Art Farmer

Jazz trumpeter whose melodic subtlety was equally at home in big bands and intimate groups

Art Farmer, the dapper and dolorous-looking trumpeter who has died at the age of 71, came to London this spring, and admirers approached his shows with much the same affectionate expectations of an utterly personal jazz lyricism his visits usually occasioned. There was also a bonus - Farmer was to be playing with the formidable piano accompaniment of Stan Tracey, a partnership not heard in London for decades.

In the end it was Tracey who carried the season at the Pizza Express, because Farmer was clearly ailing. His old light touch and glancing emphases appeared only in the briefest of bursts - but when they did, the result was poignantly poetic, and in some ways more affecting than many more virtuosic performances. If he was insecure on faster tunes he would have cantered through only a short time before, like Surrey with the Fringe on Top, he was fitfully exquisite on Ellingtonian ballads. His slow, smoky account of Blue Monk - played with a tight mute, only a double-bass for company and a sound like a protracted sigh - was spine-tingling. With hindsight, his reduction of the composition to an essence, and the phlegmatic resignation of its delivery, might have been prophetic.

Art Farmer stood in the shadow of the great jazz trumpeters of his generation - Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Miles Davis - but though his approach was more oblique and restrained, his emotional range ostensibly more cramped, and the populist instincts possessed by Morgan and Davis largely absent, Farmer was in his way a true original. His phrasing was always distinctive, letting the beat run ahead of him rather in the manner of Billie Holiday's vocals.

Sometimes he spaced notes at seven-league intervals in a manner that the Canadian expatriate Kenny Wheeler was later to make a central feature of his style in his UK career. Though Farmer avoided the bright, penetrating sound of orthodox trumpet playing and was influenced by the more reserved articulation of Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham, his solos did not lessen in impact for that, and their shapes were often fascinating in their unpredictable deliberation, as if he were moulding clay.

Like Miles Davis, from the 60s on Farmer often opted for the softer flugelhorn over the trumpet, but eventually got the best of both worlds by adopting a crossover of the two that he dubbed the "flumpet". This horn, capable of both warmth and sharp attack, enabled Farmer to operate in a variety of contexts - from big bands, where clarity and punch were essential, to intimate small groups in which he could drop his confiding stories to a whisper.

Farmer was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but raised in Phoenix, Arizona. He studied piano and violin, then tuba, and moved to Los Angeles in 1945 with his twin brother Addison, a double-bassist. By the late 40s, Farmer was working in a variety of West Coast bands bridging swing to the new bebop, and led by Benny Carter and Lionel Hampton among others. He also worked in the rhythm 'n' blues band of drummer Johnny Otis, moved to New York in 1953, recorded with Clifford Brown and was a leader with various sidemen from the Lionel Hampton band, including saxophonist Gigi Gryce.

In that year, Farmer was also a member of the New Directions band led by vibraphonist Teddy Charles and including Charles Mingus. Teddy Charles was a composer of refinement and a subdued audacity, intrigued by extending jazz forms. The experience offered Farmer opportunities to consider vehicles for improvisation he had not encountered before. He began to evolve a solo style of melodic subtlety and a kind of vaporous lyricism, conceiving improvisations in more extended ways.

But Farmer could not be bracketed among the Cool School players of the 1950s, even if he did work with Gerry Mulligan during the later years of that decade. The trumpeter also spent two years with pianist Horace Silver, one of the godfathers of funky jazz. It was membership of a distinctive, hard-driving yet melodically subtle hard-bop sextet (from 1959 to 1962) called the Jazztet that secured Farmer's reputation. That fine saxo phonist/composer Benny Golson made a perfect foil for him, and the presence of a young McCoy Tyner in the band added considerable fire and energy.

When the group disbanded, Farmer was considered a sufficiently intriguing soloist to be regularly offered touring work, and he began to visit Europe regularly from 1965 onward. Farmer took to Europe, and it was mutual - he became a member of the Austrian Radio Orchestra in 1968, worked with the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band (it also included Johnny Griffin and Ronnie Scott), and mostly remained out of his homeland until 1980, when he began working with Golson again.

Through most of the next two decades, Art Farmer became a regular draw at the world's jazz clubs - usually working with local bands, but casting his soft light, his patience, timing and sense of space on a wide range of materials.

As the jazz world changed, Farmer rarely wavered from an instantly identifiable method that absorbed attention without fireworks. Nor did he shed the air of lugubrious preoccupation that would occasionally be broken by a flickering smile of pleasure or surprise. The wistful dance of Art Farmer's music was always absorbing, even when the dance had noticeably slowed.

This year's Pizza season occasioned thoughts of the immense potential of every jazz performance by players of his class, even in decline: moods of disengagement and intensity, bursts of fluency mingled with hesitant rummaging through the mental phrasebook, episodes of troubled brooding suddenly illuminated by vivid recollections of youth.

It's a painful loss to music that Art Farmer's particular take on all that will not be heard in a jazz club again.

• Arthur Stewart "Art" Farmer, jazz musician, born August 21 1928; died October 4 1999


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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