Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
This is my first time in Britain—with the exception of one short spell in the airport, when I was with Art Blakey’s band some years ago.
My first impression of Ronnie Scott’s was very favourable, after we got everything all sorted out; because they had three groups there, including us. The others were the Surprise Sisters and the guitarist Louis Stewart with his trio. So, initially, we had a little bit of trouble with the setting of instruments between each group, but nothing serious. We just had to adjust to the sound of the place, but once we did it was very comfortable.
Overall, I’m very impressed with this kind of club. I haven’t played opposite two groups in I don’t know how long. To me, .that’s a real positive sign. For a place to be capable of absorbing that much entertainment during one engagement . . . it’s quite impressive.
For the past year, this group of mine has been fortunate enough to be able to stay together, mainly through some tours, plus some work around New York City. Last Tune we came to a festival in Norway, as well as one in Yugoslavia; we also played a week in Munich. In October, we started a five–week tour of the States, that took in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit—all the major spots.
Now here we are back in Europe; the tour will extend to six–and–a–half weeks, with the two weeks in London included. George Coleman is on tenor saxophone; we have Sam Jones on bass, who’s played here before, with Oscar Peterson; Billy Higgins is on drums—I’m pretty sure this is his first visit too. The group has been received tremendously well—which, of course, makes us happy.
Oh, Milt Jackson mentioned me? He’s also one of my favourite musicians, let alone vibes players. He just has that thing, whatever it is, that’s so consistent. He seems to transcend any kind of category; he immediately transmits this sort of compassion that he just breathes into every performance. To call him a lyrical player is an understatement. He’s about the ultimate in sensitivity: his projection of this quality is overwhelming, you know—well, through his years with the Modern Jazz Quartet. I hated to see the group break up, because I sort of grew up musically listening to them, as I’m sure a lot of people did. But I think Milt is sincerely happier now; he seems to be. I think he began to feel somewhat restricted, near the end of the group’s existence.
Milt is planning a tour of the Far East next March—with an all–star group, so to speak. He’s taking Ray Brown, myself; Billy Higgins is making it on drums, because Mickey Roker, who Milt had chosen, is tied up with Dizzy Gillespie. Also Jimmy Heath is scheduled to make it. So that’s a short, two–week run there, which I’m eager to get into.
As for the possibility of being a member of a regular Milt Jackson group—I’d be delighted, but at this particular time, the way things have been going here, with the schedule I have, it doesn’t look like it will be able to happen any time soon. Seemingly, we’re getting busier and busier —specially on the Continent. Within a year’s span, this is our third trip, and we still haven’t hit the same place twice that much—just a couple of times. The areas of working are so large, by comparison to the States.
When you go from state to state, you’re still in the United States; over here, you go the equivalent distance, and you’re in a different country. And this I find very helpful, in keeping a fresh attitude towards a performance. A new audience is a new audience.
Repertoire, of course, grows as a group plays together, but still tunes have to be worked. You can’t just rehearse ‘em and play ‘em; in a group this size, they’ve got to be performed over a period, for them to really take on that special quality that you need, to stand out from just a recently put together quartet. With this kind of material, the more time you spend the better. We’re able to take maybe otherwise routine material and make it something special.
The groups that I was affiliated with as I was coming up in Dallas, Texas were what we later started to call rhythm’n’blues bands. They were prevalent around then, playing a variety of tunes, but mostly blues orientated things. But there was always a good supply of recordings of a more advanced jazz, and every musician was sort of an admirer of what was for us, at that time, a rather distant movement. We would buy records by Dizzy and Bird, but there was very little chance of hearing these people live; they would possibly come to Dallas once a year. I guess it was very much like living in Europe, or anywhere else other than New York or California. where the leading artists were performing. It’s much different now, you know—all the artists go everywhere now.
Norman Granz would come through; it was through him that I heard Hank Jones when I was very young. And, of course, Duke Ellington always came through the Southern part of the United States—there was a chance for me to get exposed at first hand to somebody of that stature. His influence remains with me today; I was very impressed with his style, manner, everything.
My mother had piano students and, although I used to observe this, I was content to play without music for a long time. She kept after me, I should learn how to read, even when we went to the concerts. Both my parents were great lovers of jazz; like I say, we could hear Duke Ellington, Jazz At The Philharmonic, Tommy Dorsey, in a concert setting, when they came to the large auditorium.
I did some delving into earlier jazz, as far as keyboard forms were concerned. Quite naturally—I was trying to gobble up everything I could hear.
At that time, records of Eddie Heywood somehow found their way quicker to my ear than anybody like, say, Earl Hines. I guess it was the same problem of distribution that exists now. Eddie Heywood had an enormously large–selling record of “Begin The Beguine” during that time; that style, with the figured bass, was very attractive, because it had a boogie woogie flavour. Boogie woogie, also, was very easy to learn without notes—for me, anyway—just a matter of learning to co–ordinate the left hand. And some of the things I learned to play, I couldn’t even read properly. But my co–ordination was improving and, with my mother’s insistence on me getting the classics under my belt, these two factors helped me develop some sort of technique—even though my technique now I would still consider more personal than universal.
Yes, hopefully you find your own direction. People tell me that they can now distinguish my style when they hear it. To me, I’m totally unaware of this; I’m still constantly striving to have a personal sound, more or less. In my ears, as I play, I haven’t reached that goal yet; I still sound like a combination of all my influences, to myself. Which is probably not that harmful; in fact, it works, I think, because it helps me to stay alert and keep myself from falling into any complacency of performance.
So these things work together, along with my compositions, and a general attempt on the part of the group to achieve an exciting performance. The quartet context is very special; I consider it unique, in that each member ideally should be able to carry his own weight—specially solo—wise. Everybody has to be capable of a substantial solo at any given moment. Of course, we have tunes set with, say, a drum solo or a bass solo in mind; not everybody solos on every tune.
Our strong leaning is on Thelonious Monk’s quartet method, so to speak, as compared with the trumpet/ saxophone front–line kind of sound.
The Miles/Bird thing has continued in jazz with Horace Silver and others, and it’s very effective. We worked in that context with Art Blakey for many years; also I did some work with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, as well as J. J. Johnson and a saxophonist. So I was sort of nurtured on that two–horn sound; I got my growing pains in orchestration along those lines.
But now, as I’ve developed more proficiency on the keyboard, and also with regard to composition, I’ve chosen to try to meet the challenge of a smaller group, with the one–man front–line, and to emphasise equally every member. There’s no such thing as the horn playing and the rhythm just accompanying. Ideally, the listener can automatically feel that it’s a group playing, rather than a soloist and three people who are playing accompaniment that anybody could play. So this, too, represents a challenge. in this kind of context. and our attempting to do this has set us aside to both the European and American audiences.
These groups I was with earlier were, of course, already established in their own directions. Like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers already had a sound, a method set up. Well, Art made sure he employed musicians who leaned that way, anyway. For instance, I went in the band simultaneously with Freddie Hubbard, replacing Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan, who were deeply rooted in that style. Obviously, Art recognised this quality in us, that needed developing, or possibly could add something to his sound. Art doesn’t orchestrate or compose, but he has such a knack, as you might say, for picking people who do within his style.
Wayne Shorter was already there when we joined. And then Curtis Fuller came into the group; so we had a sextet. all of a sudden. Here was another challenge for me, at that time —a three—man front—line. It worked out just beautiful, you know. Between the four or five musicians, we were writing all the time—and getting it played immediately. We had to play ‘em right away, too, because we needed a lot of material.
Having a four–man group, though, has some built–in advantages. Economically—needless to say, you have a smaller amount of people to divide the money between, but this is just one of the fringe benefits. Travelling about Europe, we can easily take a first–class train car, in that we can all fit in there comfortably. Also, we don’t have to worry too much about going from country to country not knowing each language, because usually in that section of the train people know English. These kind of things are possibly not too noticeable to the average tourist, but to us it’s uppermost—because we’ve got to get where we’re going, otherwise we don’t eat! Evolving Obviously, the cost of a travelling quartet is lower than that of a larger group. So, in this sense, I’m doubly glad that we’re able to make as much music as we are, with so few people.
I must say, I took a big slice of influence and inspiration from Thelonious Monk’s method—not knowing at first that it had all these fringes in it. But I’m very happy with this situation now. And, recording for RCA, I hope I can, as it were, evolve with my identity. So far, I’ve come up with an up–dated version of what has become some of the classic repertoire of jazz. Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor” and John Coltrane’s “Blue ‘Trane” were, I hope, successfully transformed into the fusion music that’s so popular today.
Yes, I’m using a lot of electronics, as well as synthesisers and keyboards.
They certainly add to the scope in a recording context. I haven’t been able to continue this in live performance, because, here again, you have such tremendous expense. Well, I used at least eleven people on the session, all this equipment and everything; I’m not at the stage to duplicate that. I’m working strictly with the acoustic piano; in my case, so far, this is the best way. Ideally, I would like to have both keyboards available to me in a personal performance. Although, in a jazz club situation, I’m not so keen on it as I would be on a stage. In a stage situation, you can set it up and prepare. I’m quite impressed with the group’s sound acoustically in a club, in competing with the tinkling of glasses and the ringing of the cash register.
It’s good to use the acoustic and electric pianos in conjunction with each other, but once you’re trained on a piano with strings in it of the normal length, and hammers, felt and all this . . . there’s nothing like the brilliance of a perfectly tuned Steinway; I have yet to experience anything quite so divine as the sound of it when you touch it. However, some tunes, some material, some colours are better achieved with the electronic keyboard—the Fender Rhodes answers this need quite adequately.
To travel with this instrument, since I don’t have a valet, I would have to carry it, and it’s quite heavy; so, until I achieve that status, where I can have a crew to set up for me, I’ll just stick with the acoustic.
Fortunately, even though my latest recorded work, “Mobius” on RCA, is utilising almost a hundred per cent electronic keyboards, with the exception of a few pieces, this quartet can recreate that music in our own style.
It had me a little worried at first, but the fellows just jumped right on the material, and I was quite satisfied with that. We even have a tune named “Soho”, which has quite a few time signature changes, that I’m quite anxious to work here while we’re in London. It needs a little bit of attention, because it goes from 6/4, for instance, into 4/4, then to 5/4; the figures are not actually that readily performed without a little rehearsing.
On the record, in fact, I didn’t use the kind of synthesiser you have to programme elaborately in advance. I used what they call an Arp soloist; it’s sort of pre–programmed, but it’s not as complicated as a Moog. It’s a solo instrument—it only plays one note at a time. There are knobs which tell you “Viola” or “Bassoon”, sounds like that, and you have “Portamento”, which controls the glissando effect, from one note to another. I found myself more comfortable with that.
Also, there’s an Arp String Ensemble, which does play harmony, and it stimulates strings better than anything I’ve heard, with the possible exception of the Mellotron. Herbie Hancock has been using that, which is programmed; I think it has miniature tapes in it, with actual notes recorded originally by strings—I’m not sure about this. The Arp is slightly different, in that it’s immediate; you play your harmony notes, and it sounds like the section—at a certain volume, in my experience. I tried to lower the volume, then increase it, like a string section does sometimes—it didn’t come off with this thing. You have to set it rather high, where it sort of overpowers the whole sound, and then I find it comes off just like a string section. In other words, you can’t ask too much of it; you can’t expect some crescendos—it won’t quite do that. But what it does do is quite nice.
Lonnie Liston–Smith had a lot of success with that String Ensemble instrument, on one of his big—selling records. And I was quite pleased with the way my use of it came off, on a piece called “The Maestro”, which I composed in memory of Duke Ellington. I had some lyrics to it, too; it was the first time I ever attempted lyrics, and it came out beautifully also on the “Mobius” album. There’s an ensemble chorus that I play in unison with myself, more or less, on another track; I made use of marimba, too, on this particular piece. It was an unusual effect; I never heard a sound quite like that before—Arp String Ensemble, Arp Soloist and marimba.
Recording–wise, the possibilities of using these sounds are unlimited. I really enjoy working with ‘em, and the idea of learning how to devise what I like to call different colours bv these techniques is quite challenging to me. I think I can get even more out of it. the more I do it. We just finished another recording session, incidentally, for RCA, on which I also utilised these instruments.
Yes, I used acoustic piano also. I made a version of “Canadian Sunset” —remember that?—by Eddie Heywood, who I regard as one of the classic composers of American popular music, actually. And I think the original really large–selling record some years ago was on RCA, made with Hugo Winterhalter. Later I heard it performed by Gene Ammons; a really nice piece, that became a real standard. This album may be released around March or April; it’ll be called “Beyond Mobius”. .
In the meantime, our agent for our European performances, who’s located in Holland. is starting a small label, and I’m doing some —producing for him. So hopefully we can come up with some ideas along acoustic lines, with this label. He calls it Timeless; I’m sure you’ll see it soon.
Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.