More than 30 years have elapsed since King Fleming recorded his three albums for Chess Records subsidiary Argo. Now, finally given the freedom to record the kind of album he’s wanted to make since, the pianist is back with a new CD.

Of course, Fleming never really left. His trio has long been ubiquitous on the local scene, both in cocktail lounges and more serious jazz clubs. Fleming has made music his trade as well as his art, and his gigs sometimes cramp his creative impulses–but it’s been years since he had to take a day job.

The classically trained musician caught the jazz bug at 11, when he saw Earl “Fatha” Hines at the old Grand Terrace Ballroom, but it lay dormant for several years. “I was about 16 when I first started trying to play jazz, and I do mean trying,” Fleming recalls. The influence of Hines, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson can still be heard in his music today.

In the 50s he led a popular big band that gave composer-pianist and cofounder of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians Muhal Richard Abrams one of his first breaks as an arranger; Abrams cites Fleming as a major influence. (Fleming himself has arranged popular albums by Ramsey Lewis and Lorez Alexandria.) Another early member of the AACM, bassist Malachi Favors, performs in Fleming’s trio on his 1962 album Stand By. As on Fleming’s other Argo albums, he submerses his explorations in cocktail jazz. Rumbling under the veneer are the rhumba boogie of “Between the Toes” and the strange soul jazz and polyrhythmic African chant workout of “Stand By Part 2”; even the breezy elegance of his signature tune, “Time Out,” and the classical melodies he injects into a standard like “Then I’ll Be Waiting for You” send ripples across lounge music’s glassy surface.

But apart from Argo, record labels weren’t terribly interested in Fleming’s stylistic excursions. “I couldn’t record the things I wanted to record, so I had no interest in making other records,” he says. He also stopped arranging in order to focus more on playing and composing. The trio Fleming leads now–with bassist Clifford Griffin and drummer Bill Cochran–has worked together for thirteen years, delivering a mix of Fleming’s originals, jazz standards, and show tunes. A weekly gig at Philander’s, an Oak Park hotel lounge, favors popular material like “Theme From New York, New York” or “Every Day.”

“You look at your audience and you play what you think will please them,” says Fleming. “I play a lot of things I don’t particularly care for. There’s nothing I can’t play–Mozart, contemporary, rhythm and blues, which they call rock, and low-down blues. When they ask me if I can play low-down like B.B. King I tell them, “Well, I’ll play as low as I can get,”‘ he explains with a chuckle.

King! The King Fleming Songbook on the local Southport label contains new recordings of 16 Fleming originals. True to his MO, they range from moderately swinging ditties to airy contemporary jazz to groove-laden soul jazz. Fleming will lay aside the Broadway favorites in order to play his originals at a record release party this Friday at 9 PM at Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield. Call 472-1000 for more information.

–Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of King Fleming with Clifford Griffin and Bill Cochran, by Katrina Witkamp.