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MP3 Lew Tabackin - Rites of Pan

On this, Lew''s first outing entirely on flute, an adventurous combination of styles makes for an excellent album.

7 MP3 Songs in this album (37:32) !
Related styles: Jazz: Post-Bop, Jazz: Bebop, Mood: Dreamy

With his wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin heads the freshest, most invigorating big band in jazz. On tenor, he is a robust, hard-swinging soloist; but I am most intrigued by his solo voice on the flute. There is a fullness of sound, a vividness, that is rather rare among jazz flutists. Add to that an uncommon ability to draw nuances of line and time with the instrument, along with formidable technique, and the result is one of the most personal and evocative approaches to that instrument in jazz history.
The first jazzman to achieve renown on flute was Wayman Carver with Chick Webb’s band in the 1930’s. Since then, there has been a gradual increase in the number of players trying to make that instrument sound strong and supple enough to hold its own in jazz surroundings. Among the more notable swinging flutists have been James Moody, Frank Wess, Yusf Leteef, the passionately idiosyncratic Jeremy Steig, Paul Horn, the late Eric Dolphy (who really stretched the instrument), and among current modernists, Sam Rivers, Henry Threadgill, Chico Freeman, and James Newton. The competition has indeed intensified, and Tabackin, in my view, is helping to set new standards.
Before forming the orchestra with Toshiko, Lew had had diversified experience with big bands (from Maynard Ferguson to Joe Henderson and Doc Severinsen) and small combos (Donald Byrd and Elvin Jones, among others). Although he had majored in flute at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, Lew did not consider becoming a serious flute player until the early 1960’s when he really began to work on making it into a jazz voice. Since then, he does not, like some jazzmen, regard the flute as a secondary instrument for occasional doubling. “My attitude,” Tabackin says, “is that I have two primary horns – the tenor and the flute.”
During his period of intense study of the flute on his own, Lew first listened to a lot of recordings by such classical players as Julius Baker, William Kincaid, and Jean-Pierre Rampal. Unlike the tenor saxophone, which has its tradition in jazz (Coleman Hawkins having been the first classical tenor), the roots of the flute are in European music. While Tabackin liked a number of jazz flutists (including James Moody and Frank Wess), he wasn’t influenced by any of them. He felt he had to shape his own style. By contrast, he had based his tenor playing on a whole spectrum of jazz influences, from Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “On flute,” Tabackin says, “none of the other jazz approaches suited what I wanted to do.”
While the embrochures for tenor and flute are quite different, often causing adjustment problems for a player switching between them, there is one basic similarity in the way Tabackin approaches both instruments. “I try to get inside the horn,” he says. “I try to be so wholly involved emotionally with the instrument that I get to feel the instrument and I are one. Like, I use a lot of air, physically putting myself inside, almost breathing my ‘soul’ into the horn” In that respect, Lew reminds me of Eric Dolphy’s work on the flute. Both project a lot of strength – of sound, attack, and spirit.
This is Tabackin’s first album on which he plays only the flute (including a track on alto flute). It was Toshiko’s idea, and she produced the date. Autumn Sea is also hers. The music, both subtle and resilient, was influenced, says Tabackin, by traditional Japanese writing for the hoto (a string instrument) and the shakuhatchi (the Japanese bamboo flute).
The swift, careening version of Dizzy Gillespie’s Be Bop was also a Toshiko suggestion. “I had never done much straight bebop on flute,” says Tabackin, “and she thought it would be fun to do this one – real fast.”
Jitterbug Waltz is one of the most affecting and ruefully poignant of all Fats Waller’s tunes. “Actually,” says Lew, “it’s the first real classic jazz waltz. And they didn’t get much better after this one.”
The continually arresting Rites of Pan came from Lew’s desire to do a piece just for flute and drums. It was entirely improvised by him and Shelly Manne. “As we got into it, the music conjured up visions,” Tabackin says. “It turned out to be a pagan kind of thing. This is one of the times I got beyond myself – and into the instrument – as we were playing.”
Kurt Weill’s Speak Low was selected as an apt song for the alto flute. “That instrument,” Tabackin notes, “is usually sultry and very haunting, and this was the tune for it.”
Night Nymph is a brief improvisation which, in a way, is a further extension, in spirit, of Rites of Pan. And Elusive Dream, by Toshiko, was written for Lew and for this session. It marks the debut on records of Toshiko playing electric piano. As you can hear, she somehow makes it sound more mellow and “human” that most other practitioners of the instrument.
On each track she appears, Toshiko complements Lew with exemplary precision, grace, and flowing time. On drums, Shelly Manne displays a perennial youthfulness that is one of the wonders of the music world. “He’s so enthusiastic about music, about any new challenge,” says Tabackin. “Always, he does what you want him to – and then more. And he has an extraordinary ability to relate to all the musicians on the date. Furthermore, he can do so many things with the drums. With Shelly, this combination of enthusiasm and exceptional experience make for a persistently creative musician.”
Bassist John Heard is a vital member of the Tabackin-Akiyoshi big band, and spends some of his off-hours just playing duets with Lew, so well attuned are they by taste and temperament. “John,” says Tabackin, “is one of the few bass players left who gets satisfaction out of playing a basic line, instead of always going off on solo trips. He has a very strong rhythmic feel.”
Bob Daugherty, bassist on Autumn Sea and Speak Low, is a long-time associate of Tabackin and plays with firm time and lively imagination.
For the future, Tabackin intends to continue having two primary instruments. “Physically,” he observes, “it makes life more difficult. It would be a lot easier if I were to expend all my energy playing just one instrument. This way, if my embrouchure is kind of numb from having played a tenor solo for twenty minutes, the sudden transition to flute can present quite a problem. Some musicians just panic – they can’t find the hole or the right spot. The thing, as I tell my students, is to build up a lot of confidence and use a lot of air support. Blow as much air in as you can, and in a minute or two, it comes back.”
Although he call the challenge of having two basic instruments his “cross in life,” Tabackin finds the satisfaction of being able to express himself through two quite different vehicles more than worth the difficulties. And the result is that as he keeps adding to his reputation on tenor, Lew is also developing inexorably as one of the more singular and continually surprising flutists in jazz history.
His playing, for instance, on this session is, first of all, distinctively personal in sound as well as conception. There is none of the metallic coldness that is sometimes characteristic of the flute, and also none of the pinched timorousness that is also evident in the playing of some flutists. Nor does Lew play with the careful elegance that has long been associated with certain schools of flute playing. There is a wholly jazz-like spontaneity, and irrepressible vitality. Also, while he can swing harder on the instrument than most others (Be Bop for instance), he is almost nonpareil in his ability to create and sustain a broad range of moods – from the introspectively gentle to the boldly dramatic. Lew is a real story-teller on the instrument, as well as a scenic narrator (Autumn Sea).
In addition to all this, he has a sense of dynamics that I doubt can be taught in any conservatory. It comes from inner rhythms and perceptiveness. His pacing, moreover – his way of building to climaxes and almost imperceptibly changing colors for expressive emphasis – is sometimes just plain astonishing. I have marveled at the scope of his flute playing in the even more revealing perspective of a small combo. It is a rare experience, and one by which future recordings of jazz flute will be measured.
It is not that Lew Tabackin is beyond competition. There are more and more flutists who are expanding the instrument. But this album makes clear that all the rest of the competition has to reckon with Tabackin.
-Nat Hentoff

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