Thomas / Jaspar Quintet Thomas / Jaspar Quintet (RCA Italiana 1962)

Theme for René.

Thomas Jaspar Quintet


René Thomas (guitar), Bobby Jaspar (tenor saxophone, flute), Amedeo Tommasi (piano), Maurizio Majorana (bass), Franco Mondini (drums A1-3, B1, B2 & B4), Francesco Lobianco (drums A4)


in October 1961 in Rome


as RCA Italiana 10324 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Theme For Freddie
Half Nelson
But Not For Me
Side B:
Hannie’s Dream
Bernie’s Taste
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
I Remember Sonny

It was a little town close to the border of Belgium and approximately fifteen kilometers from my birthplace in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen in The Netherlands. There was a gypsy trailer camp. Me and a buddy, we must’ve been about 18 years old, I was a blues band drummer in my spare time, he was a talented guitar player already much better at his craft than I would ever be at mine, for some reason visited a gypsy family. There was a guy that played fabulous gypsy jazz. I believe that he was a nephew of Fapy Lafertin.

Typically, almost everybody at the camp played one instrument or another, from the cradle-young to the Methusalem-old. The camp was situated a stones’ throw away from the little town. About twelve trailers, made from brick, plastic and corrugated plate, were hidden from view by grey skies, silent back ways and fields of waving corn.

Whenever I think about or am listening to René Thomas, my mind is cast back to this afternoon. Thomas was neither gypsy nor gypsy jazz guitarist, but he had plenty, unmistakable gypsy feeling. For the gypsies, for Thomas, music is like eating a grape. Like tying shoelaces.

The soul of René Thomas lighted up in Liège, Belgium in 1926. Thomas loved the music of his fellow countryman, Django Reinhardt (there you have it) and besides swing jazz played ‘manouche’ in his youth. Around 1947, Thomas and friends like saxophonist and flautist Bobby Jaspar, saxophonists Jacques Pelzer and Jack Sels, bassist Benoit Guersin and drummer Rudy Frankel were obsessed with bebop and grew into one of the first European bebop units. Thomas thrived in Paris in the early 1950’s, mate among young lions as pianist Francy Boland and saxophonist Barney Wilen.

As soon as Thomas landed in New York City in 1956, he made a big impression. Until 1961, Thomas played with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Zoot Sims, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Everybody was crazy about his playing. Rollins, who featured the guitarist on Sonny Rollins And The Big Brass, said: “I know a Belgian guitar player that I like better than any of the Americans I’ve heard.”

Fruitful years in Belgium and Europe, marked by associations with Kenny Clarke and organist Lou Bennett, preceded a period of depression in the late 1960’s. Thomas stepped back into the limelight in 1970, again with Clarke and another organist, the fabulous Eddy Louiss from the island of Martinique. Then Stan Getz asked for his services. Enter a stellar band, featuring Louiss and drummer Bernard Lubat. Their legacy is preserved on a fantastic live album, Dynasty.

Sadly, Thomas overdosed and passed away in 1974 in Santander, Spain.

René lives! By God, a fabulous guitar player. Put on any of his albums or features as sideman, whether it’s early work as René Thomas Et Son Quintette, mid-career Riverside recording Guitar Groove, stints with Chet Baker on Chet Is Back or Lou Bennett on Echoes Of My Church or Ingried Hoffmann on Hammond Tales, Dynasty and his last recording, Thomas/Pelzer Limited with Dutch pianist Rein de Graaff, and notice his unmistakable solid sound and ringing notes. Not to mention, when he’s at his very best and stretches out, and here you need to check out some of the stuff on the fantastic CD-set Remembering René Thomas on Fresh Sound, which provides his best biographical sketch so far, seemingly endless strings of ideas, an originality that bustles with vitality and oozes a desire to break away from harmonic resolutions.

He seems exceptionally involved with his playing, really into it, digging in, peeking from the dark through the curtains, sun rays slipping in… Dark thoughts, cigarette smoke curling to the brown-skinned ceiling. Clean, electrifying lines seem to come so easily to him, and you see him hunched over his Gibson ES 150, hiding behind Coke-bottle glasses, modestly pouring out the sweat drops of his soul. He came from Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker and most of all was a disciple of Jimmy Raney, who was God for so many guitarists, and mind you, even influenced John Coltrane, but what sets him apart from the maestro, in my mind, is abundance of feeling. Emotive sparks.

Plenty sparks fly on the before-mentioned Guitar Groove, his best-known album, quite logically because it was recorded on Riverside and in the USA, but Thomas Jaspar Quintet definitely holds it own. It demonstrates the agility of the finest European jazz musicians and a gift for original songwriting. The band, consisting of another European giant, tenor saxophonist and flautist Bobby Jaspar, who contrary to Thomas built a solid career in the USA, pianist Amedeo Tommasi, bassist Maurizio Majorana and drummer Franco Mondini, performs the usual suspects that Thomas had played for years, Sonny Rollins’s Oleo, Miles Davis’s Half Nelson, But Not For Me, but also original tunes as Thomas’s Theme For Freddie, I Remember Sonny and Tommasi’s Hannie’s Dream.

Highlights? Every tune’s got something going for it. The way Thomas kickstarts his story of Oleo, lingering on a note, and using plenty of repetition, is daring and spontaneous and the way he constructs his solo in the process is even more exciting. Theme For Freddie is sweet and lovely, what with Jaspar’s flute playing, brimming with life in the sultry summer afternoons of Brussels, a tune oozing with the age-old culture of the good life. Hannie’s Dream is another very “European” ballad. There is hard swing and the hard tenor of Jaspar to be heard, while Cole Porter’s Bernie’s Taste is taken at brisk, sprightly pace. For good measure, Thomas tackles another lovely standard, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and him doing it solo, quite brilliantly I might add, adds to the variety of the program.

Although Thomas was still not a household name in the early seventies, his energy seemed undimmed. At that time, he was regularly coupled with the masterful Dutch drummer Eric Ineke, who played with Thomas between 1972 and 1974 in Dutch places like Utrecht, Zwolle and Laren and German cities such as Bremen and Wilhemshaven. (cuts from Utrecht and Wilhelmshaven ended up on Guitar Genius Vol. 1, good stuff regardless of the reverb-less mix) In his book The Ultimate Sideman and a big article that he himself wrote for the great Dutch jazz magazine Jazzbulletin, Ineke says:

“René was a very adventurous player who was not afraid to take some dangerous risks on the spot. His playing had an urgency which gave the music a forward motion, combined with a great swinging time feel and a lot of old-fashioned emotion. (…) I miss his playing, he was really responding to the drums, sometimes we were almost getting over the top.”

“René and his daughter Florence stayed at my place in The Hague. We had the night off and sat playing scrabble like a couple of good little church workers. René was very good at the game. Early next morning, guitarist Eef Aalbers was standing at the front door. He was dying to chat and play with René. René took his guitar and showed just how difficult that cadenza was that John Coltrane played at the end of the ballad I Want To Talk About You. He played it note by note from the top of his head. (..) The last time that we played together was in November 1974 in Café 19/20 in Amersfoort. Eef Aalbers had initiated this gig. Wim Essed was on bass. It was a night to remember. Emotions were running high and René and Eef played as if their lives depended on it. I would love to have a recording of this because it was unique: Eef Aalbers, young and hip super talent, together with René Thomas, a legend during his lifetime.”

“René Thomas was a humble personality and a unique guitar player, whose every note came from the depths of his soul. Belgium has put all but a couple of jazz stars on the map and René is unquestionably one of those.”

He remembers René. Giant of jazz guitar.

Chet Baker Chet Is Back! (RCA 1962)

Chet was back with a vengeance.

Chet Baker - Chet Is Back!


Chet Baker (trumpet), Bobby Jaspar (tenor saxophone, flute), Amedeo Tommasi (piano), René Thomas (guitar), Benoit Guersin (bass), Daniel Humair (drums)


on January 5-15 at RCA Italiana Studios, Rome


as RCA 10307 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Well, You Needn’t
These Foolish Things
Star Eyes
Over The Rainbow
Pent-Up House
Ballata In Forma Di Blues
Blues In The Closet

The man and the myth. Misunderstandings about Chet Baker are ubiquitous. Everything about the hip junkie and hobo oozed jazz. Cool cat, good copy. No shortage of hangers-on that love to share so-called badass experiences with the iconic trumpeter. The portrayal of Baker in Bruce Weber’s documentary Let’s Get Lost features wonderful music but is shamelessly romantic. The saga continues with the Dutch movie My Foolish Heart, a silly movie that is marked by outstanding trumpet playing by Dutch trumpeter Ruud Breuls. Better read Dutch bassist and writer Jeroen de Valk’s Chet Baker; His Life And Music, a close account of Baker’s life and career that debunks many myths, among those the belief that Baker was murdered in his Amsterdam hotel room and the stories that his teeth were kicked out and admirers recorded Baker’s trumpet playing outside the walls of jail in Italy. Plenty of good jazz stories remain once the fairy tales have worn out.

The man and the music. What can I say? Baker’s discography is extensive and getting back into the work of Baker now and then is a joy, picking old favorites and discovering new ones in the process. Inevitably, there are let-downs. Baker, in particularly bad shape in the 1960’s, made his share of mediocre records. Hours of Baker on end leads to a craving for a little variety, in the case of Baker the hunger for spicy hot trumpet. But no mistaking, there’s nothing like Chet Baker’s cushion-soft lyricism, pure gold, pure sunlight, pure melody, pure angels playing doctor in the snow…

Remember what Buddy de Franco reportedly said: “We were all jealous of his talent.”

And Hank Jones: “Chet’s playing affected many people, from the standpoint of its simplicity. (…) His playing was simple – perhaps! But he had complex chords in mind. He may have been dancing all around, but he was conforming exactly to the chord progressions of the tune, or of the tune as he had arranged the chords. It only appeared to be simple. This is probably the best expression of an artist – when the artists can make something appear to be simple. And yet underneath, it was complicated harmonically.” (Gene Lees, Waiting For Dizzy)

If they say so. And him that’s got ears and them that love Chet Baker cherish the man and the music, unless you once started off with his Mariachi Brass LP’s on World Pacific and couldn’t be bothered. So much to explore but time and again I fail to snatch Hazy Hugs from the bins, his record with the Amstel Octet on Timeless in 1985. Baker didn’t bother to take off his bathrobe and change garb for the photo shoot. Night and/or day, who cares. Having lately focused on ‘straight-ahead’ Chet, I naturally gravitated to revisits of And Crew on Pacific Jazz from 1956, a solid record featuring Bobby Timmons and In New York featuring Johnny Griffin and Philly Joe Jones on Riverside from 1958. Riverside’s label boss Orrin Keepnews put Baker in different settings – climaxing with the vibrant and smooth vocal album It Could Happen To You – but also opted for a hard bop album.

In New York is excellent though I feel that something’s missing. Hot trumpet perhaps. Both And Crew and In New York – as well as the excellent bop-inflected Playboys with Art Pepper and Phil Urso – were made in between problematic encounters with the law and jail sentences on drugs charges. In 1959, Baker knew the net was closing in and fled to Europe. During his first sojourn to Europe in 1955, Baker found himself in Paris, jazz-minded capital of France, smoky Bohemian cellar of existentialism, turtleneck-sweatered paradise of croissant and cool. Small wonder they loved Chet Baker over there. The Barclay label fancied the trumpeter and gave him the opportunity to record with fellow traveler and pianist Dick Twardzik. Twardzik tragically died from a heroin overdose in Paris. Their finest cooperation was The Chet Baker Quartet (or Rondette), a record of challenging compositions by Adam Zieff. Lovely record!

Baker was warmly received in Europe but it wasn’t all fun and games. To quote The Grateful Dead: “Trouble ahead, trouble behind, Casey Jones you better watch your speed.” The establishment was keen to bust Baker and the trumpeter finally was arrested and indicted in Italy, serving his sentence in Lucca. Baker finally got out of prison at the tail end of 1961. He recorded Chet Is Back in January 1962, arguably the finest of his bop and hard bop albums, quite amazing considering his circumstances.

The Bakerman was back on track, his sound confident and bright, his solos replete with ideas and impromptu deviations that make clear the trumpeter felt like a fish in the water. Baker’s free-spirited handling of Monk’s melody of Well, You Needn’t, which also features a spontaneous stop-time chorus, and the clarion-call of the high note that ends his solo of Parker’s Barbados are intriguing cases in point. Ever the great ballad man, Baker’s renditions of These Foolish Things and Over The Rainbow abundantly affirm Hank Jones’s theory of Baker’s greatness.

It’s a consistent album, completed by Star Eyes, Rollins’s Pent-Up House, Pettiford’s Blues In The Closet and Tomassi’s Balatta In Forma Di Blues. Baker is matched by his European partners. The pan-European fest features the Belgian guitarist René Thomas, tenor saxophonist and flutist Bobby Jaspar and bassist Benoit Guersin, Italian pianist Amedeo Tommasi and Swiss drummer Daniel Humair. They’re hot, fresh, bubbling with joy and anticipation. That’s what I love about Baker’s cooperation with the crème de la crème of Europe: regardless of excellent American counterparts, this one’s got the edge.

René Was Back as well, the guitarist from Liège had spent a couple of years in the USA and received compliments by cooperators Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Back in Europe improved his Jimmy Raney-based style. He’s one of a kind, intense, hypnotizing, employing a lilting, gypsy-like tone. The wealth of ideas and blues variations that Thomas displays on Blues In The Closet gets near Planet Parker. The spicy, mature playing of Bobby Jaspar, acclaimed tenorist and flutist that had already been featured on recordings with J.J. Johnson, Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, is another great asset of Chet Is Back. A great day in Rome.

A couple of years later, Prestige released a series of records that were culled from one session: Smokin’, Groovin’, Comin’ On, Cool Burnin’ and Boppin’ featuring George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Omnipresent, lauded albums on jazz fora on the internet highway. But apart from the fact that copying the title word play of Miles Davis’s pioneering hard bop records on Prestige from 1955/56 was not a good idea, I’m not convinced of its so-called excellence. It’s a great band but Baker sounds uninspired and tired.

As straight-ahead jazz goes, Baker’s albums on Steeplechase, recorded live at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen with guitarist Doug Raney and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen are highlights of his career. Then there’s The Improviser from 1983, Chet Baker firing off bop crackers with a very good Scandinavian band. So much to explore…