Forgotten series: Sir Charles Thompson – Takin’ Off (1947)

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The hard-punching Charles Thompson is best known, if he’s known at all now, as a deep-background member of the Coleman Hawkins/Howard McGhee band from this period. On “Takin’ Off,” however, Thompson’s frisky rhythm and round-house experimentation are a constant reminder of just how underappreciated he remains.

Thompson wasn’t simply a link between the swing era and bebop, having first played with Moten and Basie in the earlier style and then risen to a brief moment of influence with guys like Gordon and Parker in the modern vernacular. He was one of the few who dared bridge the yawning chasm between the two, and did so with the same style and grace as his old friend Hawkins.

That spectrum of brilliance is best experienced on this record, which takes right off with a title cut featuring Dexter Gordon that forcefully recalls the great Lester Young. Thompson — a mainstay on New York’s legendary 52nd Street scene in the ’40s and ’50s and composer of the standard “Robbins’ Nest” — was once Young’s pianist.

Gordon, too, was in a period of transition. Here, he deftly expands on Thompson’s still-unique sound — sort of a big-bop hybrid — having only recently left Lionel Hampton’s straight-ahead jazz band for a stint with Billy Eckstine’s edgy be-bop outfit. Charlie Parker then insinuates himself early on during “Takin’ Off,” which was later reissued on Delmark. His turn, in keeping with the myth, is painfully short.

Also included for good measure are seven unreleased tracks that Thompson recorded for Chicago’s Apollo Records, and they give him room to stretch out and make himself at home. But while the playing partners changed — Bob Dorsey, Leo Parker and Pete Brown came on as subsequent members in combos with the pianist — Thompson remains perhaps doomed to failure because he just wouldn’t be categorized.

In the end, though, what I love is that Charles Thompson goes down swinging. He can’t help but lunge at both bop and big band. It still knocks me out.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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