The music scene
The music scene
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970
One thing keeps the music scene very interesting—the fact that it’s changing all the time. It’s frustrating; you have to keep your ears open. You go to sleep for a couple of weeks and wake up and it’s a different business you’re in.
I’ve got deeply into Brazilian music, and most of the good Brazilian musicians—quite a few that haven’t been heard outside Brazil, such as Paloso, Galpasta—have turned to rock. And if you ever want to hear anything interesting, listen to the Tropicalista De Tropicalia Brazilian rock artists. Some of them are very bad, but some are very good, particularly those who were very good musicians before they made the transition. It’s a strange marriage—especially in Portuguese.
Musicianship is being acknowledged more today. Groups like Blood, Sweat And Tears and Chicago are tremendous. But I have a feeling—I hope I’m wrong—that there could well be a dead end there. It’s probably the most successful marriage I’ve ever heard between a big band sound—or a small group sounding like a big band, as the case may be and a rock rhythm section. You know something? Any time you add horns to a rock rhythm section, it’s going to sound like Blood, Sweat And Tears—and there’s no way around it.
Even Blood, Sweat And Tears hasn’t come out with another album in a year, or a year and a half. I’ll be very interested to see what they do. I hope it’s not a matter of keeping big band jazz alive through artificial respiration. Or even artificial insemination! Who knows what the offspring will be? I fell in love with the album; I just hope they can keep going from there. But if they don’t, they’ll find something else.
I’ve made some records in the process of doing movie scores and doing demonstration tracks for songs; any time I use horns, it always sounds like Blood, Sweat And Tears. Like, any time you use a Latin rhythm section and two trumpets, it’s got to almost sound like Herb Alpert. Because it’s a sound that he got hold of first. It’s almost as typed as the early Mancini sound.
Or the Shearing sound there’s another great example. As soon as you try and do anything remotely like it, it’s bound to bring George Shearing to mind. Even Shearing couldn’t get away from it—and he tried hard enough. The same thing’s happening with Herb Alpert now; he’s been trying to make records away from the Tijuana Brass idea—and nobody’ll buy them! Yet they were musical sounds to begin with; these are sincere musicians. What it is: you become a prisoner of your own invention.
As for Duke Ellington and his sound—he’s about the one musician you could mention that I find it impossible to pass an opinion on. Because he’s the most incredible of any of ‘em. I think. There’s no stopping him. It’s often been written that he writes for personalities in the band. Well, there’s certainly never been a leader or organiser like him; he works in a different way from anyone I’ve ever seen. I know one thing about Duke. He’s got one indispensable musician in that band, and if he ever loses him I don’t know what he’ll do. That’s Harry Carney. I’ll tell you what makes me realise that he’s the one he can’t do without. On a lot of these Metronome All Star dates, and other dates where they’d have Carney on baritone and he was the only one out of the Ellington band in the personnel, the band would sound like Duke Ellington.
This isn’t to take any credit from all the other players; there’s one Johnny Hodges, one Lawrence Brown, one Cat Anderson. But unlike Carney, they’ve all been in and out of the band.
Duke, of course, makes the whole atmosphere possible to start with: he’s such a truly incredible man. I wish I knew him better than I do; I’ve always admired him from a distance. I’ve tried to study how he does it—and it’s just an extension of his own personality. The band is his instrument, not the piano; he’s the first one to say that, too. He’s got to have his band.
Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman are other outstanding people in the big band field. Woody is amazing; he’s probably one of the all–time greatest bandleaders of them all. Because he’ll show up every year with a different band, and I don’t know where he finds the kids he has playing. I would imagine a lot of them came out of music clinics and universities, where they’ve been trained in big band playing. But the bands all have his unmistakeable personality stamp; that’s what makes a great leader.
I’ve worked for both Woody and Basie, so I know how they work. Basie’s a great leader in another way. He makes it possible by setting up a very good atmosphere for music,, too, but his working methods are so different from Ellington. Everything is written out. The music is played very precisely, much more than it was in the early days. The early bands couldn’t read, and there were a lot of head arrangements; they couldn’t afford music, in many cases. I’m referring to the pre–World War Two days, when the bands in many ways were more exciting.
With Ellington, still to this day an awful lot of the music isn’t written out. He walks in the recording studio with a scrap of paper and an idea; he calls things out. Everybody works them out right there. And it’s the weirdest band to play in, because they don’t play his music like it’s written. It takes several months of playing in that band before you have the slightest idea of how to play with it. Nobody in the world could just walk in and sub with that band.
Duke has a whole bunch of people that have worked with the band. He always gets them back, and that’s one reason why: they know how to phrase with his music. You take most of the Ellington sidemen—Carney’s an exception, and some others—put ‘em in other bands, and they don’t phrase the same way as the rest of the band. There’s a mystique going there, that I still don’t understand. And I wouldn’t understand it unless I played with the band a long time. I never have played with Duke’s band, but I’ve been around it a lot. When I was with Basie, I worked opposite it: this enabled me to watch it awfully closely.
It was a new band that Duke had at that time, the latter part of ‘53, and one of his worst. Only because of that very thing. When he gets a whole bunch of new faces, it takes a while for it to come together, You don’t just sit down and play the music, like with Basie.
Basie’s bands need time to start sounding good, but it takes a lot less time than Duke’s, because nowadays the level of musicians Basie gets is very professional. Also he plays a lot of the same arrangements time and time again: so even if they haven’t played in the band, they know them.
Whereas Duke, you’ll go see him over the years—it’s always different. I’ve heard maybe a dozen arrangements of “Satin Doll” or of “Mood Indigo.” He doesn’t just play the same original scores. Or once in a while he’ll drag out another old arrangement. He’s got so much to draw from. But Basie doesn’t go back to the old things.
Duke, because he’s so unique, no matter when he plays he’s timeless. You walk in and hear him play “Black And Tan Fantasy”—marvellous. Especially in a room. That’s a band you’ve got to hear in a room; I don’t think it’s ever heard at its best in a concert. Oh—it can be overwhelming. When you hit the Ellington band on a good night, it’s better than any other band I’ve ever heard in my life. Hit ‘em on a bad night—it’s unbelievably bad. There’s no in–between. But Duke just takes it all in his stride: he doesn’t seem to be terribly upset by it. Which is one reason, I guess, that he’s the man he is. I don’t know of anyone else who could ever do that.
It’s this thing Woody Herman has, the knack of putting good bands together. While Basie will hold on to a lot of the same people, Woody has these new faces constantly, and the bands are always exciting. Woody’s been able to play more rock recently, because there’s more music that he can play, where in the ‘fifties he couldn’t. Now he can play closer to the Blood, Sweat And Tears set–up; he can use fender bass. The songs are better; there’s a lot of usable material for him that even he himself can sing. At one time he found it very hard; what could he use—Bill Haley or Elvis Presley material? Today, however, he wouldn’t have to look very far to assemble an entire library of contemporary music. Such as the Beatles’ work—a wealth of stuff.
Laura Nyro is a marvellous example for him to draw on. Because her stuff is musical, it’s got long form, and it’s vocal in content. If she isn’t that well–known yet, she will be, believe me. I think she’s the most important voice in music I’ve heard in many years. I mean, as an all round talent. Everyone else is doing her music lately and getting hits on it.
Wedding Bell Blues” was a Fifth Dimension hit. “Eli’s Coming” was a Three Dog Night hit, and Blood, Sweat and Tears have done quite well with “And When I Die.” It’s taken her a while to gain recognition as, an artist, but watch what happens when she does.
Probably by the time this is in print, she’ll be a much bigger item. and there’ll be no stopping her. Because she’s a super singer, with about a three–octave range, and a hell of a piano player.
Regarding British musicians—I love the way they play, I’ve got a lot of favourites. In my writing, one of the most influential people ever is Bob Farnon. I’m a tremendous fan of his; everything that ever came out by him I loved. He turned so many of us on—Quincy, Don Costa, Marion Evans, myself. One after another, you name ‘em; Robert Farnon’s the one who showed us the way.
What is so exceptional about him? His choice of textures, his sense of orchestra, and particularly the way he writes for strings. His own compositions, most of all—just gorgeous. Better than any we had in the States. For us, he’s the guv’nor, whether he knows it or not.
I saw an article about Oscar Peterson and Farnon; I’d back it up all the way. I’d love to have heard it, but it would have to be beautiful. Anything you play of his still holds up too. I can see where much of his technique is derived from, but it’s still his and no one else’s. The profound feeling of texture, the way he voice–leads . . . you’d have to take the things apart, one by one—that is, if you could. It’s just that the decisions he makes always seem to me to be the right ones.
I’ve heard John Dankworth’s writing for films. He’s a brilliant player, too, and he’s had a lot of good big bands. There’s quite a number of fine movie writers in Britain. I have a lot of admiration for John Addison. Forgive me if I make any omissions, but I’ve always found Frank Cordell and Wally Stott to be excellent writers.
John Barry wrote some of the best scores I’ve ever heard. You have to listen to a lot of John Barry to have an understanding of what he really sounds like. People are most familiar with the Goldfinger type of things in the James Bond films, which I wouldn’t say were my favourites; I have a feeling they may not even be his favourites. I much prefer some of his other scores, like the one he won the Academy Award for last year, A Lion In Winter. He has a marvellous feeling for mediaeval scoring—and that’s a really hard thing to do. He’s got a great aptitude for comedy too. The Knack was a brilliant job, I think. That was a type of nouveau silent movie technique he used there; it was most effective. And when you’ve got a good picture to work with, you’re that much further ahead. He seems to have a very broad scope. Another good writer is Stanley Myers.
There’s others here I know I’ll kick myself for not mentioning, when I think of them. A lot of them don’t get to the States, either. Movies get scored in other places, like Yugoslavia or Italy; producers are always trying to save money by the time it gets down to the music. Then occasionally, of course, American composers come over here and write. This was the first time I ever had a chance to, although I’ve wanted to for a long time.
You have to think of all film music in this way: it’s meant to be one voice of a three–part counterpoint, you could say. Four, really, if you include the visual, which is most important. You’ve got pictures, dialogue, sound—effects and music; so it’s only one of four elements.
If you’re lucky enough to end up with something that can stand on its own merits, that’s fine, but the picture is the first consideration.
Copyright © 1970 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.