Variety and its virtues
Variety and its virtues
How to succeed
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
The reception for the revived Jazztet was so warm last year that it was almost like coming back home this second time. The enthusiasm of the audiences has been very encouraging for us—it gives us some kind of incentive to go on in that same direction. The group is not an ongoing situation—I do other things back in Los Angeles.
We’ll do it a couple of times a year, and it’s usually tours outside of the United States.
The only club in the States we’ve worked is Fat Tuesday’s in New York, where we just closed. I must tell you: this club has been in business for five years, I think, and we broke all attendance records during our engagement. I happened to see Freddie Hubbard and I mentioned it to him; he said: “What? I had that record!” I said: “Well, you don’t have it any more!” We started to laugh together. Oh, yeah—it was standing room only there, all week long.
So there’s some who remember us, and like what we did and are doing now, or some who are interested and curious about what we’re doing now, without knowing what happened in the past. As we play these places, I look out to see what the average age is of the audience, thinking these kinds of things—and I see some young ones there, as well as some old ones. All that could happen is that we get a much broader audience this time out.
The rhythm section can vary, but we try to keep that frontline intact at all times—Curtis Fuller on trombone, Art Farmer on flugelhorn, myself on tenor. When we were going before, some twentytwo years ago, we had some changes in personnel—the front–line even changed at that time. But if we were going to come back and have a revisit to the Jazztet, I just felt that it should have been what we had originally. Of course, the bass player we had originally was Art’s brother, Addison Farmer, and he’s dead; Lex Humphries, who was the drummer, is doing something else, and McCoy Tyner, as everybody knows; has his own thing. But we did manage to get one of the drummers that we had during the time we were an ongoing group—and that was Albert “Tootie” Heath. In fact, as I recollect, he might have been the last drummer we had before we disbanded. The frontline, though, is the most important thing—that’s where our sound comes from: the three of us—and we do have that now, exactly as we started out all those years back.
I’m not using any of the old arrangements—I wouldn’t dare, because things change. Everything changes, and during that twentyyear interim period, like anybody else, my mind has changed too—so that I’m not writing the same way. Let’s say it’s the same neighbourhood, but a different house, more or less. We didn’t go oblique to what we were doing, but we’re addressing ourselves in a little different way musically. I used to use the heavy threepart harmony, but now I find I’m just doing twopart harmony.
I have trumpet and tenor doubling, and the harmony will spring out of the trombone—with a turnaround like that, some kind of way. It’s better, unless you want something special. That heavy threepart harmony gets a little tiring on the ear after a while, I think. If you use it judiciously, it means much more. And it gives a feeling of more freedom too, without that tight harmony all the time—like musical Andrews Sisters! We certainly don’t want to stand there with three horns out front and play unison all night either—that doesn’t mean anything. So, just enough to get some sort of identifiable sound.
I think we’ve all developed as players. Curtis has matured like rare wine, and so has Art—he keeps on going, straight ahead. And it’s encouraging, when we stand next to each other and can hear the growth—not only velocity and ability on the instrument. but ability in the mind to conceive, you know. It’s like a razor being honed to a fine edge.
As for Art’s specialising on the flugelhorn—I know that’s right for him. If you can remember back to the days when he played trumpet, he had a unique sound even then—on the trumpet, which tends to be not as dark, round and mellow as the flugelhorn. But it seemed, from his inward parts, like he was trying to go in that direction—he was crying out for it. Then the flugelhorn came along, or rather, he came along and they bumped into each other, and this beautiful marriage occurred.
As he’s told you, when he was playing the trumpet he was always contorting his mouth—I guess unconsciously trying to make a cavity inside, to make it sound dark. He was reaching intuitively for that. Now, when he picked the flugelhorn, certainly he hadn’t developed it to the extent that he has today—but when he started to play it, it was different from most trumpet players. However, many years ago; trumpet players started to carry the flugelhorn along; it was just a doubleyou’d pick it up for a ball or something. In Art’s case, however, it became something special; he was bringing this big, warm sound that he had already on the trumpet to the flugelhorn, and it was very arresting to the ear. I always thought he had the best flugelhorn sound I’ve ever heard.
Yes, I’ve written for a wide variety of singers—each of them, and what they are trying to achieve, is a separate entity. Peggy Lee, say, doesn’t sound like Connie Francis, who doesn’t sound like Diana Ross—musically speaking, you would look at them as individual personalities. To come up creatively for any one of them, no more is required, but if you’re thinking of something that brings you great inner delight to even be involved with it—no, they don’t all have that. I find that with the jazz type singers, because that’s where my heart is, and I have an empathy with that kind of thing. As a professional person, working in the business, I can appreciate using creative talents for all of them—in a broad way. I always want to give my best—my name is involved with it, let’s face it. I don’t want to turn out things as a hack; when I’ve finished the assignment, what does it amount to? What does it say? To have created something of value, relative to the form that you’re working with—that’s something else. So if it’s rock that I’m working with, I’m going to put all that I’ve got into it, to accomplish the best for the situation; that goes for pop or jazz.
I have to be very adaptable. Connie Francis, for example, is the antithesis of the Peggy Leetype performer—very straight, very commercial. I did a record session for her once—I’d never be able to remember the name of the song—and I decided: “Well, maybe I can change her—just a little bit. I’ll use this chord here, that’s a little different from what she does”. And everything was going fine until the band played that chord. She didn’t even wait for the end of the tune—she said: “Hold it! Stop! What was that?” I bluffed it out: “Oh—I must have had a wrong note in there. Let me see. . . .” She’d heard something that was completely foreign to her! On the other hand—what a delight to work with Peggy Lee. I mean, she’s a real professional. I had an experience with her that I’ve never had with any other artist as the arranger/ conductor of the music for a complete recording session (“ Make It With You” on Capitol). Incidentally, at a time when people were all overdubbing the strings, the horns and everything, she insisted on doing the whole date live. The strings, the whole orchestra was there, and she was singing in the room. We did half of it in L. A. and half in New York. She wasn’t there for the mix, and when she heard it, it had been mixed so that the singing was very loud and you could hardly hear the arrangements—the vocal was just wiping out the brass and everything. She said: “The voice is too loud”. They went back in and remixed it, and she went with ‘em this time—that’s the way it should be. Of course, that was more money she’d have to pay off, for the remixing of the session, before she’d go into profit. I never got over that. I talked to her about it later; I said: “That was really something, Peggy, that you would do that”. Yes, Peggy is very musicianly; she writes good lyrics too. Another singer who is very easy to work with, very pleasing, is Nancy Wilson. Of course, she’s also jazz orientated. In fact, Art and I played with her last Summer at the Playboy Festival in Los Angeles.
I hear the present day pop singers occasionally—but I feel that the days of the great ones are in the past. And we didn’t call it pop during that time; there were just band vocalists, singers or whatever. Like Peggy when she first started, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Perry Como. If any of that calibre are coming now, they’re coming with far less frequency, because what’s happening is they’re taking another route—they’re going to the rock thing. As for what jazz singers we do have nowadays—other than someone like Al Jarreau, they’re not strong. When I say strong, I mean strong enough to demand your emotions. The best of the singers from the past—they demanded the feelings from your heart, and they appealed to you. They took you over, as it were.
My work for TV commercials is, in many ways, my most demanding. The advertising agency people, I guess, walk one of the narrowest corridors that exists in music.
It’s a unique kind of world. I’ve sat in on those meetings, and those people will spend great amounts of time on one phrase or one word—and they’re right, because those words are important. You’ve got just a minimum of seconds to give a message; you can’t waste words, and you’ve got to use the right ones, in order to move someone to identify with that product and, hopefully, to buy it.
Without a broad knowledge of music, they have ideas about what they want; sometimes, unfortunately, they don’t know how to convey those ideas to you. So you have to listen to their words or expressions, and translate them into music and try to arrive at what they want.
Sometimes it’s painful—you’ll listen to them painstakingly, you’ll come up with pseudonyms and they’ll say: “That’s it!” Then, when you do it, they say: “No—what I had in mind was. . .” You’ve done this whole arrangement, the strings are there—and you have to sit there and rearrange it on the spot. It’s changing it immediately, or you don’t get a call down the line again. You have to be that flexible.
However, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some people in some of the agencies who are unusual—they go outside of the usual periphery. In fact, on this last project, the whole agency that I’ve been working with—Doyle, Dane, Bernbach—are very progressive, smart people, Dane, Bernbach—are very progressive, smart people. I’ve worked with the one in New York too, but DDB, L. A. are very sharp—and I just about have my head there.
I mean, it’s all relative; I’m not going to write esoteric music. They know what I’ve done, and within the realm of their commercial concept they’re on my side.
Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.