When jazz musicians are paired perfectly, the result sounds like a key sliding into a lock. To the listener, the combination is magic as their tones and ideas merge and each artist plays off the other. Made-for-each-other examples include Lester Young and Billie Holiday, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Red Garland and Miles Davis, and Jim Hall and Paul Desmond. Add saxophonist Lucky Thompson and pianist Hank Jones to the list. While their work together is limited, Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More remains the finest expression of these two giants together.
Recordings of Thompson and Jones [above] together date back to a Hot Lips Page session of November 1944. They were together again in November 1955 on a Jimmy Cleveland recording session and in '56 on recordings led by Milt Jackson, Quincy Jones (This Is How I Feel About Jazz) and Johnny Hartman (All of Me).
But it wasn't until 1963 when Thompson led a date for Prestige's Moodsville series of relaxed albums that he recorded just with Hank Jones (p) and Wendell Marshall (b) and Dave Bailey (d) behind him. With this album, you're able to hear the two artists play off each other without distraction, and the result is gorgeous—something producers should have picked up on previously and afterward but, sadly, never did.
Thompson's slippery, smoky style is constantly trying to wriggle free from Jones's firm precision, and the two engage in a cat and mouse game throughout. Thompson blows each Kern song straight for the first run through and then launches into improvisation with extreme tenderness and caressing. He also leaves lots of space for Jones to surface between his lines, and the contrast is wonderful. Jones's solos are precious, often starting in the upper register and working their way down. We also get to hear Thompson on sopranos sax.
Thompson and Jones would record together in the quartet format only once more—on Thompson's Lucky Strikes (1964). That was it. Fed up with the music industry, Thompson, who had relocated to Paris between 1957 and '62, did so again by moving to Switzerland from '68 to '70. When he returned to the U.S., he taught at Dartmouth College in '73 and '74, but the re-adjustment was difficult. He soon dropped out of the music business and was reportedly homeless by the early 1990s. He died in 2005 in assisted living, which came as a shock to many unsuspecting jazz fans.
This Kern album shows off Thompson and Jones at their very best and makes one wonder why they weren't recorded together again and again.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Kern album with Hank Jones along with Happy Days Are Here Again with Tommy Flanagan on piano on Happy Days (Prestige) here. I, for one, would welcome Prestige re-issuing the complete Moodsville series in a box set.
JazzWax clips: Fortunately, someone put up two tracks that were issued as singles...
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