March 24, 2010

The Cats

The CatsThe Cats is a somewhat obscure Prestige Records all-star session from 1957 that purrs like a well-fed kitten. And well-fed it is with a savory line-up that includes John Coltrane on tenor and Kenny Burrell on guitar. Although recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his Hackensack studio, the record has a Detroit vibe – Burrell and the rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums are all natives. Burrell always has a bluesy Motor City tinge to his playing. Coltrane is in transition at the time of this recording. Having recently been booted from the Miles Davis Quintet, he is trying to clean up his act and will soon begin a collaboration with Thelonious Monk. Here, he sounds energized in his solos, perhaps feeling free to be more expressive than he was with Davis. His so-called sheets of sound style is in full flower, with some wonderful melodic lines morphing into impressive double-time arpeggios. This album is probably overlooked (the felines on the cover definitely want some attention) because both Burrell and Coltrane were about to enter a very creative and prolific period in their respective careers.
     But the real cat-in-chief on this date is Flanagan. His compositional skills are on display in four of the five tunes, and his playing is the focus of the other one. The album opens with “Minor Mishap,” a medium-paced hard bop song with solos from Coltrane, Burrell, and Idrees Sulieman (on trumpet). (There’s a wonderful version of Flanagan playing this song from later in his career on YouTube.) “How Long Has This Been Going On?” features Flanagan in a trio in a lovely version – listen to Hayes’ brush work on drums - of this Gershwin classic. The Caribbean-flavored “Eclypso” and “Solacium” are on the cool side of bop. But the highlight of The Cats has got to be the aptly named “Tommy’s Tune,” an extended (twelve minutes) song that gives everyone room to work out their ideas and really shine.
     Flanagan (1930-2001) was mostly known for being the accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald for many years, from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. He worked as a sideman on a number of seminal jazz recordings, including Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, and Art Pepper’s Straight Life. He also recorded regularly as a leader later in his career. He deserves to be more widely recognized for his masterful piano playing and The Cats is an excellent place to start.

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