For the first 20 years of his career, pianist Tommy Flanagan chiefly earned his livelihood as a top-flight accompanist, backing Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Coleman Hawkins, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis and others. But by 1978, after completing a 10-year stint with Fitzgerald, he felt “enough was enough.”
Since then, the soft-spoken artist, who is one of the finest be-bop practitioners extant, has been a leader, fronting duos or trios, and there he’s found his metier.
“A pianist does have a lot more to offer than laying down chords for a horn or a singer,” he said, “because he can do that himself, for himself--which is more challenging and more enjoyable. Thinking on your own, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a lot freer when you’re playing a solo than when you play for somebody else.”
The four-time Grammy nominee--who plays with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jimmie Smith through Sunday at the Loa--said being a leader means he can “work at my own pace, and not when somebody calls me to work. Working 40-50 weeks a year, as Ella does, is not always conducive to making good music. And I get to pick my own program, arrange it the way I want to, pick musicians I like, record what I want--even sometimes when I want.”
Establishing a personal repertoire has become a prime priority for Flanagan. “It’s mainly based on things I wanted to play through the years that I didn’t, things that were to my musical liking,” he said from his New York City home. “Too, I’m including new pieces that composers send me.” Among the writers he favors are Ellington, Tadd Dameron, Benny Golson, Thad Jones, Tom McIntosh and Thelonious Monk, many of whom are represented on his latest LP, “Nights at the Vanguard” (Uptown).
Asked what he most liked about his playing, Flanagan chose his “lyricism.” “I feel this comes from my appreciation of good horn players like Bird and Dizzy, and from the best pianists like Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum,” he said.
Given the choice, Flanagan prefers to play ballads. “A ballad can go all over the place, like a small little symphony, a work of art.”
While he may not have the astounding facility of Tatum or Powell, Flanagan--who appeared on such seminal recordings as Sonny Rollins’ “Saxophone Colossus” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps"--says that his technique is adequate. “You should just have enough to complete your ideas, to play what you want to, not use it just to show it off,” he said.
When Flanagan begins an improvisation, he just lets it develop “as it comes,” he said. “I have something determined, that harmonic framework of the song, but I fill it all in as I go. Hopefully, it comes out well. Usually it does. But if you don’t think that it will, it won’t,” he quipped.
The Detroit native, who grew up in a musical household, began piano at age 11 and later had the good fortune to be a part of the Motown scene when such future stars as Burrell, Pepper Adams, Doug Watkins and others were there.
By 1956, Flanagan had moved to New York City. “Of course, that’s where everything was happening,” he said. ‘All the groups that came to the famous places in Detroit, they went back to New York. It had to be the place to go.”
Though Flanagan says it’s hard to pick a highlight out of his career--"there have been so many"--playing a couple of tunes with Charlie Parker in Detroit as a youth is one experience he’ll never forget. “I was scared to death,” he said. “I was in such awe of him, a musical god walking around, and he played that way. It was something to play with him.”