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 a 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 Walkin’ session 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 Danny 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 Paul 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)