Idrees Sulieman, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell & Tommy Flanagan - The Cats
Mar 10, 2020
The History of the Albums - n° 92

Although The Cats was only released in 1959, it was recorded 2 years earlier at a time when hard bop was beginning to emerge. Despite the delay, it is therefore one of the pioneer albums of this Jazz sub style. The Cats also has the particularity that there is no real "leader", since it is a collaboration of 4 co-leaders: Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Idrees Sulieman and John Coltrane. As I already talked about John Coltrane in previous reviews that have been devoted to him, I will talk more in depth about the other 3 since they don't have other albums to review in the future. How did these 4 artists end up collaborating?

I'll start with Tommy Flanagan, since he's the one who wrote and composed 4 of the 5 compositions of The Cats. He's arguably the most leading man in this work. Originally from Michigan and born in 1930, Flanagan was a musician/composer, a great jazz pianist, who was influenced by be bop at a very young age, and then switched to Hard Bop like many others, but who managed to incorporate them to offer an atypical playing with much more subtlety that marked the world of Jazz. He began his career in the early 50s in Detroit, but it was especially when he left for New York in 1955 that it really took it to the next level. He had met guitarist Kenny Burrell, who was also like him from Detroit (born in 1931), with whom he would have worked together by then, but history had it that they left together to live and work mainly in New York. In the beginning, it was Burrell, who was the "leader" and who worked on his own projects, who hired Flanagan. Kenny Burrell also had a swinging, be bop-inspired style of playing, but he also had the particularity of being very inspired and passionate about blues music. They worked together on a handful of albums, including Introducing Kenny Burrell. If Kenny Burrell was beginning to make a nice discography, Flanagan was beginning to gain notoriety with his appearances, especially when he worked for Miles Davis (on Collector's Items) and Sonny Rollins (on the legendary classic Saxophone Colossus).

Meanwhile, at the same time John Coltrane was not yet a "star" and a jazz legend in 1957, almost a year before Blue Train. However, he was already working with Miles Davis on ultra important works and was already starting to take the lead. In March 1957, Coltrane and his producers Bob Weinstock and Van Gelder from Prestige decided on a kind of concept album that was more like an exercise of the label that brought together what they called the Prestige All Stars. Among their renditions were Kenny Burrell and the famous Idrees Sulieman. Born in 1923, Idrees Sulieman is a trumpet player from Florida, who already collaborated for the sextet Thelonious Monk in the late 40's, notably by participating in the album Genius Of Modern Music. He had already proven without any doubt that he and his talent as a sideman could be counted on. So it was in March 1957 that Coltrane, Burrell and Sulieman collaborated for the first time on Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors.

Shortly before Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors, Tommy Flanagan met John Coltrane who was then on a business trip to Detroit, which allowed him to propose him to collaborate on the future project The Cats. Coltrane was already at an extraordinary level, which obviously pleased Flanagan. In addition he had the support of both Prestige, Coltrane's label, and also Burrell who knew very well who also played with Coltrane. So Flanagan imagined the work of The Cats with these musicians by composing the 4 original compositions and adapting How Long Has This Been Going On? (Written by George and Ira Gershwin). On April 18, 1957, the four returned to the studio accompanied by Doug Watkins on bass and Louis Hayes on drums for a single session. Apart from Coltrane of course, I think without hesitation that The Cats is clearly the best project to date of Flanagan, Burrell and Sulieman as a leader or co-leader, because everything was tailor-made, which created a perfect alchemy, without forgetting the prodigious individuality they showed

Related albums I've reviewed:
1957 : Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
1958 : John Coltrane – Blue Train
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