When jazz musicians are paired perfectly, they sound like a key sliding into a lock. To the listener, the combination is magic, especially as each plays off the 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. Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More, with Thompson on tenor and soprano sax, remains the finest example 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).
In 1963, Thompson led a date for Prestige's Moodsville series of relaxed albums with just Hank Jones (p), 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, breezy style is contantly tryng to wriggle free from Jones's firm precision, and the two engage in a cat and mouse game throughout. Thompson blows the Kern songs straight the first run through and then launches into improvisation with extreme tenderness and caressing. Best of all, he leaves lots of space for Jones to surface between his lines. 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 only two more times—on Thompson's Lucky Strikes (1964) and a Lionel Hampton All Stars date in '65. That was it. Fed up with the music industry, Thompson had relocated to Paris between 1957 and '62 and did so again in 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.
These Kern recordings show Thompson and Jones at their very best.
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 (Presige) 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...