Tommy Flanagan plays Rain Check in Cologne in 1991. For about two decades until his death a few years ago, Flanagan had a trio with bassist George Mraz (whose nickname was “Bounce” because that’s what a bad Czech does) and a succession of drummers, most more poised than Bobby Durham is here, frankly. Hearing Tommy Flanagan swing a trio was one of the consistent pleasures of jazz in the ’80s and ’90s, and like much else in this music, it hasn’t been entirely replaced by comparable pleasures since.
Only this summer I bought a bunch of older trio performances under Flanagan’s leadership, most from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and very little I’ve heard in jazz this year, old or new, can begin to compare. Turns out he was already as eloquent and deliberate, as a young man, as he would be by the time I caught up with him, but he also had all the virtues we associate with youth: crisp, punchy delivery, humour, a certain smart-assed quality that makes you sit up and take notice.
Flanagan belongs to the generation that arrived around 1950, just behind the bebop pioneers, and consolidated their sometimes wild advances into a more settled, codified language. People like Clifford Brown and Miles Davis on trumpet, Hank Mobley and Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums. In an interview I once mentioned his Detroit youth, and he got a bit snippy, because people often talk about a Detroit school of piano (Hank Jones, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris) and Flanagan was pretty sure he became a good pianist by practicing his behind off, not by having a congenial mailing address. Fair enough. He was a wonderful pianist, and iTunes served up something of his at random while I was writing in my hotel room, and I thought I’d pass it along.