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Friday, March 6, 2015

Luther Thomas - In Denmark (ILK, 2014) *****

By Stefan Wood

Luther Thomas was a member of the Black Artists Group in St. Louis in the 60s and 70s, an excellent musician who was recognized by his peers, but as not well known by the general jazz audience.  Among the free jazz and improv community, his works from the early 70s, especially "Funky Donkey," (a free jazz funk classic reissued on Atavistic) is well regarded, as are the two albums by the Human Arts Ensemble issued on Arista.  He recorded on Cadence in the 90s and 00s, as sideman and leader, and maintained through to the end of his life a wonderfully expressive creativity, mostly on alto sax, that maintained the spirit and energy of the 60's new wave of jazz sound and 70's free jazz mode.  The recent release of "Luther Thomas in Denmark," a 2 cd set that compiles many live recordings from Denmark, where he made his home from the late 90's onward.  All previously unissued, this is an excellent look at an artist, who to the end, was in top form.

Disc one is a collection of standards.  But not your typical collection of songbook standards.  While he does classics like Body and Soul, Lonely Woman and Round Midnight, they don't feel like slavish faithful interpretations.  There's an energy, and liveliness that Thomas infuses in each track that combines the standards with free improv sensibilities.  With Kresten Osgood (drums), and Nils Bo Davidsen (bass), with appearances by Mikkel Mark (piano), Erling Kroner and Ole Lindgren (trombones), Thomas rips through a wide ranging collection of music.  Following a gorgeous version of Round Midnight is Selim Funk, a free funk jazz track referencing Miles Davis' 70's music.  Groovin' High, My Little Suede Shoes, Dotty, Crazeology, all are done well and one comes away with a loving survey of post WWII jazz, as told by saxophone.

Disc two is all solo.  Bursting at the seams at about 79 minutes, the disc contains five long tracks that showcase Thomas' command of his instrument.  He is at lyrical, searing, explosive, and whimsical, his tone strong and assured.  He squeals, skronks, quotes phrases from classic jazz tunes, elucidates with a clear tonal sound, and alternately riotously blows like Gene Ammons or Albert Ayler.  Recorded in 2008, this picture of a jazz artist nearing the end of his life is a powerful document; one final artistic statement of vitality that references many sources but in the end is assuredly Luther Thomas.  "Luther Thomas in Denmark" can only get my highest recommendation, a must have for the discerning free jazz and improv listener.