The Rise and Fall of Lucky Thompson
A few years ago, Italian saxophonist Daniele D’Agaro was visiting Chicago, and a critic friend put on a fairly obscure record to stump him. D’Agaro listened for about three seconds, said: “Lucky.”
Good ears. He knows the distinctive sound of Lucky Thompson after he started hanging out in Paris and playing sumptuous tenor saxophone ballads recalling old idol Don Byas’s Parisian sides. On “Solitude” and “We’ll Be Together Again,” from Lucky in Paris 1959, his tenor’s all velvet, powerful but with a light, subdued tone. A faint quick vibrato adds an air of fragility, vulnerability – a tell, betraying his swing-era roots.
Thompson hated the music business, and no wonder: that 1959 LP didn’t even get released in the States. Fans of Stan Getz‘s touching ballads should’ve been buying Lucky’s records, too.
Eli Thompson deserved his moniker like a big guy who’s nicknamed Tiny, so consistently unlucky were his earliest years. In Europe, where he spent a lot of time after 1956, he’s esteemed. He’s not exactly unknown to North Americans – Chris Byars and Michael Blake play his tunes – but Lucky never quite got his due, even when recording with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Thelonious Monk to Stan Kenton. His marginal status made him bitter. (Hear his talking intro to Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know?) Thompson dropped out of sight in the ’70s, disgusted with the biz and wrestling with personal demons He died in Seattle in 2005, after years living with Alzheimer’s.
He came up in the 1940s as a follower of Coleman Hawkins. On “Just One More Chance,” he extracts an elegant, elaborate melody from the tune’s chords, and gets raspy to build excitement: textbook Hawkins. (That ballad’s on Lucky Thompson 1944-1947 in the terrific Chronological Classics series; to unravel the credits, see this excellent discography.)
When he recorded with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in ’46, Lucky was all of 21 or 22, younger than Bird and Diz, but his swing era vibrato and timing on “Ornithology” and “Moose the Mooche” make him sound older. Like Hawkins, he grasped bop’s advanced harmonies quicker than its offbeat rhythms.
Still, he’d already hinted at the smoother conception to come. On a 1944 jam, “Test Pilots (Part 1),” his foggier, less fussy tone looks to Lester Young, and a few descending scalar runs oddly anticipate John Coltrane‘s ascending ones. By 1954, and Miles Davis‘s hard bop classics “Walkin’” and “Blue ‘n ‘Boogie,” Lucky’s rhythmic conception’s more bop-modern, but there’s still a little swing-era swagger in his tone.
Then to Europe, his finishing school. Now jump ahead to 1964, and the gorgeous “‘Twas Yesterday.” His tone is as tender as Getz, and scalar runs again suggest Coltrane. (It’s from a 1964 concert with Hank Jones on piano, and some cool writing for octet, on the new Lucky Thompson New York City, 1964-65.). But Lucky pulls all those strains together to reinforce his own strong voice – to be more himself.
In Paris in 1957, he’d picked up soprano saxophone – after Steve Lacy, but before Coltrane. (He debuts it on the aforementioned Lucky in Paris, a grand introduction to his music; the five rhythm players include pianist Martial Solal) On the 1965 quartet half of New York City, 1964-65, he stretches on straight horn on “The World Awakes,” his liquid tone falling between cool-water Lacy and vinegar Coltrane. The sleek tenor’s on “Lady Bird” and “Strike Up the Band.”
In that period, he also made suave studio albums: the celebrated Lucky Strikes with Hank Jones, and an overlooked set of Jerome Kern songs (plus his own “No More”) with Tommy Flanagan, reissued as the first nine tracks on Happy Days.
Returning to Europe, he crisscrossed the continent, Stockholm to Rome to Zagreb. In Barcelona he cut the fine Soul’s Nite Out with pianist Tete Montoliu’s trio in 1970. There’s some achingly beautiful (“I Got It Bad”) and driving up-tempo tenor; his soprano’s more full-bodied than ever.
But by then it was almost all over. Back in the US for good, he did a few last, anti-climactic dates with Cedar Walton on electric piano: a “Cherokee,” “Green Dolphin Street” and “Everything Happens to Me” live at the Cook County jail, and studio sides whose premature fade-outs we might read as metaphors for Lucky’s imminent disappearance from the scene.
One thing he hated about the business: how people tried to categorize musicians as belonging to one school or another. “I fought all my life and said you’ll never stereotype me,” he told interviewer Christopher Kuhl after giving up performing. He kept moving in more ways than one.
Five Lucky Thompson encores:
–with two Lucky solos, from first studio session
–early in her solo career, the magnetic singer fronts a Thompson octet with Milt Jackson on vibes and Charles Mingus on bass (tracks 7-18 here)
3) Jo Jones, “Fine and Dandy,” 1956
–Lucky live and up-tempo
4) Lionel Hampton, “Star Dust,” 1965
–Thompson on soprano alongside Coleman Hawkins on tenor; J.J. Johnson’s trombone sings the melody
–Thompson solo on both his horns, with a subtle transition between: solo soprano pre-Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell or Evan Parker