Tuesday, December 8, 2009

JR and Flanagan... A Real Pleasure

Tenorman JR Monterose always gave credit to pianists, starting with early Bud Powell, for the advanced harmonic sense he acquired... gradually. Monterose (he was a "Junior," hence the "JR" initials nickname) worked with several major ones over the course of his in-and-out, here-and-gone career, from George Wallington and Horace Silver to Mal Waldron and Hank Jones. But the man who helped JR shine on records most was "poet of the piano" Tommy Flanagan, who backed him on two brilliant albums separated by almost a quarter of a century--the long time between most likely the result of Monterose's peripatetic wanderlust and somewhat reclusive nature.

It's a small irony that both men were born in Detroit (Monterose in 1927, Flanagan in 1930). Yet because JR's family soon moved on to Utica, NY, and his jazz training then came in the ranks of some Northeastern big bands, the two young musicians had only minimal contact until the late Fifties when JR's second date as a leader (released on Jaro Records in 1959 as The Message) brought him together with Tommy at last. Flanagan had already made his bones maneuvering through both Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus and John Coltrane's Giant Steps, as well as many sessions backing J.J. Johnson and Thad Jones, while Monterose had played for a time with Charles Mingus and then Kenny Dorham, and had gained some critical acclaim for his debut album on Blue Note. But for some reason Tommy and JR were a great fit straight from the git-go, the result maybe of Flanagan's amazing "ears" and sure sideman skills. Or maybe their chord choices and favored tempos were a closer match since JR early on was admittedly in thrall to both Rollins and Coltrane.

Whatever the source, the two were attuned. And with the quartet completed by quick-fingered Jimmy Garrison and thunderous Pete La Roca, you can bet JR had to be ridin' some roilin' rhythm. You can hear it immediately on opening track "Straight Ahead," a stomp-it-off rewrite of "Get Happy" (with some lightning exchanges between JR and Pete)--and differently on the following cut, one of only two ballads in the set. But "Violets for Your Furs" let Monterose demonstrate his ability to play at any speed, creating a lovely tenor-sax equivalent to Frank Sinatra's famous vocal.

JR had come back to the Apple after a year-and-some's residence at a club in upstate Albany, and along with added confidence he brought some polished and inventive originals too. But the complex structures and busy changes of "You Know That" and "Short Bridge," for example, couldn't faze Flanagan after Coltrane's Step-lively tunes--and his flowing solos show it--while the upbeat blues of "Green Street Scene" was just sweet cream to a sharp-eared cat from Detroit.

With the section taking care of business, JR was free to be assertive or mellow, spontaneous or studied--to vamp some sections of his waltz called "Chafic" (an Arabic word for "merciful," however he came by it 50 years ago), or mourn most lyrically throughout Benny Golson's already-classic "I Remember Clifford": breathy, hovering, then blowing free, and cushioned all the way by Tommy. So he rolled on directly across that final "Short Bridge" too...

... And then JR was gone again, to Maryland, Iowa, Europe, always looking for the gig and the solo that would satisfy. The two guys crossed paths in Los Angeles and overseas, but without any follow-up recordings. Tommy maintained a busy schedule for all the years, while JR played only where or when he felt inspired. A few albums surfaced, usually live club snapshots, but nothing of great substance really... until 1981. Back in New York State for a while, he sat in on Flanagan's solo gig up in Schenectady, and the dual magic was suddenly and soundly apparent.

Tommy had become accompanist extraordinaire, supportive at every moment, singing with every note, pushing when needed, laying back quietly, shining forth during his own pretty, pithy solos, making things happen. All the years with Ella and others had sharpened and secured that part of his genius--while Monterose was playing with superb thrust and parry, solos plaintive yet controlled and wasting no notes, still blasting when appropriate but now whispering more frequently and easily, even breaking out a not-previously-heard soprano sax for a few numbers when they hit the studio for what became the album titled A Little Pleasure (available currently as remastered by Rudy Van Gelder for little-known Reservoir RSR CD 109).

Man oh man, what songlines, what languid beauty they found there, too! Think of the other late-century sax-and-piano duos--Stan Getz and Kenny Barron, Art Pepper and George Cables, Zoot Sims and Jimmy Rowles (a could-have-been, anyway)--and put JR and Tommy right up there. Tune after tune, sweet and sensitive, tart and transcendent, holding to the rhythm yet free to shift gears and tempos as inspired, but always advancing inexorably--yes, discovering and delineating anew the spontaneous "freedom Jazz dance" as it's meant to be experienced.

If you think I exaggerate, just sample a track or two: perfect versions of standards like "Never Let Me Go" (Tommy's notes dancing around the ascerbic, crying tenor) and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (sighing soprano nestled in beauty, even when fallen silent, from first note till last); elegant rewinds of Dizzy's "Con Alma" (JR swirling busily, Flanagan in a staccato strut) and Coltrane's "Central Park West" (Tommy stepping lightly, JR enjoying the city sights); splendid Monterose originals "Vinnie's Pad" (up tenor, surging, to the totally sudden stop) and "Pain and Suffering... and a Little Pleasure" (unexpectedly lovely soprano lilt, waltzing with the keys). Except for a track or two, the nine were nailed in single takes; for those two days in April the guys played as though newly resurrected and on fire--two phoenixes brightly risen. And Flanagan's career continued at that elevated level all the way into this 21st century. But JR slipped back into the shadows, playing brilliantly no doubt, but largely unheard, his death in 1993 going mostly unnoticed.

But you can still find Monterose fans today, aligned together from Albany to Alabama, from the Alhambra on to Albania maybe... alive and well and always alert for some newfound unknown dispatch from the vanished frontlines of JR's unceasing, far-flung, ultimately frustrated search.


Anonymous said...

I am curious do the liner notes in that Complete Studio Recording release mention what Monterose's cause of death was?

I Witness said...

No mention in any notes here, but it was heart trouble, as I recall reading. If anyone else knows more definitively, please comment!

Anonymous said...

Thanks man! I appreciate you checking. I got his obit from the Albany newspaper and it only said that he passed away after a long illness.