Tommy Flanagan: In His Own Sweet Time

Pop/jazz keyboardist/producer/impresario David Foster recently remarked in a podcast that the best jazz players seem to have the ‘big picture’ in mind when they start a solo, with a natural sense of storytelling/structure.

It rang a bell when listening to a recently rediscovered 1994 solo concert from piano master Tommy Flanagan, now released by Enja Records as In His Own Sweet Time.

Flanagan, though not a household name, is one of the key players of the bebop generation, backing Ella Fitzgerald for 16 years, appearing on epochal albums by Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus) and John Coltrane (Giant Steps), recording over 20 albums as leader and also collaborating with Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis.

There’s quite a story behind In His Own Sweet Time. Flanagan was touring Europe as part of a jazz supergroup featuring Roy Ayers, but was persuaded – with much to-ing and fro-ing – to perform a very rare solo concert on 9 October 1994 at the Birdland club in Neuburg, Germany, on the banks of the Danube.

Due to the huge demand for tickets, the tables were taken out of the club. Flanagan was advised by his wife and manager Diana to play only ballads – he suffered from a heart condition – and he reportedly sight-read some of the music.

It was a nerve-wracking experience for the pianist, and he apparently felt ill throughout the concert, but loved the Bosendorfer piano. The audience were stunned into silence by Flanagan’s ‘floating’ feel  – you will not hear a single cough on this recording which has apparently long lain dormant in the Enja vaults, but always been a treasure of label founder Matthias Winckelmann. It’s easy to discern why.

In His Own Sweet Time is a ballad-heavy set with a varied repertoire, but completely different in mood from the solo piano work of, say, Bill Evans. Flanagan has a distinctive touch and superb sense of dynamics. Despite the low-key vibe, the album is sunny and colourful, not a downer. It maintains its mood superbly and is a perfect slice of bluesy dinner jazz while holding enough melodic interest for the serious jazz fan – no slight achievement.

Flanagan takes to the mic just once, to pay tribute to composer/arranger Tadd Dameron in a faltering, dry-throated near-whisper. The gig may not have been a pleasant experience for the famously shy pianist but he has left us with an excellent hour of music and fine testament to his solo style.

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