Tommy Flanagan breezed into town Thursday to open at the Loa, where he closes Sunday. It is doubtful that any local pianist could not learn a great deal about the keyboard art from a visit to this Santa Monica bistro.
Flanagan is an all-purpose, all-encompassing virtuoso. Having established his credentials in some of the great bop bands of the 1940s and '50s, he went on to play on the original John Coltrane version of "Giant Steps." It would be simple to add that he has never looked back, but the fact is that he is constantly moving backward, forward and, in his often humorous manner, sideways.
His technique is astonishing, his articulation beautiful, yet he never indulges in excesses of any kind. Opening with an Ellington/Strayhorn medley, he would slyly insert a quotation from one of Duke's tunes while ostensibly playing another. Later he treated a group of Thelonious Monk compositions in the same obliquely charming manner.
Flanagan is a mass of contradictions: gently emphatic, forcefully subtle. Throughout the set it was clear that he and his colleagues, Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith, had not rehearsed. Aside from one number on which Brown read music, everything was spur-of-the-moment inspiration.