NYC single father, developed dementia and in 2005 died all but forgotten. Kind strangers who admired his music looked after him in his last years.

I never knew Thompson, never saw him in live performance, but his work reached me from the first time I heard it on Charlie Parker’s 1946 Dial recordings. In “Moose The Mooche,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology” and “A Night in Tunisia,” Thompson’s solos suggested elements of Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, but the surge and thrust of his invented lines and the swagger in his delivery—particularly on the master take of “Tunisia”—set him apart from other tenor players. He was not, strictly speaking, one of the early bebop artists, but his playing fit perfectly with theirs. Later, I went back a step to 1944 to listen to Thompson on Count Basie’s “Taps Miller” and “Avenue C” and found that he was a fully formed soloist at twenty, mixing smoothness and roughness in perfect balance.

If I were to recommend essential Thompson recordings to people unfamiliar with him, I would start with the Parker Dials, then refer them to the 1954 Miles Davis Walkinsession on Prestige, which has some of Thompson’s greatest solos. Of his own albums, I suggest Tricotimsm (1956) on Impulse! and Lucky Strikes (1964) on Prestige. Tricotism includes bassist Oscar Pettiford and pianist Hank Jones, with both of whom Thompson had special rapport. The album has been reissued under a different title. Jones, with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay, is also on Lucky Strikes. In it, Thompson plays soprano saxophone in addition to tenor, and the album may well be his masterpiece.
He made a notable impact on Benny Golson in the early 1950s as Golson formed his style. Half a century later, the young saxophonist Chris Byars adopted Thompson as his model. When Thompson gets attention, it is invariably emphasized that his tenor saxophone style descended from Ben Webster and Don Byas and was inherited by Golson. That is true, but so simple an analysis overlooks the individuality, the recognizability, of his work.

In the first disc of the Uptown album, recorded at a 1964 concert at the Little Theater in mid-town Manhattan, Thompson led an octet. The little-big-band format allowed him an outlet for his arranger’s skills as well as his distinctive playing on tenor and soprano saxophones. With the superb rhythm section of Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; and Al Dreares, drums, Thompson’s fellow horns are trumpeter Dave Burns, alto saxophonist Hank JonesDanny Turner, baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne and trombonist Benny Powell—all among the elite of the post-bop New York scene. In Thompson’s writing, as in his playing, blues feeling predominates even when the composition’s form, as in “Firebug,” is that of a 32-bar song. “The World Awakes,” which in the sixties served Thompson as a sort of anthem, is a minor blues. His soprano solo combines intensity, light-heartedness and the penetrating tone that was an important element of his distinctiveness on the instrument. Jones (pictured left) solos, impeccably, of course, but Davis’s 12 choruses of walking bass practically steal the performance.

Still on soprano, Thompson eases into a relaxed solo, followed by Davis and Jones before the ensemble gives us the first passages of Thompson’s intriguing arrangement. The voicings reflect his accumulation of bebop wisdom as well as his admiration for the French impressionists. His first tenor saxophone feature on this disc is “’Twas Yesterday,” highlighting what the late critic John S. Wilson once described as Thompson’s “soft, furry, intimate tone.” “Firebug” brings spirited solos from Jones and Payne, a virtuosic and often very funny one from Powell, eight essential bebop choruses from the underrated Burns, then Thompson on tenor in a long solo in which each idea grows into the next; musical story-telling founded equally on logic and emotion. The ensemble accompanies Dreares, leaves him a few bars of solo space, then negotiates the intersecting contrapuntal lines of Thompson’s arrangement to an abrupt conclusion that triggers chuckles on the bandstand and in the audience.

The second CD contains a 1965 quartet date broadcast from the Half Note in lower Manhattan. Thompson’s accompanists are bassist George Tucker, drummer Oliver Jackson and the excellent little-known pianist PaulPaul Neves Neves (pictured right), who appears here in one of only two recordings I’m aware of his having made. The other was Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s Spellbound, which disappeared for a time but is again available. If anything, Thompson is even more fluid on soprano in this version of “The World Awakes,” spurred by Neves’ emphatic comping. The pianist’s solos and his supportive accompaniment throughout make the attentive listener aware that we lost a substantial musician when he died in Puerto Rico in the 1980s. He was in his early fifties. A native of Boston, Neves was the brother of bassist John Neves, who worked with Jaki Byard, Stan Getz and the big bands of Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson.

Thompson remains on soprano for a gentle exploration of “What’s New,” demonstrating the artistic strength to be found in restraint. Following the first chorus of Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird,” Neves drops out for a few choruses while Thompson indulges in one of his favorite tenor saxophone pursuits, strolling with bass and drums. When Neves reenters, the passion builds during a dozen more Thompson choruses and seven from Neves. Tucker makes the most of his only solo opportunity of the set. The last piece ends with a drum roll and Thompson’s “Paramount on Parade” intro on soprano. They set the stage for an incendiary “Strike Up the Band.” Thompson, on tenor, is the only soloist except for a sequence of power exchanges with Jackson, who is finally allowed to give full rein to his skills. It is a reminder of the versatility of a drummer who was equally effective in the range of jazz styles from traditional to modern.

The album recalls that, for all of the frustration he faced, the bitterness he felt and his sad end, Lucky Thompson’s music transmitted confidence and joy. In his brief conversations at the Half note with broadcast host Alan Grant, Thompson’s intelligence and gentlemanliness are apparent.

In the CD’s booklet, Noal Cohen’s comprehensive notes provide an extensive history of Thompson’s career. The 44-page booklet has several photos of Thompson, pictures and brief bios of the sidemen, and information about the Little Theater concert and the Half Note broadcast.

(Photo of Paul Neves by Katherine Hanna courtesy of Irene Kubota Neves)

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  1. Anon says

    Wow – grateful and fascinated to know about bassist John Neves’ brother, Paul Neves – new to me! But, you see, his brother, John Neves, was always a major interest: Especially the quintet with Getz/Bob Brookmeyer/Steve Kuhn/John Neves and Roy Haynes… Such a fabulous moment in the Getz/Brookmeyer discography. (I guess, at that moment, John Neves was the worthy predecessor to Scott Lafaro. Neves also passed early, and it’s not for me to say how great he was in the great continuum of the bass unfolding at the time – however, I’m tempted to remember him being OUTSTANDING in section and in solo, and on any and everything I ever heard him… EVER). In any case, history DOES record him on these several, crucial, anthological recording sessions! Now, today, news of an outstandingly talented (“excellent”, in your own appraisment!) brother-pianist!

    PS.: Do you know of the excellent saxophonist/flute-player Mel Martin’s web-page of historical interviews with jazz legends, where he actually has a latter day in-depth first-person interview with Mr. Thompson? It’s on Mel Martin’s website. I remember it as spellbinding.

  2. Jeff Sultanof says

    Lucky left a lot of wonderful music. He was one of the chief soloists for Boyd Raeburn in 1946 and really sparked that remarkable band. He also performed and recorded in Europe, where he received a lot more attention and respect.

    But for me, when I think of Lucky, I think of his wonderful contributions to Oscar Pettiford’s big band as a soloist and arranger. The two albums the band made on ABC-Paramount make fantastic listening, and are worth hunting for.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      This web page lists Pettiford big band albums that are available. Sticker shock is guaranteed, except in the case of the MP3 download of the first volume.

    • Anon says

      Can’t help but point out, for these immortal ABCs—apart from Whitey Mitchel being bassist for Mr. Pettiford’s MAGNIFICENT ‘cello features) the best on the instrument in history, if considered only alongside Harry Babasin’s best too—that the pianist on half the sessions is Dick Katz. So, that’s Dick Katz sharing the chair with no less than Tommy Flanagan himself on the other sessions. Not a bad entry in the historical discography of Mr. Katz—and, he also SOUNDED GREAT! (Mr. Flanagan’s transcendent, consistent, greatness we take as read, of course!). But kudos to Dick Katz, an important, and also consistent, cat (quoth many instances where Benny Carter called for him, repeatedly. J.J. Johnson too. Need one say more?).

  3. says

    I heard Lucky a number of times in NYC during the 1950s, and was on a big band record date with him that unfortunately was never released. It was a date for Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, recorded at the old WOR studios. Eddie Shaughnessy was on drums. Lucky had a couple of solos, which he played well. Toward the end of Roy’s life, I mentioned that date to him, and he had forgotten all about it.

  4. Irwin Krimke says

    One of the greatest and most beautiful tenor solos I have ever head is Lucky on the OPOscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi Fi (Oscar plays cello). The tune “Not So Sleepy” Just fantastic, this from around 1958. ABC Paramount 12 inch LP. INCREDIBLE

  5. Terence Smith says

    Gotta get this CD so vividly described above I can already hear it.

    Yes, amen to that–Lucky Thompson recognition should be much greater,
    and most people may not be aware of whose tenor they are hearing on
    Miles Davis’ WALKIN and the Dial Bird sides.

    To Doug Ramsey’s excellent list I’d like to add one.There is a very rare session for
    Urania records in 1954 with Lucky Thompson, Jimmy Hamilton
    (clarinet), Billy Taylor (piano), Osie Johnson (drums), and Oscar Pettiford (bass).
    Everyone is in top form, with Oscar Pettiford just as inspired as the reed players,
    and Billy Taylor incandescent on his original, “Ever So Easy.” I thought that session was only on out of print LPS on Jazztone and Jazz Kings labels, but just now googled info that a CD on Fresh Sound was made. I think that 1954 session has Lucky Thompson really stretching out, and should not be missed.

    I almost forgot to mention the first Blue Note Monk featuring Lucky Thompson and Kenny Dorham with Thelonious. Which I have listened to so many times, always pleasantly surprised. Lucky and Kenny D sound so comfortable with Thelonious !

    Also, there is a video ( film) of Lucky Thompson and Jimmy Gourley sitting in with the
    Bud Powell Trio ( with Kenny Clarke, Jimmy Gourley and Pierre Michelot) at the Blue Note in Paris in 1959. “Anthropology” from that film is on YouTube right now, with outstanding Lucky Thompson tenor solo.

    (Don’t bother, it’s here—DR)

  6. Ted O'Reilly says

    I may have mentioned it before, but while Lucky’s gone, his horns ‘live on’, making music in the hands of the fine saxophonist Pat LaBarbera. He bought both Thompson’s tenor and soprano from a dentist who apparently took them in return for dental work… Sad to think that Lucky (ironic nickname!) had them and wasn’t playing…

  7. says

    Doug – Thanks for mentioning this CD which contains some remarkable music. Regarding other Thompson gems that are under the radar, there are two videos of Lucky’s octets in Paris from February and May 1960 that can be downloaded at (website of the French National Audiovisual Institute). Kenny Clarke is on both along with great players including Sahib Shihab, Jimmy Cleveland, Pierre Michelot and Martial Solal.

  8. Mike Harris says

    Listened often to the LP version of “Lucky Strikes’ back in the mid-60’s, which had me wondering why Thompson was not ranked more highly in the saxophone universe. His fluid sound and unique ideas were a delight to listen to, as was the work of Hank Jones and the rest of the trio.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Good tip, Dick. Here’s a sample, “Sermonette.” Art Farmer has the melody and the first solo, followed by Thompson, Milt Jackson and Phil Woods

      Complete personnel: Julian Adderley, composer; Quincy Jones, arranger; Farmer, trumpet; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Thompson, tenor saxophone; Zoot Sims, tenor saxophone; Herbie Mann, flute; Jack Nimitz, baritone saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Charles Mingus, bass; Charlie Persip, drums. September 14, 1956. A good day in New York.

  9. James Cimarusti says

    Another fine Thompson session is on the second half of Milt Jackson’s Plenty, Plenty Soul album with the sextet of Jackson, Joe Newman, the recently depared Horace Silver (great solos from him on whole album), Oscar Pettiford, and Connie Kay—arranged by Quincy Jones.