Follow the crowd
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978
It has, indeed, been a long time since I last brought my group to Britain. Other than our one date last year at the Bracknell Festival; this is really our first time in London proper since, I guess, about five years ago.
We played Ronnie Scott’s so often there for a while that it seemed to be a regular thing for us. Then things changed, and we started doing almost exclusively concerts about that time; so it just hasn‘t come up in the last few years. It’s nice to come back, though.
The current group is actually only about four months old. After ten years with the guitar sound in the group, towards the end of last year I began to get the itch to have a more drastic change. I’ve always had a change of guitar players, drummers or whatever, off and on through the years, but had kept the instrumentation pretty much the same. I began to want a bigger change–a change in sound–particularly to give the vibes, I think, more room to be the only chord–style instrument in the group. I had done that a long time ago with Stan Getz; that was a group where I was the one instrument that did accompanying. When I started my own band originally, I felt I wanted someone else to share that role with.
And I guess over the years I’ve developed steadily more and more facility to play the instrument in a keyboard kind of way; now I began to feel the need to have more room to do it in, without the guitar also comping and interweaving with me.
So we decided that we would try a few different horns, to see what kind of sound we liked best. Our trumpet player, Tiger Okoshi, was the first one we tried, because I had known him for quite a few years since he had moved to the States from Japan; I’d liked his playing a lot, and we’d been pretty good friends, although I’d never thought of using the horn until just recently. It felt so good at the first rehearsal that I didn’t even decide to go any farther with trying saxophones or whatever.
My general impression of saxophone players is that they tend to be a bit long–winded anyway, and I felt that the trumpet would give me a a clearer sound. Yes, mellower, too.
In fact, we’re finding a nice blend of the vibes and the trumpet; also a nice blend of our personalities has taken place. Actually, it’s been the most exciting ,change for me in a long time, because it’s brought on new material as well; obviously we had to have some new tunes to fit the new sound.
And each new night is a kind of new discovery of what works with the instruments, and the things that are available.
Some of the existing repertoire is suitable. I’d say that about a third of what we do with the new group are things that we had been doing before. We’ve kept a few of those that Steve Swallow had written for us, and a few of Carla Bley’s songs, which in particular seemed to be real naturals for the trumpet. And then we have a few new songs by Steve, by Tiger and by Mike Gibbs–our usual KMMY stock of writers and so on. On a concert like the one at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where we were just doing half of the concert, it’ll be mostly new material. But in a normal whole concert, it would be still some of the old stuff as well.
The spell I had without Steve would have been about ‘70–‘71. At that point, Steve was quite anxious to move to California with his family, get out of New York and have a change of existence, you know. That didn’t fit in, in a practical way, with the fact that I was living in the East and the group was based there. So we parted ways there, and I used, over that two year period, two different bass players–Tony Levin, who, shows up on a lot of records these days as a studio player, and then later another guy that’s now in the L.A. studios, named Abe Laboriel, who is quite a good player.
After about two years, Steve and I got together for one concert in California+, where my regular bassist wasn’t going to be available, and I was about to turn the concert off or down; then I thought: “Well, what the heck–maybe Steve is around, and maybe he would do it out of the blue.” He did, and it was just like old times, great to play together. Right then he decided he wanted to move back to the East coast again; that fit in just perfectly—the bass player at the time, Abe, wanted to go on the road with Henry Mancini’s orchestra, and do these recording during that particular time, to him.
So it kind of fit nicely for Steve to come back, and that’s been five or six years again; now, this far along, it seems that he was hardly away. It’s true I didn’t do much recording during that particular time, as coincidentally I was switching labels to ECM. There’s really only one record that was without Steve one called “The New Quartet”, which Abe Laboriel was the bass player on. For most people, in fact, they have never been aware that he was gone for a while.
Direction At the beginning, Steve was essential in deciding what kind of things we were going to do, and what direction the music was going to take; then, of course, over the long haul he’s also played a continuing part in it, writing a lot of the material.
Mostly, it’s just that we kind of make all the major decisions between the two of us. We’ve played together pretty much for twelve or thirteen years; so that we really think as a team, and we find that whenever working on a new project or anything we’re able to do more between us than either of us can do individually. I’ll make suggestions to him, that add to what he’s writing on, or he’ll suggest things to me that improve the arrangement we’re trying to work out at the rehearsal, or whatever. At this point, it’d be hard to separate what each of us has done towards the group; we see it very much as a combined effort, definitely.
Sure, I’ve seen him grow musically. When we started, he was just playing acoustic bass; so I watched, during the entire changeover to electric that took place in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, as he developed his own very personal style of playing the electric bass, his own sound on it and so on. And he is really still one of the most unique jazz players on the electric bass; he has very much a strong jazz conception on the instrument, without imitating the acoustic bass at all. The usual approach, I think, for most jazz players who switch to some electric is that they sort of try to copy what they used to do on the electric–but Steve really found a new way that’s right for the instrument, as well as with his jazz conceptions.
I’d agree that today I can be considered part of the jazz establishment. I’m thirty–five, and I’ve had a group for a little over ten years; I definitely see myself and feel like I’m an established player now, as opposed to a new innovator; It fits me comfortably, at this point; I have no drive to pull big surprises on anyone, or suddenly toss off everything I’ve done up to now and start something radically different. I’m extremely happy with how my playing has evolved, with the kind of music I play, and how everything goes each night. When I was younger I always had a strong desire to change things, to get to be better at this, to be different at that, to get more of this happening in my playing, to get more of my identity into it and all.
At this stage of the game, I feel like I’m doing what I want. Now my goal is more along the line: I want to keep on doing it as long as I can. You know, it continues to evolve and mature in its way, but I don’t think there’ll be any radical changes in what I play. What radical changes were going to happen for me happened when I first started my own group, with the whole sort of breakout into non–jazz influences coming into the music. That was starting to happen in the ‘sixties; so it was inevitable that I would be involved in that sort of thing. There were four or five groups at that time that were involved in that, and it was the natural next step, I think, for the music to take.
Now, of course, I’m not considered a new thing person at all: if anything in the music of the last couple of years we’ve included even more of a standard jazz kind of interpretation. Although we don’t play standard tunes, a certain number of the pieces are for a 4/4 rhythm section. We may not literally play the blues, but we do have a couple of pieces that are variations on the blues, and that most people would identify as blues tunes of some kind. And perhaps I wouldn’t have done that sort of thing eight or ten years ago, when I was trying desperately to break away from just the bebop traditions that I had grown up with, trying to find a voice of my own. Now, I guess, I have no big crusade on about that; I play whatever we like to play.
The thing we’re most grateful about is that the audiences are supportive of what we do. We’re never going to be–1 don’t think, anyway–any big overnight sensation or anything, but we’re really satisfied with the way things are. We work as much as we can work, and seem to have no problem staying in touch with our audience, which we’re steadily widening a little bit as we go along. And a lot of our audience is younger all the time. That’s the surprise to me; my music certainly isn’t getting younger–one’s music rarely does get younger, I think, as you grow older.
It tends to mature. But we notice the gap in relation to our ages. I mean, when I was nineteen I was playing with Stan Getz and George Shearing’s groups and things; at that time we were performing primarily for people in their forties. As the years have passed, our audience keeps getting younger and younger; now I’m thirty–five myself and most of our audience, I’d say, is in their early twenties.
It’s a curious thing. At the moment, particularly in the States, the big jazz audience is the university crowd–and that’s where most of our work is. So it’s our good fortune, I guess.
Definitely, my period with ECM has been my most productive on records. Probably because not only did my playing reach finally its most settled state of things but also because I’ve had the most co–operation from the company. In the past, with previous companies . . . RCA was a huge big company, totally co–operative as far as letting me record whatever I wanted to do, but they didn’t really know anything about it it was a matter of it being nice to have an intellectual jazz artist on the label, to look good, and they said: “Make all the records you want, and we’ll throw ‘em out on the market. Fine.” But no concept of how to really present it, promote it, get attention for it or anything; then Atlantic were more interested in commercialising whatever they could again they said: “Make whatever you want, and we’ll try to sell it as best we can”, and that was not quite right either.
With ECM things finally came together, in that the company really did empathise with what we were doing, so that their ideas for how to present it and promote it were influenced by their understanding of the music not just good intentions, but in fact a real comprehension of what was going on. I mean, the people who run BCM are among my best friends at this time. I was one of the first artists on the label; so we feel like we’ve been through this whole thing together. At this point, I can’t imagine ever changing; ten years from now, I don’t know where things will be but, I mean, so far it’s been seven or eight years, and I couldn’t imagine any other company situation that would be as ideal as this. So we’re all very happy with it.
Yes, “Crystal Silence” with Chick Corea is my favourite one, too. We’re planning to do another one, in fact.
We do three or four concerts a year in the States, Chick and I a festival here and there and so on sort of keeping it alive a little bit. And our plan is to get around to another rematch later this year as soon as we’re both able to be off at the same time and do it. Of course, it’s going to be hard to equal the first one; that was one of those where everything just clicked, and happened very spontaneously. It’s difficult to count on that, but we’re hoping for the best. Some of the concerts we’ve done have gone extremely well; so we’re hopeful that it’ll come together the second time as well. Yeah, we’ve done different things; Chick particularly he tends to shift rather radically every few years, changing entire bands, entire concepts and so on. What happens with Chick and I is we tend to meet up every year or two in a musical sense, and find ourselves in a pretty compatible state, in between his various adventures and mine.
Eberhard Weber is another one of those people that I really like working with. I met him because of ECM, and liked his first albums of his own, when he first made them. We’ve done a few tours together, with him playing with our band; our first album together was done four years ago. We kept doing tours about once a year, and finally decided we should do another album hence we did “Passengers”. I’m sure we’ll still play with him on a regular basis; in fact, come to think of it, I’m supposed to be on his next album he’s going to write some sort of special project. He mentioned it to me the last time I saw him. So I guess there’ll be something coming up pretty soon, with us together once again.
Somebody was telling me Pat Metheny was just here recently doing a concert. I guess it’s been almost a year by now since he started his own group, and he seems to be doing real well. Sure, I could see he had the potential. Well, I’ve been real lucky through the years, that a lot of the musicians that I’ve stumbled across have been substantial talents, just waiting for the right moment and the right break to get started.
So there’ve been a lot of people from my bands that have gone on to make quite a name for themselves. It makes me feel real proud. Maybe I’m just good at spotting it, I don’t know; I’m always keeping my eyes open, of course. It’s certainly gratifying to see somebody that you had faith in turn out to be a strong player, and to become successful in their own right. As for Mike Gibbs we have no special projects on lately. He writes the occasional song for us and all at this stage of the game, but we haven’t planned anything big. Of course, he lives in Boston now; so I see him quite often. More than I did, in fact, when we were trying to do records together a few years back, and he was here in England, I was m the States, and we were always having problems just getting together to work on them. But he’s had a number of projects that he’s done for other people, as well as things of his own, so that we’ve not lined up any specific collaboration for a while.
Likely we will, though; it seems like every few years we decide it’s time to do something again, and give it a try.
I’m sure the quartet will stay busy.
We have a new album coming out that’s our next one with Roy Haynes, who was in our band originally, and also played with Steve and I when we were on Stan Getz’s band.
Our new trumpet player, Tiger Okoshi, was on the album; in fact, we were just adding him to the group at that time and making the change.
Although it was originally supposed to be a trio album with Roy, we decided to put the trumpet in as well, because we were at that point suddenly real excited about working with the instrument, and it seemed like a good thing to do. It was great to play with Roy again; it features him a lot, of course it’s a rare treat to get to work with him.
There’s talk now of doing more dates around Britain on our next tour.
Now that we’ve sort of broken the ice again here? I’m sure that we’ll be back next time for a longer stay.
Because we’ve always had a good time in this country, particularly in London; I know we have a lot of people interested in our music here.
So we’ll try to make our next visit more extensive.
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.