Follow the crowd
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1971
Working with British musicians recently was very enjoyable for me. I hadnít been in a Ďpick-up groupí situation for a long time: so I didnít really know what to expect.
Iíve got very used to playing with my own guys all the time. I knew they wouldbe good musicians over here. but I didnít know how well it would fit together.
In fact, they played the material even better than I would have expected. There were the minimum of difficulties and it worked out very well. The group was particularly interesting to me, because of guitarist Chris Speddingís tendency to try a lot of different things. So that the tunes took new directions frequently, from night to night. It didnít always come off, but a lot of the time it did; itís very good for me, to have someone in a group doing that.
I donít know what Chrisís background is, but it seems that he has less jazz experience than the guys Iíve had on guitar with me; jazz had been their primary field. Therefore, heís at his weakest when it comes to playing complex chord patterns and things, which are very standard for the jazz player, but not so much for other types of. music. However, we donít play much of that kind of music any more Iíve tended to move away from it, in the last year or two. Particularly on a job where I knew I would be with musicians who were new to me; I picked the material that was least complicated structurally.
The contributions of drummer John Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington were equally pleasurable. As a rhythm section they functioned well, because of playing together elsewhere. They respond very sensitively to everything that goes on. The importance of Chris was that his instrument and mine exchanged ideas more often, our being the two lead voices.
What amazed me mostly was that they performed my music as if they were really familiar with it. Either theyíd heard it enough to know what to do, or just naturally felt that way, or are very adaptable. Or a combination of all three. To some extent, theyíve probably played things in my musical area. But still it was a surprise to me. It was almost like they were guys who used to work for me; getting the things together was that easy.
In most any large city in the Statesóif I went to L.A., Chicago, Boston, New York, say, and had to get a rhythm section suddenly Iíd know there would be good people there. Whether I could get them or not would be another thing. I was fortunate in London that they were able to get the players I would have chosen, anyway.
It was through Mike Gibbs that I met a lot of the British guys. We did one project last year in Belfast with a large band and my group, that Mike wrote. There were two guitars in the instrumentation, one of whom was Chris; and John Marshall was the drummer. Thatís where I first played with them. And Iíve been aware very much of Mikeís records, of course,. and he uses these same guys. I didnít happen to know Roy, but he was an ideal choice.
Last summer, pianist Keith Jarrett and I did a series of concerts and a recording together. We had known each other a long time, and we met up again in Europe the last time I was here, in the Fall of Ď69. He was living over here at that time, and working with a trio; we kept running into him as we travelled around.
I liked a lot of his tunes, that I heard him play with his trio, and I asked him to send me some. Then he decided that he wanted to write some things for us, but he couldnít make up his mind what to do. Through talking about it back and forth, the idea came about to do a record together, as we were on the same label. He finally came back to the States, and things were set up.
It worked out very nicely, because the concerts went well, and the recording went especially well. We were very happy about it. He was working with Miles at the time: on days off weíd work on it. I hope we do another one together eventually.
Iíve joined forces with a piano before, but not recently, except for six weeks when I had Chick Corea instead of guitar. With Chick, as with almost any piano player Iíve ever worked with, there was always this feeling of having to hold back, to stay out of his way. And the pianist always admitted that he had to hold back, to stay out of my way.
Our instruments were very similar, we were both capable of playing chords and multi-note lines, and it was very easy to get in each otherís way and get too thick and busy.
Both Chick and I agreed that it was okay to play together for a short duration, but that over the long stretch it would get restricting. Weíd be treading on each otherís territory all the time, or having to take turns to play.
But then with Keith it was an entirely different situation. What we played always fitted together perfectly. Our harmonic sense was very similar, apparently, and a lot of our lines were similar; so it seemed to fit quite naturally. I could play with him at greater ease than I could with most guitarists, I found.
Our being so comfortable in this way had a lot to do with the music on the album. It had originally been an idea of doing an album with a guest star, but it actually featured he and I playing together, and against each other. At the time, it was intended as just one record. He had just returned after a yearís absence, and wanted to do something to get re-established.
He got the job with Miles; then he wanted to make an album with somebody else, to give him more exposure than heíd been getting, making his own. And I liked the idea, because weíd had it in mind, anyway.
The record has only just come put recently. The reactions have been excellent the reviews, radio plays and all the things you go by. So the chances are we will do another one; but the record company pays the bills, and itís up to them to say whether or not we do.
As for the quartet, the personnel is different since we were here last. Itís the same drummer, Bill Goodwin, but a new guitarist, Sam Brown heís been with me a year and a half now and a new bass player, Tony Levin.
Steve Swallow, of course, had been on bass with me from the time I formed my group. Unfortunately, or however you want to look at it, he moved to California and he now works for Jack Jones, the vocalist. This happened in July 1970; he did it for a variety of personal and family needs and reasons. Itís a shame that Steve left, because he was a major contributor of ideas, material and inspiration to the group.
Also, on the Keith Jarrett record, which was the last thing he did before leaving, heíd perfected his electric bass playing to the point where it was really together and coming into its own. Heís a loss to jazz in general, as well as to me personally.
On the other hand, Tony has worked out very well; I havenít missed Steve on the job that much. He still writes for us, and I see him pretty regularly. I expect heíll stay with that for a year or two, until heís made some money; then heíll probably venture into the jazz world again. We keep asking him how heís holding up under it, and he says itís getting harder all the time. Itís just a matter of how long he can stand being away from jazz playing.
His departure brought about a couple of changes in direction for me. For one thing, I decided to have less attachment to the group; thatís why I did the concert in Montreux and the job here. With the group changing as much as it has been, I canít feel tied to it the way I used to. I mean, good players will always be available in New York, who can play the material well. There arenít many clubs left; so itís almost all concerts that we do, which means weíre off for long periods of time. The other guys do studio work, and have things of their own going locally; and Iím occupied with projects away from the group.
Itís just not the same kind of thing as when we were playing every night, and the music was changing and growing and evolving, on a working band basis. No one is as personally involved in the group ideas as it used to be. New material is brought in every time we do a new record, but itís not a night-to-night thing where the music gets a chance to become highly personalised.
Therefore I havenít minded coming over here alone. In fact, Iím doing some more solo dates in the Fall, in Germany and France. Two years ago I wouldnít have even considered this. It was very reassuring that the job at Ronnieís went so well; this was going to be my sample, to see how it would go.
When I come back, Iíll probably be recording with Mike Gibbs, also. We were going to do it on his first album, in fact, but I was here and gone again before they were ready to do it; then they had to do it before a certain deadline, and I wasnít back by then. So they went ahead, without us; Steve was supposed to be on it with me, as well. Weíve been trying for it now for several years, as a matter of fact; I hope this is the year we make it.
Iíve started doing more teaching now. I have some private students; I also travel around to universities and colleges and do lecture workshop projects, sometimes combined with concerts. Usually just alone, however. Iíve become more and more involved in it, in that jazz is becoming very big in education in the States. I havenít seen it anywhere else in the world yet, but there itís incredible.
There are fifty thousand jazz bands in the schools. So they all have these get-togethers and festivals, where they need lecturers and clinicians and so forth.
More interest in vibes? Yes and no; I mean, there are more vibes players now than there ever were before. Because they insist on teaching most percussionists mallets as well as drums; so a lot of drummers now get interested in vibes, and switch over. Twenty years ago, they would never have even tried. Therefore, there are a lot more musicians who are at least part-time vibes players. And most of the schools keep good instruments on hand.
But my field is as much that of just a musician in general, as that of a vibes player. Because most of what I talk about is improvisation. Thatís what most of the questions are always about; itís the hardest thing to get information on.
You can explain the facts of how improvisation works. I can remember what it felt like to be able to play by ear a little bit, and. to get a tune worked out on the piano, yet still not know what all the chords were called, even though they sounded good; and why this little passage worked this time. but didnít on another situation. All those kind of facts, about the basic harmony and theory, and the relationships of things, are hard to find out.
In classical training, itís all so theoretical and complicated, that it doesnít apply directly to common usage. And most of the books on the subject are difficult to read. So there is a big interest in it. Very few people can explain it in a simple straight-forward manner.
Most jazz players, if theyíre good players, are so wrapped up in just playing that if you ask them about something technical that they did, theyíll say: ďOh. man . . .Ē Not only do they not want to think about it, they donít want to talk about it. And thatís okay, if thatís how they feel comfortable. With me, it doesnít matter.
Most of the younger players, I notice, are more into having an educated concept. I think that those classic older players who refused to talk about the facts of the music were natural, self-taught people. And most of them had always felt a little guilty about their lack of education.
The jazzmen in the old days wanted to get legitimatised and respected, and had never got the schooling that they felt they should have had thatís the story you always hear from the old guys.
So I think thatís one of the reasons they didnít try to answer intelligently when they were asked: ďWhat are you doing in that bar there, or this key signature?Ē and so on. Rather than start discussing something they didnít know quite enough about, they would shrug it off and say: ďWell, you know, I just play what I feelĒ and ďIf you have to ask about it, youíll never know,Ē and all that foolishness.
Because there are things to be learned. They learned them, just like everybody else, by listening around, asking people questions and gradually putting it together. Which takes years. Thatís how I learned, too. Hit and miss, trial and error, and asking things all the time.
Berklee helped a lot, because I got a large amount of information there, which straightened out a lot of my questions. But still, for most people itís inaccessible. At the average music school, thereís no one to ask those kind of questions. Nor can most kids afford to go to Berklee, or itís too far away from where they live, or whatever.
Itís a good thing to explain to them the alliance of technique with creativity. Youíd be amazed at how many young musicians there are who get out there and play all around their instruments, but donít really know the concept of how itís supposed to work; how you have certain physical ability coupled with mental knowledge, inspired by emotions and reactions to things. You know, the real in-depth awareness of what happens between your mind and your hands, how to prepare for it with study and practice. Once you get that figured out, you can usually face any situationí and know at least the right direction to proceed, to find out what you want to know, or resolve the situation.
Every mature musician knows these things, having found them out. Thatís really what a lot of kids are asking : ďTell me what to do. How do I play jazz?Ē They can hear the music: and they can feel that this is the kind of thing they want to take part in. To me,Ē itís enough that they get enough out of it to want to know more about it. Except that thereís always the exception : the guy whoís in it for what glamour he sees or something.
For most of them, if theyíre interested at all, it means theyíve got some sympathy for it and deserve to be given as much information as they can get their hands on. Also, the better a musician can get early, the more he can find out and the further along he can get, the sooner heíll be able to make that decision as to whether or not he wants to make music his career.
At Berklee, the first year there was always a huge group of people who found out after that semester that they didnít want to do it. They only thought they did, because it looked like an easy way to go to school and get out of the army, or to get popularity; thereís a lot of reasons for music being appealing to the student, of course. In music it can be particularly hard to be aware of your true identity. Everything is so abstract that itís pretty much every man for himself. And if you believe hard enough in what youíre doing, then that in itself is enough justification.
Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.