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2001 Vitoria-Gasteiz and San Sebastian Jazz Festivals

Tommy Flanagan
Tommy Flanagan (photo: Jack Vartoogian)

It seems as if some club bookers, perhaps taking a cue from concert (and festival) producers are presenting more tribute or theme shows. Birdland, by dividing its week into one, two or three-night engagements, gives itself leeway to do such special projects.

The end of September Bud Powell tribute, conceived by independent producer Milan Simich with the assistance of Birdland’s Andy Kaufman, included a gathering of trios led by a mix of young and veteran pianists. Saturday, Sept. 29, brought together a mixture of Don Friedman, Steve Kuhn and Mike LeDonne; Friday, Sept. 28, spotlighted Bill Charlap; and Thursday’s lead-off assignment went to grand master Tommy Flanagan accompanied bassist Peter Washington and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath whose very names bespeak excellence.

I would have liked to have been present on all three nights to fully appreciate the diversity of the pianists as they delved into Powell’s music. Bud is widely celebrated as one of the greatest pianists and stylistic influences in jazz history but, in an odd way, this has somehow overshadowed his talent as a composer.

Flanagan, who has written some attractive pieces himself, is appreciated as a keen and insightful interpreter of Ellington, Strayhorn, Dameron, Thad Jones and Tom McIntosh. Of course he knows his Parker, Gillespie, Monk and Powell. Beginning with the songful “Strictly Confidential,” he took a journey into Powell’s oeuvre that inspired rapt attention much in the manner of a book that impels one to continue turning pages. Chapter two was the energetic, yet bittersweet, “Bouncing With Bud.” Heath’s accents spiced the narrative like freshly ground pepper to a crisp, green salad.

As in “Embraceable You,” Flanagan began Powell’s ballad, “I’ll Keep Loving You” unaccompanied, but here for only one chorus. He captured the romantic sweep of the piece as well as its depth of emotion. (Incidentally, the harmonic structure is strictly Bud’s and not based on Richard Rodgers’ “You Are too Beautiful.”) Flanagan’s approach to “Embraceable You,” a song Powell recorded on at least a couple of occasions (including the memorable Massey Hall concert), was not as chordal as Bud’s and the trio didn¹t enter until he had played two choruses unaccompanied, emphasizing the delicate strength of his single line.

“Wail,” Powell¹s breakneck take on “I Got Rhythm,” is another reminder (like “Bouncing With Bud”) that he liked to alter the melody in little ways when repeating it in the second eight bars of the head; and, like his mentor, Thelonious Monk, he paid attention to the bridges of his songs. Flanagan’s fingers flew here and the exchanges with Heath further raised adrenaline level on and off the bandstand.

The augmented blues with the catchy go-and-stop line, “Dance of the Infidels” closed the set. In the course of paying attention to all of Powell’s details (i.e., the introduction in “Infidels” or the sendoffs for the soloists in “Bouncing With Bud”) while getting inside of Bud’s themes and harmonies with his own vision, Flanagan was his invariably superb self. He was that throughout the set, matched by an empathic duo of his peers.

Originally Published