Jazz Professional               



A musical alchemist

A Third Sream Triumph
Each Film has its own sound
My approaches to the film score
A musical alchemist
A new direction
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

Photo: Dennis Matthews

Another piece I wrote in the same kind of vein as “Pulsations” was recorded for Capitol. This was “Dialogues For Jazz Quintet And Orchestra”, which the late Cannonball Adderley commissioned me to do. But I don’t like the quality of the recording; we did it too fast, and I don’t think it came out too good. Instead of conducting it, I should have brought in a conductor, and I should have been in the booth. The quintet was too much in front, and the orchestra was too much in the back; so you cannot hear what the orchestra is doing.

That was another attempt to take different idioms and make them organic. At the end there is a section that grows to the point where Nat Adderley is playing in a sort of New Orleans funeral procession, while the orchestra is playing twelve–tone music, Actually, there are five movements, each featuring a different soloist, who plays anything he wants. And the orchestra is supposed to give him a stimulation—he reacts to that. That was the idea of that piece.

As a matter of fact, that piece is so free that I perform it with whoever is available. Once, I did it myself with Tom Scott instead of Cannonball; Jean–Luc Ponty was playing violin with us—so I added another movement, for him. Also, I understand that Clark Terry has been playing it lately; I would be very interested to know what he does with it. Because it means that the jazz musician has no limitations; there’s very little to read. In reacting to the sounds that are created, every jazz player can bring in his own personality and style.

Since I have worked inside the jazz idiom, it’s not bragging to say that I am qualified to supply a stimulus, but I do it from a different source. It doesn’t have to be the normal source of jazz; it’s like . . . a little bit of an atmosphere. But this sort of thinking does not apply at all to my film scoring, which is strictly dictated by the nature of the film. One thing is to compose free pieces, in which you are the one who dictates; it might not work, but you are in command. With a film, the director is supposed to be in command, but he has to follow certain rules of dramatics and the script; the screenwriter has to work in a similar way. It’s a totality; it’s almost like a band, in that the music itself dictates.

Of course, there’s a bandleader, just as there’s a director. But in Basie’s band, say, nobody is really conducting, except that a saxophone player might stand up at the end, and give a cut–off; Basie really doesn’t conduct.

Or in a quintet, the soloists, the rhythm make their contributions; it’s an organic thing. So: the cameraman puts in his ideas as to this kind of light or this kind of lens, the screenwriter brings lines and scenes that he thinks are going to work, the actors interpret the lines and develop the characters, the director tries to put it together or to see how it’s going to work out, and the composer contributes the kind of sounds that will fit the action. It’s a collaboration, rather than a dictatorship.

My selection of musicians for soundtracks varies quite a bit. If it is a jazz–orientated track, I use musicians like Snooky Young, Jerome Richardson, Larry Bunker. If it is strictly classical, electronic or whatever, I use those kind of people. It’s exactly like casting actors: you cast the actor or actress that you think is going to play their part best.

I did a picture once in which I had a whole bunch of Latin–American percussionists, among them Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo; I brought Francisco Arvella from Los Angeles, Armando Peraza from San Francisco.

An incredible all–star Cuban rhythm section, that would be difficult to reproduce; even today, it doesn’t happen. It was a film called Che, the story of Che Guevara, with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance. A lot of it happened in Cuba, naturally. I accepted it after reading the script, which was good; for some reason, the film didn’t come out too well—I don’t know why. But the music came out all right. I played Inca music for the Bolivian scenes, Cuban music for the Cuban scenes, and stayed right away from politics. It had a cinema–verite’ documentary flavour—that gave it a nice rhythm.

When the film opens, you see Guevara dead, after he has been shot, in the schoolhouse of a small town in Bolivia; for this, I play a dirge of Inca flutes and drums. And, actually, you know who was playing the Inca flutes? Bud Shank. I had to fake it. The Inca drums were Larry Bunker playing a tom–tom, with an electronic Echoplex sound added. It sounded so authentic that a Latin–American musicologist, when he heard the soundtrack, asked me how I managed to find these incredible Inca musicians in Hollywood! It was all written out, too, you know. For the other parts I used the Cuban musicians. Plus, some of the time, a symphonic score on top of the rhythm section.

That particular score has been recorded, but I don’t know what amount of my film music has been released here in Britain. The thing is, the cost of recording a film album today is so high. Specially in the United States—the Musicians’ Union requires that the musicians get paid all over again. So that makes it very costly, when you are using sixty or seventy pieces. Consequently, companies are reluctant about releasing all the sound tracks. In most cases, when I do a film music album, I score it over again, to do real pieces of music, that are listenable, because records are a different medium from films. And in a film, it tends to be fragmentary; the cue can be ending in a place that musically doesn’t make any sense.

It’s a funny thing that there seems to be a sort of underground movement of film score addicts, and now they’re rediscovering the old scores of Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, Alfred Newman and others. I understand that all this is being newly recorded in London by a particular record company—with the London Philharmonic, I think. So probably when I am old, they are going to do it with my music! I’ll have to wait till I’ve matured—like wine or something.

Really, I’m proud of most of the things I’ve done. Some of them had a different challenge about them.

Cool Hand Luke, for instance, with Paul Newman, was a very interesting score to do. For The Fox, I used a chamber music approach, with no more than ten musicians. Then The Hellstrom Chronicle, the documentary about insects, which won the Cannes Festival award. The variety of challenges—that’s what is interesting about films. In general, I would say I’m satisfied with everything I do. It’s very difficult to be my own critic; I cannot be objective about it, but I sort of like it. Oh, there are certain things that, if I could do them all over again, I would do differently—that happens to all of us. But I’m changing—everything is.

There’s a lot of pressure and stress in film scoring. They give you four or five, sometimes six weeks to do a film score. That’s about one hour of music—and when you think about it, sometimes it took a composer one year to write a symphony. In television, it’s even worse—sometimes you have six days to write a score for a show, in which you have from eighteen to twenty–five minutes of music.

I’m not doing too much television lately, because of this heavy pressure, leaving no time for new ideas. It’s like a factory—it doesn’t allow you to work with imagination and creativity: it’s working by memory: what did I do before that works? Anything that works—all right, let’s put it there; everything is a melting pot, a pastiche.

The pilot, yes—because it’s the first episode of a series, which is going to give the format. That I do, because it makes me think. In that area I can make a contribution, like in the case of Mission Impossible, Mannix, Starsky And Hutch—I’ve done many of those. Usually, I work on a film after it’s completed. The Voyage Of The Damned, which I did recently, was one of the few exceptions. In November and December of last year, I was m Barcelona and London, while they were shooting the film, because they needed so many musical sequences that I really had to be there. I was a sort of musical director and advisor, and I even pre–scored in London certain songs and material to be used in the film. Then I had to wait until the film was finished, before doing my job of underscoring. But this is very unusual—the first time in my whole career that I worked before a film was made. Normally, I see the complete film through first, to have an idea; then I go scene by scene with the director and/or the producer to see where the musical sections are going to start and end.

I must say, I really love this medium; it’s very exciting. You get the same kind of excitement as playing jazz—in a completely different vein altogether. Even now, with all my experience, there’s great satisfaction. When I play a scene against the screen and it works, I say: “How did I do this?” . . . it’s so moving, and I don’t remember the method that I used to achieve it. All of a sudden, I feel like a child . . . you know, very content and very happy to see that everything works, everything matches, everything fits.

You have two entities, really. First you see the film without music: then you rehearse the music without film—and they’re two different entities. And when you put them together, it’s a chemistry that happens; each one creates a new kind of energy. It’s almost . . . yes, it’s alchemy, in which the sum is not the total of the parts—it’s more than that. So it’s interesting. I find it very rewarding, artistically—I’m not talking about monetarily, because with the income tax problems, that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to feel that you’re producing something of quality.

Furthermore, there is the opportunity to hire the best musicians in any field, and to experiment in any field. And to study the musics of many cultures, in different parts of the world. Then I’m becoming more and more interested in the study of electronic music. You know—it would be very difficult for a composer to use the kinds of instruments I use, unless he were part of a college or university that has an electronic laboratory. But in my case, I get the film studios to rent these instruments, so that I can use them. Same thing in the case of Emil Richards—what opportunity would there be to use so many kinds of exotic sounds and all that? It’s not that easy. It’s easy for us, though, because we have the possibilities available to us. Above all, the quality of the musicians is the biggest plus. Whatever the field—first—class.

In this medium, I think I have made progress musically. Maybe I would have made it anyway; maybe it was part of my development. It’s difficult to say what I would have done. The ifs in history don’t exist; it’s like . . . when historians, trying to explain the battles of the Second World War, say if the Germans hadn’t done that, and if the Allies hadn’t done that . . . But the ifs are not real; they’re conditional and immaterial—you have to judge history for what it is. It’s too late to say, if I had stayed in the jazz scene, maybe I would have made a major contribution in the field of jazz—I don’t know that. It’s difficult to assess. Specially, it’s difficult for me to assess.

I’d like to mention an album I made in March of this year for Creed Taylor’s CT1 label, called “Black Widow”; it’s on release now. It’s fun; it’s not in the same vein as the avant garde pieces. I wanted to do something more commercial, to be exposed differently to a large audience. There are people who meet me and say: “Oh, I thought Lalo Schifrin was an old guy.” They’re expecting a sixty or seventy–year–old composer. so I wanted to remind them that I’m not that old! It’s a mixture of Latin, jazz, rock and contemporary sounds. I used electronics, Hubert Laws was one of the flautists, and I had a New York rhythm section of very young guys. Jon Faddis, the young trumpet player who plays like Dizzy, is on the album. I lived in New York for five years, before I went to Hollywood, while I was with Diz and all that; so it was very stimulating for me, to go back to New York to do this.

Speaking of Dizzy—about one month ago, he stayed in my house for three days. He wants me to write an album for him, which I’m going to do. I’m going to try to take him away from the things that he’s used to, and maybe give him another kind of a stimulation. I’ll use a small group, and then I’ll add some electronic keyboards and voices around it—and just let him play. It’s funny—he came to my house, he said: “I have a lot of ideas”: he brought his trumpet, but he didn’t use it to show me the ideas—he used a bass drum. I had to call Emil’s place, and they sent me round a bass drum. In the three days, he never opened his trumpet case. Very interesting. Oh, in every sense—ideas–wise, the way he plays—Dizzy is one of the great giants of jazz. Doing the album with him is something that I’m really looking forward to.

Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.