Selection: Chelsea Bridge (Strayhorn)
Possibly the signature tune of Overseas is the dreamy sublime chord changes of Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge.Today, Chelsea Bridge is a far cry from Strayhorn’s, just busy traffic over the River Thames. Chelsea in the mid ’60s, with its Kings Road, was the essential destination for style-hungry fashion-dandy hipsters, where a certain LJC would go to get his haircut and garner further additions to his expanding wardrobe of wide-bottom tight trousers and floral patterned shirts. Chelsea today is another world: Russian oligarchs, Gulf-state royals, Far Eastern property investors, the Kings Road on Saturday morning reverberates to the engine growl of cruising super-cars. The hipsters are long gone, now only ghosts from the past,like Billy Strayhorn’s chords.
Tommy Flanagan (piano) Wilbur Little (bass) Elvin Jones (drums) recorded Stockholm, Sweden, August 15, 1957, recording engineer Gosta Wilholm, mastering (for Prestige) by Rudy van Gelder.
Recorded in Sweden whilst touring Europe with J. J. Johnson’s quintet, Overseas was Flanagan’s first title in his own name as leader . Identified inevitably with Bud Powell and Art Tatum, Flanagan had accompanied the best – Rollins, Coltrane, Mingus and Miles Davis – but it was a long time before he stepped forward to take centre stage, All about Jazz say:
Tommy Flanagan’s lyrical style, at once tough, tender, and bouncing with jaunty humor, expresses a beautifully polished and melodic side of bebop. It has steadily grown in distinction and maturity, and through it all, it swings.
Flanagan was a master of legato – a series of smoothly connecting notes that flow in and out of the melody. What was happening to the piano in jazz of the later ’60’s was something else – the pianoless quartet, the use of dissonance to confound the listener’s expectations,the changing role of the piano in jazz directions. Perhaps Flanagan did not feel at home with either funk nor the avant garde, and instead retreated to more familiar territory as accompanist, spending the ten years from 1968 -78 in exile, on tour with Ella Fitzgerald .
He re-emerged in the later ’70s, to growing acclaim, his own voice, settling for piano trio as his format of choice in a long term partnership with the Czech virtuoso George Mraz. Mraz’s interplay with Flanagan puts me in mind of the telepathic relationship between Bill Evans and Scott la Faro. I know Wilbur Little has his fans but I read that Wilbur soon after moved to Amsterdam and never returned, abstracting himself from the development of the jazz scene. Flanagan however stayed the course and Mraz was his choice.
Jazz lost its status as mainstream popular music, nevertheless established itself as an enduring niche. Among mature audiences (of all ages) Flanagan was recognised as one the finest living jazz pianists, gathering Critics Poll endorsements and Grammy awards until his death in 2001. Yet his most enduring legacy is arguably that recording all the way from1957 in Stockholm, Overseas.
Evolution of the artist
What we have here is an opportunity to contrast the evolution of Tommy Flanagan, following the discovery of a “sleeper” on the LJC shelves, the album Eclypso, on the German Enja label dating from 1977 – a gap of twenty years. A different sort of comparison: the artist, the younger versus the older.
Both records feature Tommy Flanagan with Elvin Jones, and the contrasting bass of Little and Mraz. Fortuitously, the Enja features some of the same songs. I’m quite embarrassed (nothing new there eh LJC?) that the Enja Eclypso has a somewhat tatty cover. However, nothing tatty about the music or the recording, though it is a little bright compared with the Overseas tracks.
Tommy Flanagan Trio
Selection: Relaxing at Camarillo, Overseas, Metronome 1957
– Wilbur Little, bass.
– Elvin Jones, drums
Selection: Relaxing at Camarillo, Eclypso, Enja 1977
– George Mraz, bass
– Elvin Jones, drums
What I hear from Mraz is power-walking, with more rhythmic attack. It helps that the Enja recording, which is stereo, has a better grip on the bass than the Metronome. Another discovery is what 20 years of musical development has done to Elvin Jones. Still possessed of a mean set of brushes, by 1977 his drum vocabulary is astonishing, dense polyrhythms and accents, weaving in and around Flanagan’s melodic statements. So, a fortuitous discovery was sitting unheralded on the shelf already, rediscovering music.
Vinyl: UXF-62-E Teichiku Records, Tokyo Japan (1977)
Thirty five year old Japan vintage release of Swedish Metronome title, issued in US as PRLP 7134 and PR 7632 (pseudo stereo) Dragon DRLP 87, OJC, and many others since
Sounds as fresh today as it did must have in Stockholm 1957, the engineers at Teichiku pulled off a masterpiece of vintage Japanese engineering – Prestige mastering though not recording was done by van Gelder, who knows what source the Japanese had – original Metronome tapes or copy Prestige tapes?. Teichiku are a subsidiary of Victor Japan, the regular partner for reissue of Prestige recordings from the US. Victor pressings are up there with King of the same period (1977-83).
This is probably one of the best pressing out of Japan I have ever heard. Faithful mono, silent vinyl, high dynamic range, taut firm bass and Jones percussive slap brushwork (no, I’ve no idea really about what Jones is hitting), while Flanagan’s piano is very focussed, a credit to the Metronome engineer in Stockholm, Gosta Wilholm.
Japan Inserts and Obi
Not everyone can read Japanese, but for the benefit of the several hundred visitors each day from Japan to LJC, I include full-screen readable inserts, and the SJ seal of approval Obi. If any Japanese LJC visitors could add any helpful observations, that would be nice.
Two of the regulars in LJC’s Comments virtual lounge were sounding off about this piano trio and the iconic Over CCCCC’s album (usual suspects Eduard and Andy), which it smarted that I didn’t have. It gets worse. My copy was the evil silver disk. (Shhh! No one must know!)
No way was an original Prestige or even Metronome going my way, and a quick search of the world drew little if anything currently available that matched the fastidious taste of your truly. A few copies of the Teichiku with the alternate cover which isn’t a patch on Esmond Edwards scintillating graphic design in green. Some turned up with shipping from Japan, but one only in UK but at a fairly hefty premium. In these circumstances I turned to my usual method of extreme funding. I cancelled two bids sitting on lesser items on Ebay, therefore “saving” sufficient funds to justify the price premium on this one. I know it’s a mind game, but it feels better this way.
Job done, it arrived the next day, and the presentation is quite remarkable. I imagine the original Prestige to have a thick card dimpled laminate that catches the light the way those early originals do. No idea, but the UXF-62-E is a beautiful premium cover in itself, and well worth going the extra mile for compared with the alternative Japanese cover. However if green doesn’t do it for you, there are many alternative covers, including the 180gm “audiophile” one in a tasteful toned monochrome.
The audiophile edition (bottom right) certainly looks like the boys are “overseas” though it doesn’t look much like Stockholm behind them, Afghanistan more like. Artistic license, I guess. (Mine already has several endorsements)
Which cover/ edition of Overseas do you have. Just askin’…