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Rejuvenated Tommy Flanagan Back at Keyboard

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pianist Tommy Flanagan looks surprisingly fit for someone who went through some serious assaults on his physical well-being during the past year.

“I’ve always thought I was blessed with pretty good health,” Flanagan mused earlier this week in his suite at a Del Mar hotel.

He and his wife, Diana, who is also his manager, were taking some R & R before Flanagan’s dates this Friday and Saturday at the Horton Grant Hotel downtown and Sunday at the Inn L’Auberge in Del Mar.

Dressed in black pants and a black T-shirt with the New York skyline on the front, Flanagan, 61, looked slim and fit, but traces of weariness showed in his eyes.

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Flanagan’s medical maladies began last October while he was touring Holland. He severed a tendon in his wrist when he tripped and shattered a glass he was carrying.

“The rumor was he slit his wrist to avoid playing Romania,” joked his wife, a vivacious, funny counterpoint to her more introspective husband.

But that was just the beginning. Flanagan had a quadruple heart bypass in July but played the Newport Jazz Festival in August before returning to the hospital to have a stomach aneurysm repaired.

Observing the impressive arc of the pianist’s career during the past year, however, one would never suspect he had been ill.

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Billboard magazine writer Jeff Levenson selected Flanagan’s 1990 release, “Jazz Poet,” as one of the 10 best CDs of 1990, and the album was one of Tower Records’ strongest-selling jazz titles last year.

Last April, Flanagan played a 100th anniversary celebration for Carnegie Hall with a small group including bassist Dave Holland and drummer Ed Blackwell. The evening was recorded for a future live album. Last week, Flanagan was in Los Angeles for several nights at Catalina’s.

And, best of all, Flanagan released a fine new recording last month, “Beyond the Bluebird,” which reunited him with guitarist Kenny Burrell. The two were among the promising young dukes of jazz in Detroit during the late 1940s, and the album is a tribute to the club where both were members of the house band (the Bluebird, however, no longer features jazz).

Flanagan is a wonderfully understated player--fast when he wants to be but never flashy, and most of all melodic. The Detroit native knows almost every jazz and popular ballad inside and out from the 14 or so years he spent accompanying Ella Fitzgerald. He was with the legendary singer from 1962 to 1965, and again from 1968 to 1978, when he left to lead his own band.

Flanagan, who lives in Manhattan, began playing Detroit clubs in his teens.

“In the mid-1940s, we discovered Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and all of that Golden Age of music,” he said. “The greatest innovators of our time came to Detroit--Fats Waller, Duke, Teddy Wilson, all my heroes.”

By the 1950s, Flanagan’s services were much in demand. He moved to New York in 1956 and landed his first date: filling in for Bud Powell at Birdland. During that decade, Flanagan recorded with Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Davis, among others.

Though Flanagan is not given to expressing himself much in words, a few of his words go a long way.

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Flanagan’s wife pointed out that Cecil Taylor and Flanagan assumed their perennial one-two ranking in Downbeat magazine’s Critics Poll again this year.

“He deserved it,” Diana Flanagan said of Taylor.

“You think so?” her husband dead-panned.

Flanagan also confessed that he never thought much of trumpeter Miles Davis’ electric music--he preferred Davis’ acoustic sound, as when Flanagan played with him during the 1950s. Flanagan himself gave up on electricity after an unsatisfying experience with an electric piano during the 1970s.

As a matter of fact, Flanagan is frustrated by the direction much contemporary music is taking.

He said it frustrates him that so much of the music passed off as “jazz” today, popular but lightweight instrumental music heard on commercial radio, bears no relationship to Flanagan’s brand of jazz--serious, cerebral stuff rooted in 1940s and 1950s bebop.

Flanagan’s new recording is only the latest addition to his huge catalogue. He estimates he has played on something close to 200 albums, including about 20 as a leader.

Most of these have been re-released on CD, including his first trio album, “Tommy Flanagan Overseas,” released in 1957.

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Through the 1960s and 1970s, Flanagan divided his time between his own projects and his work with Fitzgerald and other artists. But contrary to popular opinion, Flanagan was not primarily a singer’s accompanist during these years, his wife emphasized. Other than Fitzgerald, he has backed only two or three other singers, including Tony Bennett.

Flanagan has always attracted top talent for his trios, the intimate format he prefers.

Past members of his bands have included Elvin Jones, Al Foster and Kenny Washington, and his current trio includes longtime collaborator George Mraz on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, both of whom will play with him this weekend.

With his health on the upswing, Flanagan is headed for some busy weeks. He will play several nights in San Francisco next week, then tour Japan through mid-November.

After more than 45 years in jazz, Flanagan is still a bebopper at heart, but he gets tired of being asked whether he considers himself a keeper of the bebop flame. These days, he’s not too sure how many people even know what “bebop” means.

“Bird (Charlie Parker) said bebop to him was a catchy word they (critics) made up to label the music,” Flanagan said. And for the naive, he provided a definition of his own: “A period of music that came before the Beatles and after the Beatles.”

Flanagan plays the Horton Grand Hotel this Friday and Saturday nights at 8:30, and the Inn L’Auberge this Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m.


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