Like many of his Belgian jazz-musician peers in the early 1950s, guitarist Rene Thomas had a swinging lyricism that was distinctly European and infectious. With the rise of the LP in Europe and post-war rebound of the French economy, Thomas, Bobby Jaspar, Francy Boland, Christian Kellens, Jacques Pelzer and other Belgians migrated south to Paris. Nearly all gravitated to the bohemian St. Germain-des-Pres section, where work at neighborhood jazz clubs was plentiful. By 1954, St. Germain hosted the hippest jazz and art scene in Europe. I know this from my artist parents, who moved there in 1952 and remained until I was born in 1956 in New York.
Thomas' first influence was Django Reinhardt, but Thomas soon came under the sway of guitarist Jimmy Raney [pictured], a cool-toned swinger who traveled to Paris in 1954 to play clubs and record. Thomas remained in Paris until 1956, when he sailed for Canada. But engine-room troubles forced his steamer to dock in New York. Once he disembarked, Thomas was hooked, remaining in New York far longer than expected. He played with Miles Davis, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Jackie McLean, Cecil Payne, Al Haig and others.
In 1958, Sonny Rollins hired Thomas to play a concert in Philadelphia and to record on Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass. But by 1960, Thomas was homesick and likely staggered by the relentless hustle and New York's work-centric lifestyle. The thick crowd of staggering jazz talent scuffling for work in Manhattan's clubs and recording studios certainly didn't help. Thomas returned to Europe in 1962, where he remained gigging and recording until his untimely death in 1975 at age 47.
One of my favorite recordings by Thomas is Meeting Mister Thomas for the French Barclay label. On this album from 1963, Thomas led a quintet featuring saxophonist and flutist Jacques Pelzer, organist Lou Bennett, bassist Gilbert Rovere and drummer Charles Bellonzi. Thomas' sound in the early 1960s was ambitious, robust and modern, with enormous optimism built in. He employed a spirited technique that never gave hint that a pick was being used on the strings. Imagine a woodpecker hammering away on a rubber tree. Add Bennett's organ, and the group's sound was remarkably cool and distinctly European—swift but never frantic.
The album opens with Meeting, an uptempo, catchy swinger that today would be perfect for a radio-show opener (I still can't get the melody line out of my head). If You Were the Only Girl in the World is another swinger that displays Thomas' graceful attack. Singer Johnny Mathis' pop hit Wonderful, Wonderful is given a funky treatment. Then Thomas shows off his hard stuff on Doctor Jackle but comes back with Hannie's Dream, a touching ballad with Pelzer on flute. The album finishes with Wes Coast Blues, a Euro-tribute to Wes Montgomery.
Like Belgium's Bobby Jaspar, France's Rene Urtreger, England's Tubby Hayes and many other neglected European jazz greats, Thomas was never properly recognized or celebrated in the U.S. as a major force. The big strike against Thomas and the others? They weren't from here, a bias that has never been fully explained or explored.
JazzWax tracks: Rene Thomas' Meeting Mister Thomas is available on EmArcy Imports' Jazz in Paris series at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Rene Thomas on a Belgian TV show in 1962 with Bobby Jaspar. Dig Thomas' rubber-woodpecker technique...