Tommy Flanagan - piano; Keeter Betts - bass; Jimmie Smith - drums
Detroit pianist Tommy Flanagan personified elegance, taste and creativity in jazz. A distinguished and longtime accompanist to jazz vocal great Ella Fitzgerald, he began touring as a leader in his own right in 1978 and recorded prolifically through the next two decades. One of the most admired players among his fellow jazz musicians, Flanagan was noted for his gentle touch, fluid lines and clear articulation at the piano along with a natural swing feel and a deep appreciation of the Great American Songbook. He is accompanied at this Carnegie Hall concert by the reliably swinging rhythm tandem of bassist Keeter Betts and drummer Jimmie Smith.
They establish their easy hand-in-glove fit from the relaxed opener, Flanagan's "Blue Twenty," with Betts supplying the backbone with his unerring walking on the bass and Smith providing loosely swinging, interactive commentary on the drums. Betts also turns in a particularly affecting, highly expressive bass solo here. The trio next turns in a refined, briskly swinging rendition of the oft-covered jazz standard "All the Things You Are." Their sublime reading of the classic ballad "Body and Soul" opens with Flanagan's delicate solo piano intro before the rhythm tandem enters with subtle support. Midway through, the mood shifts and they head into a jaunty swing section before returning to the tender theme. Bassist Betts is then spotlighted on his own virtuosic solo bass piece, "Kung Fu." The trio next puts a relaxed spin on Thelonious Monk's "Friday the 13th." Flanagan opens with a brief solo piano reference to Monk's "Thelonious" before heading into the song, then later cleverly drops quotes from "Bemsha Swing" and "I Mean You" into the fabric of the piece. They handle Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" with collective rhythmic bounce and close out this 1978 Newport Jazz Festival set in burning fashion with a romp through Charlie Parker's bebop anthem "Groovin' High," giving Flanagan a chance to showcase his extraordinary facility on the keyboard. Smith also contributes a lengthy, dynamic drum solo to the amped-up proceedings, to the delight of the Carnegie crowd.
Born in Detroit on March 16, 1930, Flanagan began on clarinet before starting piano lessons at age 11. He later became immersed in the rich Motor City jazz scene as house pianist at the Blue Bird Inn, Detroit's equivalent of New York's Village Vanguard. Flanagan came up in Detroit with a circle of great jazz musicians, including the brothers Elvin, Hank and Thad Jones, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, fellow pianist Barry Harris, bassist Paul Chambers, guitarist Kenny Burrell and singer Betty Carter. He moved to New York in 1956, and shortly after accompanied Ella Fitzgerald at George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival. He later served as Fitzgerald's musical director from 1962 to 1965, then again from 1968 until 1978. Flanagan also appeared as a sideman on several landmark jazz records, including John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus and Wes Montgomery's The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. One of his last recordings as a leader was 1998's Sunset and the Mockingbird: The Birthday Concert, recorded live at the Vanguard for the Blue Note label on the night of his 67th birthday on March 16, 1997. Despite a heart condition, he continued to play until the end of his life, finally succumbing to an arterial aneurysm on November 16, 2001.
-Written by Bill Milkowski