Eli "Lucky" Thompson is best known for his tenor sax on Miles Davis Walkin' album in the mid '50s; Thompson applied the big tone and vibrato of Swing tenors like Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas to bebop, an approach favored by Benny Golson, and almost no one else, in the heyday of hard bop. But Thompson was a constantly questing musician who, parallel to Jimmy Giuffre, pioneered drummerless trio sessions with bass (Oscar Pettiford) and either piano or guitar in the '50s as well as appearing on some of the best Milt Jackson quintet albums of that time. By the end of the decade he had also become one of the first modernists to take up the soprano sax. But by the mid '70s he had given up playing, eventually drifting into mental illness, living in the streets and dying in 2005.
Saxophonist Michael Blake founded the Lucky Thompson Project with the Jazz Composers Collective in 2002. Like the Collective's earlier Herbie Nichols Project, the idea was to take off from the compositions of a neglected jazz giant in an original and creative way. The Collective became largely inactive by 2005, but Blake has been able to record his Lucky Thompson Project music with Danish jazz musicians on The World Awakes while Lucky Is Back! combines material from two LPs Thompson recorded and produced for the Rivoli label in 1965-66, after his return to the States. Thompson is in good form on the Rivoli sides, dividing his time between tenor and soprano and joined in the 13 quartet tracks by an always-creative Tommy Flanagan on piano. The last three tracks feature his tenor sax in a combo with organ and guitar instead. His seven originals suggest there's a lot more Thompson compositions worth exploring (none of them repeat on the Blake CD). Blake says he was inspired by Thompson's "light tone" and "delicate command" of the sopranoqualities you can hear on Lucky originals like the jazz waltz "Slow Dough" or the unusually slow, lyrical take on Charlie Parker's "Anthropology." His tenor tone is lighter than it was in the '50s, but still velvety and breathy on ballads. And throughout Thompson is bracingly unpredictable in fashioning solo lines devoid of clich?s or pet licks.
That same kind of outside-the-box creativity comes from Blake's playing and re-imagining and/or deconstructing of Thompson's tunes on The World Awakes. He's fleshed out many of the arrangements with violin, cello and clarinet or bass clarinet, plus trumpet and a rhythm section where the pianist sometimes plays electric keyboards. He plays clarinet himself on the title tune, a funky mini-symphony. "Little Tenderfoot," a tricky bop romp by Thompson, finds Blake paying homage to Lucky's big, velour tenor tone in a solo with just bass. "To You Dear One" is a ravishing piece with burnished tenor out front over a cushion from muted trumpet and clarinet. The album ends with a strings and French horn mantled tenor sax caress of Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose." With luck, this album will encourage other musicians to explore Thompson's fertile compositions.
Tracks and Personnel
Lucky is Back! (Then, So Is Love)
Tracks: Love; Evil Eva; Passionately Yours; Slow Dough; I'll Be Around; Willow Weep For Me; Caressable; On Tippy Top; My Old Flame; Anthropology; Star Eyes; You Stepped Out Of A Dream; Open Haus; Poor Butterfly; Who Can I Turn To; Kinfolks Corner.
Personnel: Lucky Thompson: soprano and tenor sax; Tommy Flanagan: piano: Willie Ruff: bass: Walter Perkins, Oliver Jackson: drums; Frank Anderson: organ; Wally Richardson: guitar.
The World Awakes
Tracks: Lucky Charms; Reminscent; The World Awakes; Little Tenderfoot; Scratch, Mumba Neua; To You Dear One; Little Tenderfoot (Reprise); Single Petal of a Rose.
Personnel: Michael Blake: reeds; S?ren Kjaergaard: piano; Jonas Westergaard: bass; Kresten Osgood: drums; Peter Fuglsang: clarinet, bass clarinet; Kasper Tranberg: trumpet; Teddy Kumpel: guitar; Rob Jost: French horn; Lars Bjornkaer: violin; Henrik Dam Thomsen: cello.