If true character is expressed through the unruffled acceptance of the lack of fame, René Thomas was number one with a bullet. Critically acclaimed in his heyday, the guitarist from Liège, Belgium features rarely in the jazz literature, and his death by overdose wasn’t announced on the Wallonian 9 o’clock news in 1974. There have been plenty of efforts to raise his profile. The definite high point of this appraisal is the brand new double CD on Fresh Sound, Remembering René Thomas, a revealing collection of (mostly) previously unreleased studio and live recordings from the years 1955-62.
The career of the introvert but self-assured Belgian with the distinctive pothole glasses reads like the typical classic jazz odyssey: the antithesis of 9 to 5. After years in the frontline of the European bop scene, the gifted Thomas, whose style was a mixture of Jimmy Raney and Django Reinhardt, ended up in New York City (and Canada) in 1956. He notably cooperated with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, who abundantly praised the guitarist and reportedly said: “You are playing with me now, you’ll be famous.” Rollins probably overlooked the fact that Europeans rarely if ever gained fame in the American jazz realm. After five prolific years, Thomas returned to Europe, where his well-disposed audience enjoyed notorious associations with Kenny Clarke and Stan Getz.
Thomas’s performance at the 1962 jazz festival of Juan-Les-Pins in Antibes is the radiant centre of attention of Remembering René Thomas, which not only boasts extraordinary guitar playing but extensive and detailed liner notes as well by Jordi Pujol, obviously a man with a mission. All exceptional traits of Thomas are illuminated by a long version of Charlie Parker’s Au Privave. His mid-career harmonic ideas still mostly stem from Jimmy Raney, but Thomas is a less discreet and more emotional player, absorbed in a merry-go-round of inexhaustible combinations of riffs and blues motives and sure-shot clusters of double time. Risky intervallic leaps are integral to his style and a high sense of urgency is palpable from note to note. Regardless of tempo, he lets his long notes ring with a wistful gypsy feel. At the end of his story of the Parker blues, I was all smiles, having traversed from astonishment, euphoria to serenity, and back.
The endearing ballad treatment of Easy Living and spicy interpretations of Tadd Dameron’s Our Delight and Thelonious Monk’s Well, You Needn’t completed the Juan-Les-Pins performance, a last-minute affair that turned out to be a charged, belated “homecoming” concert. Two days later Thomas sat in with the thoroughly impressed organ star Jimmy Smith. The resulting greasy Blues is included in this set as well.
Jimmy Raney’s Motion, Miles Davis’s Milestones (the challenging bop tune, not the famous modal composition) and It Could Happen To You double as late 50s and early 60s versions and offer a sample of the remarkable development of Thomas, who polishes his sentences like a veritable Ernest Hemingway. The ultra-fast Oleo and Thomas’s catchy stop-time blues I Remember Sonny, both performed for RTBF radio in Brussels, seal the Sonny Rollins connection. All performances excluding Jimmy Smith feature the erstwhile cream of the European crop: tenor saxophonist and flautist Bobby Jaspar, tenor saxophonist Jacques Pelzer (also a practising pharmacist and supplier of “cough syrup” to a disproportionately large percentage of the Benelux jazz community) and drummers Daniel Humair and Franco Manzecchi, whose performances are on par with their contemporaries in the United States.
Furthermore, I genuinely feel that René Thomas was not only equal to “les Americains”, but plainly one of the all-time greats of jazz guitar. On the strength of the sterling release of Remembering René Thomas, this statement seems rather difficult to refute.
CD1: (1) Motion; There’ll Never Be Another You; Lover Man; Stella By Starlight; Whose Blues; (2) Au Privave; Blue Train; Milestones; Motion; (3) All Mornin’ Long; (4) It Could Happen To You; Never Morning (72.41)
CD2: (5) Milestones; It Could Happen To You; (6) Oleo; Ballata In Forma Di Blues; It Could Happen To You; I Remember Sonny; (7) Au Privave; Easy Living; Our Delight; Moonlight In Vermont; Well You Needn’t; (8) Blues; (9) Stardust (75.13)
Thomas (g) with:
(1) Jacques Pelzer (as); Jean Fanis (p); Paul Dubois (b); Rudy Frankel (d). Brussels, 18 May 1955.
(2) Bob Roach (b); George Braxton (d). Café Lautrec, Montreal, February 1960.
(3) Benoît Quersin (b); José Bourguignon (d). Comblain-la-Tour, 30 July 1961.
(4) Bobby Jaspar (f); Jacques Hess (b); Franco Manzecchi (d). Paris, 6 November 1961.
(5) Jaspar (ts, f); Jack Diéval (p); Jacques Hess (b); Franco Manzecchi (d). Paris, 1961.
(6) Jaspar (ts, f); Amedeo Tommasi (p); Quersin (b); Daniel Humair (d). Brussels, 16 January 1962.
(7) Joël Vandroogenbroeck (p); Quersin (b); Humair (d). Juan-les-Pins, 20 July 1962.
(8) Jimmy Smith (org); Donald Bailey (d). Juan-les-Pins, 22 July 1962.
(9) Diéval (p); Hess (b); Humair (d). Paris, 1962.
Fresh Sound FSR-CD 993