Jazz Professional               


You don't have to follow the crowd

In conference
British musicians
Follow the crowd
Sound change
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973

Most of the time, I do still have a group. These last two London engagements, using British musicians to make up a quartet, are the exceptions. I donít worry about doing that here, because I know that I can get good players. In both cases, Iíve been coming over alone to do a concert somewhere on the Continent, and they have me in at Ronnieís while Iím at it. This time Iím going to Berlin to do a duet concert with Chick Corea.

No, at home normally I work mostly with my regular groupónot the same people since the last time I brought a group over, but the same format.

No one you would know, I donít imagine; because theyíre all young players. Mick Goodrick is the guitarist, Harry Blazer is the drummer and Abe Laboriel is the bass playeróheís from Mexico. Iíve been in the process of changing the book over, to some extent. In the last few months, weíve gotten a lot of new material in, including quite a few by Chick and some by Keith Jarrett.

I started working off and on with electric piano instead of, or in addition to, guitar after I did the record with Keith. Some of the material was really designed for piano and vibes, and it worked well, especially with the fender blend. So in the States I have sometimes used a pianist from New York named Pat Rebelow. And when I was coming over this time they asked me who I wanted; I knew that Chris Spedding wasnít available, and I didnít really know any other guitar players, but I did know a couple of piano players. I figured Iíd rather have a piano player that I knew than a guitarist that I didnít know. The music seems to work with either combination. In fact, itís a nice change for me. Keyboard players think differently than guitarists; so itís a different type of rapport that I get.

As for the recently-released album ďParis EncounterĒ with Stephane Grappelli, that came about mostly because of Stephane. He saw my group at Newport three years ago, and commented to George Wein: why didnít people put him with groups like that, instead of always with old groups? Heíd like to play with somebody younger; people that were doing something different.

That was Ď69, and I was coming to Europe that year, anyway, on a tour with my group. So George went ahead and set up a tentative plan for us to do a record together, even though I didnít even know Stephane. Iíd only heard him on some rare old recordings occasionally, and wasnít over-familiar with his playing. We werenít sure if it would work or not; we thought it might just be a plain-old-ordinary-nothing jam session that didnít get off the ground. We had no idea what to expect.

But there was no big investment in it, and he seemed to want to do it; we all got interested in it finally, and decided to give it a try. Particularly since it was something different from our usual type of music, that weíve been evolving for the past few years. Steve Swallow and I had grown up with that kind of straight-ahead jazz playing, anyway; so it was a nice, nostalgic trip for us.

Itís funnyótheyíve waited two years to release the album, because of its unusual nature; they didnít know quite what to do with it. Iíve had a string of albums which were supposedly building up a certain image and following. They were hesitant to even put it out at all; then they finally decided to, when there was a lull in the release schedule. So out it came, and itís gone real well, as a matter of fact. The very people I thought would probably tend to criticise it, or not take it too seriouslyóthe ones who were following our newer stuffóhave, to my surprise, taken to it pretty well. I still have had a few people saying: ďWhat are you doing that old stuff for?Ē But thatís bound to happen.

Anyway, we had a great time making it. And itís nice that Stephane seems to be really coming into his own again, right now. Apparently, he did great business at Ronnieís, and heís got a couple of new records doing nicely. In the States, because of my record and the one he did with Paul Simon, just one track of background, he seems to have become a sort of underground folk hero to a lot of people. Thatís good to see, because three years ago at Newport no one even knew who he was, which was kind of a shame.

My solo LP, ďAlone At LastĒ was started when I was here the last time. I had come over for the Montreux Festival which, as a first experiment, I did as a solo concert. So that was the basis of the record-one side of it.

And for the other side I decided to keep essentially the same format, with some additions. One of them is a solo, one a duet with piano, another has electric piano on it. I overdubbed another part or two, to make it a little more interesting.

This is something Iíd been wanting to do for a long time, ever since I started playing the occasional solos at concerts. The thought of doing a whole album, a whole concert of them or something has always been at the back of my mind; it just took that long to work up to trying it. We wouldnít have even had it recorded, except that they record everything at Montreux; so the tapes were there to be used. That was another situation where I didnít know if it was going to work or not, till we did it; but it came together okay.

Recording with an orchestra? Yes, Iíve thought about it a lot, but itís just never come up. I would be ripe to do anything along that line. In fact, I am planning to work up a solo marimba concert of legit music over the next year or so. Because there isnít much repertoire available for the instrument, and thereís a need for some new technical advances in it; so I thought Iíd like to do that. Which also might open the door to some symphonies having me as a guest soloistóthis is popular in the States these days. I feel like I would be well suited to that sort of thing. I would probably never do it on my own. The thought of getting a whole orchestra together, commissioning something to be written and all thatóthatís a lot to take on. I would rather wait until somebody who was used to working in that particular area, a writer probably, would be in charge of it. I donít think Iíd have the necessary experience just to handle all the people, if nothing else.

The collaboration with Mike Gibbs is going to happen, though. Itís now planned for us to do an album together in the States in January. We were supposed to do one in April, live at Ronnieís, but it got to the last minute and there were too many problems involved in me coming over; so we had to put it off. But this time itís definitely on, and it should be his next release, after the one thatís coming out now. Thisíll be a big band-in the States, however, with U.S. musicians.

He thought heíd like to try a different group of players, to see what else happened. Of course, he works very much with the players, and their particular individualistic sounds, styles or whatever. So now heís looking to experiment with some other personalities in his music.

About Chick Corea being more in accord with me nowadaysówe have talked about that, and I think the main thing heís referring to is the certain feeling you get when you have your own group. Power isnít the word, because that implies some sort of political status to it; but that certain amount of energy when youíve got four or five people all working for one common end, and youíre responsible for it, is a very invigorating, exciting thing.

I mean, when I first started a group, it was so strong that I couldnít wait to go to work each night. I enjoyed all of it, even the travelling and the long hours. That cools off after a while, but nonetheless thereís a very powerful drive that you get from having this whole thing working around you. Iím sure somebody who owns his own company must feel that sort of thing as well. A strong sense of identity comes forth when itís your own project.

Thatís happening to Chick now, and what it does: it heightens your desire for communication with the audience. Sidemen often fall into just playing for themselves or for each other, but when you become a leader you no longer want to play for your sidemen. You want very much to reach the people with what you have to say; it becomes much more important to do so.

Heís strongly aware of this at the moment, and working very hard not to change his music to fit the audience or anything like that, but to ensure that whatever it is he does communicates something to somebody. And the type of music heís into just happens to reflect the type of life-style heís in right now, which is very organised, positive and direct; thereís very little vagueness or mystery to it. My playing has gone through various changes, and I think it always stems from the state of mind Iím in at a given time; itís very much that way in Chickís case, I believe.

No, I havenít ever really got into free form. In a way, I think Iíve been driven away from it because itís been so popular. Almost all of my contemporaries, the musicians in my age-group, are hard into itómore in than out, to one degree or another. Yet some of my friends are not as entirely into it. Keith Jarrett, for instance, writes a lot of very straight tunes and does a lot of straight playing, as well as some free thingsóthe same with Chick.

I have dabbled in it from time to time; it has depended a lot on what kind of groups Iíve had, whether or not theyíve been good at it. The group with Bobby Moses and Larry Coryell, for instance, was very inventive in free things, I found. So we had two or three pieces of that nature that we would do in live performances. We would never do a whole record of it, but we would usually have one or two tunes on each record that were some sort of experiment.

One was a tape-edited piece that Steve Swallow did. Then, of course, the ďTong FuneralĒ album that Carla Bley wrote for us was, I would say, semi-avant garde in a lot of places, and had some free playing. But I just couldnít see myself doing that only. In fact, Iíve always played a certain range of types of music; the variety is a necessity for me. I get bored very easily, with other peopleís playing and with my own, if, in fact, it becomes repetitive. Itís like listening to somebody give the same speech over and over. Even if they change the words, if the ideas are the same and youíve heard it, eventually it loses its vigour.

Iíll say this: Iím glad to see Chick getting away from free playing, simply because I have felt alone a lot of the time. At times, I feel like Iím the only young musician thatís not playing that sort of thing. In fact, Iíve often wondered why I havenít been considered unhip or commercial more than I have, because of this. I think it just goes to prove that you donít have to follow the crowd to be accepted as a valid artist; you can do whatever you want.

Refreshing If anybody would be able to set an example that people can follow their own beliefs and not be too subject to criticism, it would be Chick.

His following was from Milesí group and from all that experience heís had; to suddenly come up with a group that plays mostly bossa novas was a big switch for him. Yet the only people who really questioned it were a few musicians. Which is typical enough. But the public and most of my friends enjoyed it immensely. I found it refreshing to see a group that seriously enjoyed playing something else, other than free music, knowing that they can all play that as well.

Not that you can ever go through any big alteration in what you want to play. They have to come to your level eventually, but you have to make it a strong, clear communication, whatever mode of thought youíre working within. In Chickís case, this style that heís in right now is probably temporary; itíll change to something else as he changes. Because he has passed through several distinct periods in his playing, and I daresay thereíll be another one or two to follow this one. But he always throws himself one hundred per cent into whatever heís doing. So itís easy to sell it to people when you believe in it that strongly yourself, and can project it as much as he can.

When I was here last, I was soon to start teaching at Berkleeówhere I was once a student. Thatís worked out quite well. When Iím home, I teach, and Iíve enjoyed it a lot. Iíve learned a lot about my own playing, more than I used to; so it has improved consistently since Iíve been teaching. Then thereís the extra advantage of being able to get together any kind of project I want to. Right now Iíve got a twenty-eight-piece orchestra; at the last semester I had a large percussion ensemble. These are things that Iíd never do professionally, for monetary reasons or whatever. Anything I want is available; so each year Iím going to take on something different that Iíve always wanted to do, experiment with it, and see what happens.

There are already some up-and-coming vibes players; as a matter of fact, theyíve got me worried! Itís inevitable; the instrument is becoming a lot more popular, particularly in the States. Iím almost thirty now, but the generation that are in their early twenties now will bear watching. The biggest change is going to be one of technical proficiency. Itís going to be expected of every player now to be able to play with four mallets, and to have more freedom of independence on the instrument than there used to be. Already the younger people all play that way. So thereís going to be some big changes.

Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.