Lew Tabackin has been a standard bearer for the flute in jazz since the 1960s, but the contribution he has made to its development has always been a highly original one. Much of the unique position he holds in jazz derives from the division of his musical attention between the flute and the tenor saxophone, which has resulted in his becoming, as he puts it, a “musical schizophrenic,” the title that I gave to the chapter about him in my book The Flute in Jazz: Window on World Music. In addition to his deep commitment to the process of woodwind doubling, however, he has also taken an entirely unique approach to each of his instruments. As far as the flute is concerned, he told me “I don’t really consider myself a jazz flute player. I just have this little world, an idealistic world. I listen to flute players, usually classical flute players, and I hear things sound wise, tonally, that excite me, and I try to find a way to create some kind of musical idea or attitude based on sound.”
This only begins to explain his approach to the flute. His early musical studies were, in fact, on the flute, at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music with role models such as William Kincaid, Julius Baker, and Jean-Pierre Rampal. But another quite different influence has been equally profound. His 1968 marriage to Japanese pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi resulted in a long-term exposure to Japanese culture. Here he encountered an approach to music in general and the flute in particular that could not be more different from the Western classical tradition. Yet it is an influence that Tabackin has absorbed in a very organic way, well beyond superficial stylistic borrowings. Throughout this development, Tabackin also managed to forge a style on the tenor saxophone that draws on earlier styles such as those of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster that have been, to say the least, quite unfashionable among younger players. “He has absorbed most notably early Sonny Rollins,” states saxophonist Dave Liebman, “but it is his wonderful flute playing that puts Lew in a class of his own.” I would go further. If anyone tells you that the flute is not a jazz instrument, play them any of Lew Tabackin’s recordings. He can blow away most saxophonists!
All of these influences are on very clear display in Tabackin’s most recent recording Soundscapes. Out of eight tracks only three feature Tabackin’s flute work; the rest are built around his robust, gritty tenor saxophone. Yet by no means does this mean that flutists interested in jazz should pass over this recording. I would recommend that they seek and out and listen to as many of Tabackin’s flute recordings as possible but these should be heard in the overall context of his work. In fact, the saxophone selections here embody and convey a major chunk of jazz history in a little over 30 minutes. Tabackin’s accomplishments suggest that potential jazz flutists should embrace such experiences.
Another significant aspect of Tabackin’s presentation is the skeletal nature of his group. Performing in a trio with just bass and drums places him firmly in a tradition among tenor players such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman and others, even if the tradition began by accident (apparently Coltran’s pianist failed to show up for the session!) But few flutists have dared to present jazz improvisation without harmonic accompaniment from piano or guitar. Undeterred, however, Tabackin launches into the three flute tracks with a huge sound, unending creativity and unerring swing.
His original, Garden at Lifetime manages to combine a spright-ahead groove with elements of Japanese Gagaku theater. Yesterdays was recorded in Tabackin’s basement home studio, rather than the drum shop in midtown Manhattan where the rest of the tracks were recorded, in an effort to create a relaxed environment. Jerome Kern’s standard has been a mainstay of Tabackin’s repertoire for many years. His improvisation seamlessly combines bebop-derived phrases and elements from Berio, Stockhausen and Robert Dick. As if that was not enough, Sunset and the Mockingbird combines Ellingtonia with as many bird sounds as he can muster. Long-serving bassist Boris Kozlov contributes a masterful solo. He and drummer Mark Taylor provide rock-solid support throughout.
There are other Lew Tabackin recordings that feature more of his flute work than this one, but many items from his catalog have become out-of-print or otherwise hard to find. Soundscapes is his first recording in five years. I would advise anyone interested in the flute in jazz to grab it while they can.
Personnel: Lew Tabackin: tenor saxophone, flute; Boris Kozlov: bass; Mark Taylor: drums.
Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Self Produced
Track Listing: Afternoon In Paris; Garden At Life Time; Bb, Where It’s At; Minoru; Yesterdays; Day Drream; Sunset And The Mockingbird; Three Little Words.
Review by Peter Westbrook. Peter is editor-in-chief at Flute Journal.
For examples of Tabackin’s flute work see YouTube:
Comments are closed.