Hidden Gems: Lucky Thompson’s “Lucky Strikes”

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Within the jazz world, there are a number of lesser-known albums that – despite not receiving a great deal of acclaim – nonetheless rank among some of the classic jazz albums. Amongst these “hidden gems,” one finds the music of talented tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, especially his 1964 release, Lucky Strikes, featuring Thompson on tenor and soprano saxophones, Hank Jones on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Connie Kay on drums.

Lucky Thompson

A young Lucky Thompson poses for the camera.

Eli “Lucky” Thompson is one of the tragic heroes of jazz. Coming of age during the bebop era, Thompson’s playing was still reminiscent of swing era saxophone. Although he embraced bebop harmony, he retained a number of rhythmic devices from the swing era, and his playing never became as syncopated as that of many of his contemporaries.

Thompson never earned much acclaim, despite successful recording dates with Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Art Blakey, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, and many others. He began playing the soprano saxophone before Coltrane, but never earned the attention he deserved. Disgusted by the music business, which he described as full of “parasites” and “vultures,” Thompson spent a great deal of time in Europe, but eventually came back to the States. By the 1970s he had dropped out of the music scene; by the 1990s, he was homeless in Savannah, Georgia. Thompson died in an assisted living facility in Seattle, Washington, in 2005.

The Album

The album begins with Thompson on soprano sax, playing on the Duke Ellington standard, “In a Sentimental Mood.” Despite the gold standard for this tune being Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s version, Thompson, alongside fellow unsung hero Hank Jones on piano, provides a breathtakingly gorgeous rendition of this classic ballad.

Thompson’s soprano playing is certainly worthy of acclaim. Some of his Lester Young-inspired tone carries through to his soprano playing, which contains none of the vibrato of Sydney Bechet disciples, but also none of the harshness of Coltrane’s soprano playing; instead, it is sweet, sincere, and completely one of a kind.

“Reminiscent” finds Thompson back on tenor in another strong performance. The head and groove are exactly what one would expect from a classic hard-bop album (such as Hank Mobley’s Soul Station). Once again, Thompson’s rich tone fills up the space, and his swing influence shines during his solo. He doesn’t play a lot of bebop-inspired lines, but his lines are reminiscent of Lester Young’s, only much longer in length.

“Mumba Neua” starts out very similar to the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Manteca,” but breaks out of the Afro-Cuban feel into a swing groove for the second half of the melody and the solo sections. Once again, Thompson’s strong soprano playing provides an outstanding performance.

Thompson also gives the listener a breathtaking ballad on tenor in “I Forgot to Remember.”  Thompson’s tone is like velvet, clearly influenced by Lester Young, but he breaks from the swing tradition by adding just a touch of gentle vibrato, giving his music an air of vulnerability, a touching aura of honesty. The album concludes with an original (“Prey Loot”) and a cover of Bronisław Kaper’s “Invitation.”

Thompson was a martyr for individuality, once claiming, “I fought all my life and said you’ll never stereotype me.” Despite producing beautiful music, this martyr for individuality is often ignored; his case for sainthood seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears. And so, Thompson continues to live on, but forever in the shadow of his contemporaries. Lucky Strikes provides a glimpse into the heart and soul of a fighter in his prime, a man of conviction and principle, and a musician of the highest caliber.


          January 31, 2015