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Flanagan's Shenanigans

by Robin Kidson




Tommy Flanagan

Tommy Flanagan


Denmark has long had a thriving jazz scene out of all proportion to its size. Not only has it produced more than its fair share of internationally known musicians (John Tchicai, Marilyn Mazur, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, for example), but has provided a home for a host of expat Americans (Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Oscar Pettiford…). One of the world’s great independent jazz record labels, Storyville, is based in Copenhagen. It is also notable for the number and range of its music prizes such as the Ben Webster Prize and the Sonning Award. A particularly generous prize was the annual Jazzpar award which ran from 1990 to 2004. Winners included David Murray, Lee Konitz, Tony Coe and Django Bates.

The Jazzpar prize was founded by Danish trumpeter, Arnvid Meyer and was sponsored by the Scandinavian Tobacco Company. Its main aim was to raise the international profile of Danish jazz musicians so it may seem strange that the prize was mainly given to non-Danish performers, usually fairly well known Americans or Brits. However, each winner, as well as receiving a not inconsiderable sum of cash, was expected to perform a series of concerts with home grown Danish players. Recordings of these concerts were then released. The overall result was that both the prizewinner and the accompanying Danish musicians received a great deal of extra exposure both in Denmark and internationally. Win-win.

The Jazzpar winner in 1993 was American pianist, Tommy Flanagan. A recording of a Jazzpar concert given by Flanagan in Copenhagen in April 1993 was released on Storyville at the time. The record was called Flanagan’s Shenanigans and has recently been re-released by Storyville.



Tommy Flanagan and Roy Eldridge



Tommy Flanagan was born in Detroit in 1930. He began playing the clarinet as a child but switched to piano at the age of 11. He established a reputation as an accompanist in his native Detroit before moving to New York in 1956. He was extremely well regarded by his fellow musicians and ended up playing on two of the greatest jazz albums ever made: Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus (1956) and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (1960). He also recorded with Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey….the list goes on.




Tommy Flanagan and Roy Eldridge






Tommy Flanagan and Ella Fitzgerald




Tommy had two stints working full time with Ella Fitzgerald: from 1962 to 1965 he was her accompanist; and from 1968 to 1978, he was both her accompanist and musical director. Ella Fitzgerald’s schedule was punishing and Flanagan ended up having a heart attack. Heart problems dogged him for the rest of his life.


Click on the picture for a video of Ella with the Tommy Flanagan Quartet playing at Ronnie Scott's Club in 1974 (40 minutes) : Tommy Flanagan (piano); Joe Pass (guitar); Keter Betts (double bass); Bobby Durham (drums).





Rather late in the day, Tommy Flanagan developed a flourishing solo career after he left Ella. Always rather a diffident man, he explained to Whitney Balliett, “for a long time, mostly when I was accompanying Ella Fitzgerald, I never thought I had enough technique for a soloist. But then I found I liked to put myself out there”. He mainly worked with a trio and made a number of highly regarded albums.

Here he is talking about his playing and playing Smooth as the Wind. His modest and friendly demeanour, as well as his brilliant technique, come over strongly.




The Jazzpar concert in Copenhagen came shortly after Flanagan had undergone bypass heart surgery, but there are no signs of failing health on Flanagan’s Shenanigans. The pianist is on fizzing form. He is accompanied by Lewis Nash on drums and Jesper Lundgaard on bass. On three of the tracks, the trio is joined by a “windtet” of six Danish musicians: Henrik Bolberg Pedersen, Vincent Nilsson, Steen Hansen, Jan Zum Vohrde, Uffe Markussen and Flemming Madsen. Jesper Thilo on tenor sax plays with the trio on a further track.

The album gets off to an upbeat start with both trio and windtet playing Flanagan’s own composition, the Caribbean flavoured Eclypso (once recorded by John Coltrane, no less). Although Flanagan takes a solo, he mainly lets the windtet strut its stuff – which it does admirably. There are some great solos from Jan Zum Vohrde on alto sax, Vincent Nilsson on baritone horn, and Lundgaard on bass.

The windtet is in fine form again on Beyond The Bluebird, another Flanagan original and named after a Detroit jazz club.  All of the tracks with the windtet were arranged by Ole Kock Hansen and he excels here, taking Flanagan’s tune and doing something magical with it. There’s a touch of Oliver Nelson about both the tune and arrangement.


Listen to Beyond The Bluebird:






and here is Flanagan on another occasion playing the piece live with just a trio of Nash on drums and George Mraz on drums:




The third and final windtet track is Flanagan’s Minor Mishap. Windtet members take solos, notably Henrik Bolberg Pedersen on trumpet and Uffe Markussen on tenor sax. The next piece is For Lena and Lennie which Quincy Jones wrote for Lena Horne and her husband, Lennie Hayton. Jesper Thilo joins the trio on tenor sax and, again, Flanagan generously allows him the room to take some beautifully textured solos.

The remaining five tracks feature just the three players in the trio. They kick off with the title track, Flanagan’s Shenanigans, which was written for Flanagan by James Williams. It is an upbeat piece in which Flanagan’s total mastery of his instrument is on full show. Lundgaard takes a compelling solo with some great and crystal clear string plucking. There is much humour in the playing with all three musicians relaxing into each other and clearly enjoying themselves. The mood is picked up by the audience who respond with rapturous applause.


Listen to Flanagan’s Shenanigans.




Next up is The Balanced Scales by Tom McIntosh which has some absorbing changes in tempo and a solo by Flanagan on which he really stretches out. Whitney Balliett was a fan of Tommy Flanagan and once said of him: “First-rate improvisation suggests that if one looked at the sheet music one would find the notes the soloist has just played. That’s what Flanagan does.”


Listen to The Balanced Scales and you know exactly what Balliett means:





The first half of But Beautiful (Jimmy van Heusen/John Burke) sees Flanagan playing by himself. The other two musicians then come in and the whole piece relaxes into a gentle swing. Let’s is a Thad Jones composition which the trio take at quite a lick handling the complex tune with aplomb. A word here for Lewis Nash whose drumming is always bang on the beat and whose solos, never too long, add an absorbing texture. Again, the musicians are clearly enjoying themselves on Let’s as evidenced by the sound of their laughing towards the end of the piece.

The final track is an encore. The trio plays Dizzy Gillespie’s Tin Tin Deo, another complex tune with a latin beat. Flanagan really pulls out all his stops on this one and you see why he was so highly regarded by his fellow musicians. His solos go off into all sorts of interesting places, constantly changing direction with little snatches of other tunes, but always coherent and always honouring the orginal.






Tommy Flanagan




Flanagan once described his technique thus:


“I always feel after I solo that maybe I should have worked it out more first. I always hear so much space that I could have filled in. The piano takes care of itself when you play it, so I think in terms of horn lines a lot. Also, if I have my eyes closed I see the keyboard in my head and I see what I might want my hands to do. Improvising gives you a great sense of freedom. When you find that out – that you’re making your own song – you can go on endlessly. Of course, you learn something each time you play the same song – particularly if you play it in a different key. That sharpens your wit, makes you play better, keeps you away from the clichés”.     


For a modest, self-effacing man, Flanagan had a surprising touch of the showman about him. The performance of Tin Tin Deo is a real crowd pleasing barnstormer and is met with thunderous applause.







Here is a live performance (not at the Copenhagen gig) of Tin Tin Deo played by Flanagan with Nash on drums and George Mraz on bass.




Tommy Flanagan’s health problems eventually got the better of him and he died at the relatively young age of 71 in 2001. Denmark did him proud by the award of the Jazzpar prize and putting on such a wonderful concert. Flanagan’s Shenanigans is a fitting memorial of that occasion and of a great and much missed musician. 


Click here for details and samples of the album Flanagan’s Shenanigans.


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