Listen to others, and be yourself
My approach to the trombone
Goodbye to those dance band days
Listen to others
The trombone's possibilities
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981
Photo by Denis J. Williams
Of course, I suffer from the musician’s malady of feeling, when I hear most of my performances, that I could have done it better some way. Usually I’ve set the tune; so it’s just a matter of playing it better. Whatever comes out in your solo, the listener is going to say: “Oh, that’s how he plays”, although that might not be the way you really play at all; it might have been a kind of a flubby–dub—but that was the take that they used. I feel that way about a lot of the Mingus albums; we’d play something over and over again, until it felt like it was breaking down, and that’s the one that they released. There are some that, when I hear it, I know that’s not what I intended to play, but it came out that way; so I had to accommodate whatever came next to the mistake, as you might call it. If it had been up to me, I’d have said: “Let’s stop the whole thing, and start over again.” But the way records are made is something else. We did one with Mingus that sounded so raggedy and unrelaxed that we said: “They can’t possibly release that”—and they didn’t. They put it on the shelf. And then years and years later, by which time Mingus was with another company, they said: “We ought to release a Mingus album.” So they dug this thing out, and released it. How could they do that? They do it, though.
In the case of Charlie Parker—after he died, there was no more material commercially available, and so they dug out all the old masters. They put out the first, second, third and fourth takes of everything.
However, for us who loved the way Charlie Parker played, it didn’t matter—he played just as good on one as he did on the other. Maybe somebody else on the date goofed, or Bird didn’t like one particular take, or they might have discarded it because the unison of the tune was sloppy, even though the solo was a gem.
Recording probably involves less takes now, because the players are much more technically oriented. A lot of the earlier players weren’t particularly speedy or clean or had good sounds. Players now have a respect for technique—being able to play fast, clean and in tune. Some of them don’t, of course; they play out of tune, and their basic sound isn’t very desirable. The ones who will make a lasting impression and gain a foothold in jazz are the ones who do have good sounds, good technique.
Basically, what someone listens for in jazz is the musical content; what I listen for is the weight of what they play. Of some things played, you have to say: “What is that? That’s silly”, or “That is just a bunch of notes that have no meaning.” I must give preference to something that has musical merit, is well constructed, uses compositional techniques—something that you can grab hold of. If the listener’s ear doesn’t grab anything, then it’s just in one ear and out the other.
Some jazz music has only a one–dimensional appeal; that is, it might be emotional or excitement. Or swing; they say: “There’s not much music there, but boy, it sure does swing good.” Hopefully, the players of the future, or the present, will combine all the different elements—emotion, thought, composition, tone, technique, originality, swing—they’ll put them all together more and more. Then another central figure like Charlie Parker could emerge. Unfortunately, as regards the people who have stayed on the jazz scene a long time—they don’t necessarily have all these qualities.
Some players are just pure excitement some have excitement and swing; some just swing and have nothing at all; some play very intellectual lines, but they don’t swing.
The ones that do survive aren’t always the best players. It’s all very subjective, anyway. Somebody can think some fellow’s a whizz—and other musicians, or other people, can’t stand the way he plays. It’s hard for me to listen to a player with a bad sound that plays out–of–tune; no matter what he plays, that influences the way I feel about what’s coming out of the end of the horn.
Then some that are as clean as can be, with good sound, smooth technique and all that just don’t have anything to say—yes, it’s bland. But it’s all within the individual listening to it—it’s all what he hears, what he considers important, or what he gets out of it.
On the subject of ‘free’ playing—it probably has been misused; I’m not that familiar with it. What I’ve heard in some situations I’ve been in, where they try to be free—it might be trying to go back to the roots. Like, one of the techniques used in early jazz: they had trumpet, clarinet and trombone, each with definite roles to play, and the appeal of the music was the collective improvisation. It was improvised music, but it was collectively done.
Nowadays, they might be trying to return to that, to use that technique again, but a lot of it isn’t very successful: because the musicians aren’t playing roles, or doing a specific thing, the way the Dixieland bands were. And they’re playing too much—they’re not even listening to one another. Maybe if they do it with two or three, it might come off; it seems to me that when you get any more than that, they don’t listen—so they couldn’t possibly come up with something that would jell, through the musical capabilities of one musician listening to another, and reacting and interacting with the others.
They’re so busy playing continually, without taking time out to listen. It’s sort of an ego trip, and any music that comes out is just by chance.
Mingus was somewhat aware of that, and in the ‘free’ sections of his pieces we were meant to listen to one another. One guy starts out, and he plays something low–key, in short phrases, or even limits what he plays to a certain range of the scale—a fifth, or a sixth, something like that. Another player would overlap him by maybe a step or so; they’d stay out of each other’s way, listen to each other, and react musically. So that together you produce something that’s musical—not just by chance. There is a pattern to it.
Also Mingus wanted us to work up to a climax, and then, when the climax was reached, to stay at that level; then there’d be some sort of a cue, and we’d go on to another section. There’s techniques to do it. Some day I hope to hear some free musicians who produce music—instead of just chants and cacophony.
There’s much more to life than hate and anger; there’s more to life than love and harmony too. But to land on exclusively one mood is boring—to the player as well as the listener. I mean, how many screams of protest can you do in fifteen minutes? How many would be appropriate? In a large part, jazz soloing is therapy for the musician; I guess there’s some release for the musicians who are angry when they let it out on their horns—but if all they have tenderness or warmth. With Mingus, there was protest at times, but it certainly didn’t go on for fifteen minutes at a stretch or anything like that. What you hope for is variety and contrast. Thank God for bridges!
As for Gil Evans’ latter–day usage of electronics—I made a trip over to Holland and played with one of the bands, and I was very disappointed. Gil’s an orchestrator basically; I wish he’d do nothing but compose, but he mainly works other people’s tunes. He should do his own because he’s a fantastic composer. He’s settled on a band that can work, of about ten or twelve pieces; at least half the band consisted of electric guitar, electric bass, electric piano, electric Moog—he might even have electric drums by now—and a percussionist. Along with them he had maybe five very different kinds of horns—a flute, a tuba, a trombone, a trumpet and a saxophone. I know Gil’s a Svengali at putting things together, but there’s a certain impact you need, using a few horns of the same timbre, so that you can create a chord, a sound effect or whatever, and have it come out right.
There’s a way to put a flute and a tuba together, but you don’t expect them to have the same sound as two flutes or two tubas. It’s just too bad that, with the economics of the music business, Gil isn’t subsidised so that he could have whatever kind of an orchestra he would want. He should have five woodwind players, so that oboe, flute, bassoon, bass clarinet, alto, soprano, baritone are all available to him, and as big a brass section as he needs.
Another thing is: Gil wants to play; he’s finally become a piano player, and he’s getting his kicks playing the piano with his orchestra. But to have the orchestra work, it cannot consist of more than about twelve players; so every time he puts it together, it’s slightly different. He might not have a tuba, or he might have somebody like Howard Johnson, who plays about four instruments, in order to use him in a variety of contexts, and build something around him. What he gets now, though, is an unnatural volume—oh, God, those electric things are so loud! Well, Gil made his choice—I hope he’s happy.
Some players do follow what seems to be the trend. Saxophonists seem to be influenced a great deal by Coltrane nowadays; at least half of them are imitations of him. The same thing happened with Charlie Parker; the alto players all tried to sound like Bird, although very few of them managed to duplicate his approach. This has always been so; the hot players of the year are imitated. Unfortunately, they take some of the most banal aspects of their stylisation and latch on to that; then the imitations become no more than disappointing travesties. Yet the players who do that are capable of creating their own styles—or maybe they’re not; maybe that’s why they latch on to things like that.
Everybody has to find their own way Well, they don’t have to, but for their own personal integrity, it’s better if they do. Even though this isn’t of the calibre or the capacity of Charlie Parker or whoever, it is their own, and they can work from that.
On the other hand, a lot of musicians seem to be doing something just because it hasn’t been done before. They say: “Oh, this has been done”; so they do something else. It’s logical, I suppose; whether it’s worth–while is another question. Everybody has their own response to it.
I only know that the tempered scale we’ve been working with for four hundred years, diatonic harmony and all that are part of most people’s culture. Good melodies come from diatonic harmony, and most people couldn’t reproduce an odd interval thing after they heard it five times—the ear doesn’t catch on to it. I’ve got a very traditional way of playing, and any odd notes I play are probably mistakes. Some of the players do hear that; some others, I doubt if they do—they may be playing mathematics. I think a player like Woody Shaw might hear what he’s playing. In other cases—it might be just by chance, what’s coming out.Copyright © 1981 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.