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Tommy Flanagan: Pure Artistry

Tommy Flanagan
Tommy Flanagan (photo: Jack Vartoogian)
Tommy Flanagan
Tommy Flanagan (photo: Jimmy Katz)

A few days after Tommy Flanagan’s two-week engagement at the Village Vanguard last fall with his trio, I stopped by his Upper West Side apartment. From his reserved but amiable manner, one would never suspect this man is one of finest master piano craftsmen jazz has produced. Perhaps the most melodic pianist leading the best working trio today, Tommy Flanagan makes memorable statements every time he puts his graceful fingers to piano keys.

Long respected as one of the consummate pianists of Detroit’s post-World War II jazz scene, alongside Barry Harris and Hank Jones, Flanagan’s career has taken him from gifted sideman to critically acclaimed solo artist. His resume includes recordings with the most important musicians of the second half of the 20th century.

On his 26th birthday, just after arriving in New York in the spring of 1956, Flanagan joined Sonny Rollins and bassist Paul Chambers, on Miles Davis All Stars. Two months later, he backed Rollins on Saxophone Colossus. In May of 1959, he appeared on Giant Steps, providing a refined backdrop to John Coltrane’s complex chord changes and vertical improvisational patterns. After extended tenures with Coleman Hawkins and Ella Fitzgerald, Flanagan stepped out on his own 20 years ago. In the intervening two decades of leading his trio, which includes Gossisl Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash, Flanagan has been consistently admired and praised for his swinging, highly creative bop-based piano.

Back in Detroit, a hotbed of jazz activity in the ’40s, Flanagan’s primary musical influences were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In fact, Flanagan used Parker’s innovative single line as the basis for what was later dubbed a Parker horn style of piano.

“I think Detroit was one of Bird’s favorite places to play,” Flanagan recalls. “Everybody just loved him in Detroit. He had a pretty good following of young musicians. We’d almost be worshipping at his feet. Like, what’s he going to do next, because he always had something more to give you that you hadn’t heard before.”

When asked about which facet of Bird’s playing had captivated him, Flanagan cited Parker’s interpretation of ballads. “Bird understood what he was doing, like nobody else who played in that idiom could, except Dizzy, of course. Dizzy acknowledged that Bird was the man who influenced him how to play. It’s funny how it all comes from people that Bird heard earlier. He was both a good teacher and student.”

As the talk turned to his days with Coleman Hawkins, and the tenor saxophone, Flanagan marveled at “the instrument itself. The tenor, it’s one of my favorite instruments. When you listen to and play with the musicians I’ve played with, they’re all so different. Today, there are so many imitators, you can tell where they came from. The originals were true individuals. Hawk, Rollins, Young, Jacquet, Gonsalves, Lucky Thompson, they were all unique.”

Flanagan, who worked with Hawkins from the late ’50s until the time of his passing in ’69, remembers “the first time I went to visit him. He has such a love for the other music, the other side, classical music, that he didn’t have any jazz records. Only the ones that they had sent him recently. He had a Coltrane record and when he heard that, he said, ‘I perhaps will get a call from John.’ Sure enough, while I was there, John called him. The call was about some trouble he was having with his mouthpiece. Coleman was like a doctor, explaining the instrument to other horn players. He was a favorite of mine among those great tenor players, the most musical. You could feel it coming out of him. He expressed himself very soulfully, even when it sounded so technical sometimes.”

In the summer of 1963, Flanagan was approached by promoter Norman Granz to take over the piano chair in Ella Fitzgerald’s group. He served as her accompanist for two years, then returned in 1968 for a ten year tenure as pianist and musical director. It was with Fitzgerald that Flanagan realized the trio was his “favorite format, the best way to express myself. When I started working with Ella, she would feature the trio and we were always playing behind her, but together. I got a good feeling of how the trio works and I liked that idea. With Ella, we played her repertoire. Then, being on my own, I could choose my own material. I like being part of a small group and controlling the music.”

Today, Flanagan relishes the “the challenge to find other things to play. You have to keep yourself, the group and the audience interested.” He also delights in the symbiotic nature of his trio, a result of playing with Nash, for nearly seven years, and Washington, for the past six. “They work together well, and they like working together. When you have guys that are with you that long and don’t tire of what they’re playing, it makes for a good musical relationship.”

Drummer Lewis Nash also delights in the long term nature of the collaboration, finding that “when a group stays together this long, you get to know so many of the little subtle nuances of the other players that you get to the point where people think mind reading is going on, onstage. It’s like a close friendship, a close family relationship where everything doesn’t need to be said to be understood. I also think that when you have a chance to be in a group for a long time, as opposed to boredom and routine setting in, it’s possible to be even more creative and explore things deeper every time you play, you’re constantly reaching for something new.”

Nash is also quick to mention what he calls the “orchestral way Tommy plays. He does some things with the pedals and the way he phrases that almost don” sound a piano but a harp. His touch is so unique, I think that it allows for the dynamic range to be explored a lot more, from the softest notes, to the loudest and everything in between. Playing with Tommy, I get a chance to utilize all of the sonic possibilities of the drums.”

On his trio’s latest recording Sunset and The Mockingbird, on Blue Note recorded on Tommy Flanagan’s 67th birthday at the Village Vanguard, sonic possibilities abound, catalyzed by the pianist’s eclectic repertoire. The set includes tunes by Dizzy, Duke, Thad Jones, and Tom MacIntosh.

When queried about his repertoire and how he decides what to include in a set, he explained that “I have a group of songs that I refer to all the time. If I’m doing something that I started to include recently, I’ll always do that, because we’re still developing it. Each time we play it, we put a little more into it. Sometimes it’s an original, or just a new piece for me. But I always feel that the things I know the best, I play them all the time because I know them well enough to change them as I go along.”

“One of the things that Duke taught me was how to express yourself within your own music. That wasn’t only true for his own music, but when he played somebody else’s music, he opened it up but it sounded like him. Monk was that way too. I always thought they were very much alike. They were keyboard originals, and the way they wrote as well.”

Flanagan finds that he’s sometimes attracted “just by the form of a song. Thad had some songs like that, they have sections, where they always remind you of somewhere you can go as well as somewhere you’ve been. It’s like revisiting an old, favorite place. I really like Thad’s music and Tom McIntosh is a favorite of mine as well. He writes that same way. You can play things in sections. So I’m attracted by melody and structure-with Dizzy’s tunes, ’cause of the rhythms and with Bird because of the syncopation. There’s no shortage of great songs, although not that many are being written today.”


Tommy prefers to play Steinway pianos.

Listening Pleasures

“Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music, including Chopin’s Piano Etudes, played by Rubenstein, Horowitz and a Czech pianist, Ivan Moravek, as well as music by Bartok and Shostakovich.

Originally Published