Every day is a good day to listen to and celebrate Mickey Tucker’s music, but it’s his 79th birthday today, so it’s a particularly good day for it.
In early 1996 I was formally introduced to Mickey Tucker’s music. I don’t always remember precise timings of such things (and had heard several of the recordings below without yet putting 2+2 together), but this was such a eureka moment, as I was sitting in my jazz improvisation tutorial with Ted Dunbar and he played me his composition “A Nice Clean Machine for Pedro” from Mickey’s Blues in Five Dimensions album. Everything about the song and performance moved me so much, and between that and between that and the reverential way Ted spoke about Mickey, I went down the Mickey Tucker rabbit hole from there, starting with obsessively listening to that album and getting my hands on everything I could from there forward. The timing was perfect in that I had developed a particular soft spot (as a fan and as a player) for that hard-to-describe middle ground where the music is harmonically and rhythmically advanced and colorful, yet soulful and able to directly communicate. As a composer and pianist, Mickey’s music embodies this balance perfectly, melding post-Coltrane modern jazz with the blues in an organic and distinctive way. My affection only deepened once I moved back to CT in the late ’90s and spent some time talking about Mickey with another close friend of his, bassist and CT jazz icon Paul “PB” Brown.
There’s a lot of great stuff in his discography, so I had to omit records by Willis “Gator” Jackson, “Philly” Joe Jones, the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, Charles McPherson, Billy Harper, Richie Cole, and others. Also, because I really want people to dig into his beautiful music, I stuck to things that are currently in print and available. Were I NOT concerned with that, I’d be steering you all to check out his 1970s albums for the Muse, Xandau, and Denon labels, including Triplicity, Sojourn, Sweet Lotus Lips, Mister Mysterious, and The Crawl, every one of them gorgeous. Also, because of availability and because his recordings (as a leader and sideman) from around the late ‘80s were my point of entry, you’ll notice that this list skews pretty heavily towards that time period – again, I encourage you to check out whatever you can get your hands/ears on.
Without further ado, and presented in chronological order:
1 ) “Old Rugged Cross” from Blacknuss by Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1971)
This was Mickey’s first appearance on a significant jazz record, and it’s a doozy. Though he’s not a soloist here, we hear him testifying on organ (an instrument he explored to great effect through the years) alongside Richard Tee on piano.
2 ) “Oleo” from Live at Casa Caribe Club (reissued under various other names) by George Benson (1973)
Burnin’! The recording quality from this live session (also featuring Al Harewood and George Duvivier) leaves something to be desired, but that’s not true of the playing. I actually heard this album in cassette form (with no personnel listing) years before I had ever heard of Mickey, and his ambidextrous soloing blew my mind then and still does.
3 ) “Giant Steps” from Live At The HNITA Jazz Club (sometimes found as Chiquito Loco) by Frank Foster (1978)
Being able to navigate “Giant Steps” fluently is a rite of passage for all modern jazz musicians, but being able to play expressively on it is another thing entirely. Mickey had already proven that capacity (on organ no less) on his Triplicity album by the time of this wonderful live session by the underratedly burning Frank Foster, and he puts another notch in his belt here alongside Earl May and Billy Hart. Note that the rest of the album features some great Ted Dunbar as well – this isn’t the first recording of Mickey and Ted together (that would be Willis “Gator” Jackson’s West Africa) but it’s one of the early ones in this important partnership.
4 ) “The Man” from Fasthands by Johnny Lytle (1980)
This is a great example of how much hipness Mickey could slip into a track that is first and foremost hard-swinging and bluesy. He sensitively accompanies the great vibraphonist Lytle, and then plays a soulful solo of his own atop the groove provided by Mervin Bronson, Idris Muhammad, and Lawrence Killian.
5 ) “I Should Have Known” from The Place to Be by Junior Cook (1988)
Save for “Over the Rainbow,” this elegant, slow waltz (one of two tracks here composed by Mickey) is the moment of calm in an album otherwise full of some of the most swinging music you could hope to hear. The composition and playing are soulful and elegant and it’s always great to hear Mickey and the wonderful saxophonist Junior Cook together.
6 ) “Yo What’s Up” from What’s Up by Bill Hardman (1989)
Though this is Bill’s record, there’s some strong Mickey writing (in addition to his playing) here, including this track, scored lushly for a sextet featuring Junior Cook (yet again) and Robin Eubanks, along with Leroy Williams on drums and beloved PB on bass.
7 ) “Jam ‘N’ Boogie” from Blues In Five Dimensions (1989)
Mickey’s interpretation of this Benny Golson tune, which Mickey first recorded with Benny and Art Farmer, is an object lesson in how to harken back to old-school blues and be hip and modern all at once. This was probably my first time hearing boogie-woogie style piano deployed in a more harmonically modern context, and it totally blew my mind, which is why I’m including this track instead of “Pedro” (though honestly I love this album so much I could’ve just thrown a dart at it and picked whichever tune I hit).
8 ) “The Crawl” from The Crawl by Louis Hayes (1989)
Possibly Mickey’s best-known original tune, this is yet another example (albeit at a slower, sly tempo) of the bluesy-yet-modern balance mentioned in the previous tune (and, indeed, a trend throughout Mickey’s body of work). Recorded live at Birdland, this version features a nasty groove by Louis, Mickey, and Clint Houston and some gnarly playing from the horn section of Charles Tolliver, Gary Bartz, and John Stubblefield.
9 ) “Neeta” from Gentle Time Alone by Ted Dunbar (1991)
This is another one I heard before Mickey was fully on my radar (or, for that matter before I’d even met Ted). The quartet on the album (with Ray Drummond and David Jones, who also appears on Blues in Five Dimensions) is augmented on this moody ballad by Ted by Dotti Anita Taylor, for whom he wrote the song. I’m a sucker for both Ted’s and Mickey’s ballad playing, so this one stood out to me instantly.
10 ) “Tres Cicli” (Movements 1-3) from Gettin’ There (1994)
I’m kind of cheating here in that this is technically three tracks, but it would be totally arbitrary to pick just one of the three movements of this modern classical piano piece by the Armenian composer Boghos Gelalian, a lovely interpretation (on a lovely solo piano album, Mickey’s last as a bandleader) that further demonstrates his touch at the instrument and his stylistic versatility.