Lucky Thompson Memorial… Living the Music

Saturday night, Jan. 8, Vienna’s “Jazzland” hosted a release party/concert marking the appearance of Heinz von Hermann’s latest offering on Jive Music Austria, a double CD titled Lucky Thompson & Me (JM-2065-2). Capturing the quartet live at a 2006 concert performance marking von Hermann’s 70th birthday, the album celebrates (along with his birthday) his influences, summing up the first seven decades of a career that is as well a legend in Austrian jazz. Maybe even more important, the album demonstrates his prowess as a composer, performer, and leader.

As good as the “hard copy” double-CD is – and it is very good – the added dimension of its live is always better, and a career valedictory, generously saluting those who went before.

Jazzland is a Vienna jazz landmark, an intimate venue whose walls reverberate from the comings and goings over more than thirty years of Jazz from across the globe.  Axel Melhardt, founder of the club, and one of the master builders of the Vienna jazz scene, has made Jazzland a durable success story, presenting jazz “from all directions,” but at Jazzland always at home.

While the night belonged to Heinz von Hermann, the occasion was Eli “Lucky” Thompson, born June 16, 1924, Columbia, South Carolina – July 30, 2005 in Seattle. For von Hermann, Thompson was at once an inspiration for his work and for his independent “Aussteiger” artistic stance.

Thompson was a master of many of styles. Paying his dues into his early twenties with swing greats Lionel Hampton and Count Basie, he was flexible enough to jump ship, joining the be-bop school, playing with Dizzy Gillespie, eventually sharing reed duties with Charlie Parker during his now legendary Dial Records sessions in Los Angeles.

Along the way, moonlighting in rhythm and blues when necessary, for a time joining crooner Billy Ecstine’s dance band, Thompson worked with Miles Davis, ahead of John Coltrane, bringing renewed attention to both the tenor and, particularly, the soprano saxophone in the evolution of modern jazz. Thompson apparently did not suffer fools gladly, and that included record executives and club owners. His career waylaid by real and imagined demons, including racism, he took flight for Europe in the mid-60’s, landing in Lausanne, and enjoyed an extended sabbatical. He returned to America in the early 70’s, and after some teaching, abandoned jazz altogether.

Thompson exemplified a level of musicianship that allowed him to evolve and indeed to lead developments in jazz, ultimately earning himself the status of a revered post-bop “icon” by the end of his long, occasionally intense, too often desultory, career.

“Jazz is a living thing,” said von Hermann in the break, “and it has a memory.” This sharing and acknowledging of influences is part of the personal journey of a jazzman. “I never met Thompson, but I knew him. He became part of me, now part of what I share with my audience.”

It is then, no surprise that just a fortnight ahead of this performance, four years after this recording was made, pianist Eric Reed, one of today’s young lions of jazz, hosted his own Tribute to Lucky Thompson at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center at Columbus Circle.

Heinz von Hermann is that rare musician with the “chops” to make it in a similarly broad range of styles, from Dixieland “trad” jazz to swing to be-bop and beyond. He’s made his way in studio and soundtrack gigs, as well, when called, a measure of his professionalism in a competitive business. As von Hermann tells it, it is that struggle, the trials of all of life’s facets that make him the musician we saw on stage, showing his scars and and reaching for the stars.

He quotes Charlie Parker, “If you haven’t lived it, you can’t play it!”

In this receptive environment, facing a lively, diverse, but supportive audience, Hermann’s quartet, Hermann (ts, bs, f), Mario Gonzi (d), Uli Langthaler (b) and Erwin Schmidt (p), delivered a sweeping program in two parts. Like the recording itself, the first set comprises his tribute to the late tenor man Thompson, one of Hermann’s admitted influences, yielding after the break to a generous set-and-a-half survey of Hermann’s own tunes. Indeed, generous is the word for Hermann and crew, peppering the evening with nods to everyone from Bix Beiderbecke to Friedrich Gulda (a sweet rendition of “Du und I”), with a hint of Howard McGhee, with just a pinch of Hank Crawford thrown in for good measure!

More important, this disciplined, highly professional unit wasn’t on the bandstand for nigh unto three hours simply to name-drop. They came to swing, and swing they did! By the end of the evening, any newcomer would leave convinced: A “tribute” to Lucky Thompson, perhaps, but the night will be recalled even more as a tribute to the skill, soul, and strength of these four men.

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