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Eli "Lucky" Thompson should be remembered as one of the premier tenor saxophonists of the bebop/hard bop era, right along with Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Before Rollins, he had recorded with piano-less trios; before Coltrane he had taken up, and mastered, the soprano sax. And he appeared on one of Miles Davis' most influential record dates: the sextet session that produced those templates of hard bop, Walkin' and Blue 'N Boogie. But Thompson was labeled as "difficult," easily making enemies in an industry where he attempted to assert artistic and financial control (his own publishing and recording companies), refusing to go along with the status quo. On top of that add an emerging paranoid schizophrenia that would find him disappearing from the scene by 1975, dying in 2005. So Thompson never achieved the popularity or acclaim of contemporaries like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and left a relatively meager recorded legacy, the bulk of it from the '50s.
This relatively short (40- and 44-plus minute CDs) two-date album is a welcome addition to that legacy, capturing parts of an octet concert (Feb. 28th, 1964) and a quartet engagement at the Half Note (Feb. 19th, 1965). It proves that Thompson continued to grow and develop musically in his last decade of active playing. On both dates he's featured almost equally on tenor and soprano saxophones. On the latter his style eschewed the Middle Eastern overtones and throaty vibrato of Coltrane and Steve Lacy in favor of a clean, light tone, clear articulation and a vibrant lyricism. A fine example is the ballad "What's New" on the Half Note date. Thompson's solos on both horns, whether ballads or up-tempos, are wonders of logical, cohesive improvisation that build with strong narrative lines. Noal Cohen's cogent liner notes (a fine primer on his musical career) quote him in apropos fashion: "Every note in a solo must mean something. All the strands of sound and rhythm must be tied together and make for a stimulating, informative picture." Thompson the composer-arranger is spotlighted on the concert disc while the quartet disc favors standards, but on both the improviser is in top form.
Track Listing: Theme; The World Awakes; Minuet in Blues; 'Twas Yesterday; Firebug; Theme 2; Introduction; The World Awakes (Half-Note version); What's New; Alan Grant Speaks; Lady Bird; Alan Grant; Strike Up the Band.