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Lucky Thompson: Paris 1956-59

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Eli “Lucky" Thompson was one of jazz's most confident and gifted tenor saxophonists. On recordings, his imagination on solos was so fast and bountiful that he filled virtually every spare space with warm tones. Over the course of his career, Thompson was most at home in Paris, as evidenced by his exhilarating slippery and smokey sound on recordings made there. In recent years, Thompson's Paris recordings have been released on a wide range of French and American labels that have have quickly gone out of print. Now, I'm happy to say that we have them all on two sets from Fresh Sound.

The first is Lucky Thompson: The Complete Parisian Small-Group Sessions 1956-1959, a four-CD set that comes with a 34-page book of images and lengthy notes by Jordi Pujol. The second is a single CD—Lucky Thompson in Paris 1956: The All Star Orchestra Sessions. The fidelity on all of the recordings is remarkable.

Born in Columbia, S.C., Thompson moved with his family to Ohio and then Detroit, joining Erskine Hawkins's band after high school. Thompson moved to Paris in early 1956 after enduring baffling professional problems that involved unfairness and unemployment. There were songs he wrote that weren't credited to him, clubs that tried to stiff him and record labels that shortchanged him and repeatedly passed over him for dates.

Back in the late 1940s and early '50s, he was known among those busy chiseling musicians as “difficult"—someone who questioned why he wasn't receiving what he was promised or due. Today, we'd call it being victimized.

Prior to leaving for Paris, Thompson had established himself as a saxophone giant with a distinct sound. He first recorded with Hot Lips Page in 1944, then recorded with Count Basie that same year and the first half of 1945 before recording with Boyd Raeburn's band in 1945 and '46. Thompson recorded with Charlie Parker in 1946 and '49, Johnnie Ray in 1951, Thelonious Monk in 1952, King Pleasure in 1954 and Oscar Pettiford in 1956 before relocating to Paris. During a return visit that year, he recorded again with Pettiford and on Stan Kenton's Cuban Fire.

As these Paris recordings show, Lucky was spiritually free in France. His playing on standards is polished and daring, while his work on his own compositions is breathtaking.That's one of the great treats of this set: Thompson was a brilliant writer, and it shows on songs such as Passin' time, Nothing But the Soul and Why Weep?, to name just a few.

On these originals for the French Columbia label, Thompson unleashes ideas as if he's operating a Singer sewing machine. The thinking and precision are remarkable. In addition, while Thompson could take down an up-tempo song like a tiger, he was deeply emotional on ballads such as Time on My Hands and Everything Happens to Me.

But what makes this set especially rewarding are the many groups in which he recorded. There are 19 different ones in all here, which means different musical moods and challenges, and the results are never dull. Among these varied sessions are eight bluesy tracks with pianist Sammy Price and four hard boppers with drummer Kenny Clarke, including a masterful Four. All of the French sidemen on this set are terrific and on par with their American counterparts.

The all-star orchestra sessions of 1956 include a crack Quincy Jones-influenced band led by Herni Renaud and three sessions with Gerard Pochonet. All of the tracks with Pochonet are exceptionally written and arranged by Thompson and equal to Quincy Jones's work during this period. Which makes you wonder why Thompson wasn't arranging for Basie and other big bands in the States.

Thompson returned to the U.S. in 1963 and recorded through 1968 before moving to  Lausanne, Switzerland. In the early 1970s, Thompson returned to New York, taught at Dartmouth in New Hampshire in 1973 and '74 and then disappeared. He reportedly lived for a time on Manitoulin Island in Ontario and in Georgia before moving to Oregon, where he was largely homeless in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Lucky Thompson died in Seattle in 2005. He was 81.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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