Jazz Professional               



Speaks his mind

Speaks his mind
On jazz form
Looking at the scene
A Les Tomkins interview

Good to see you again. The weather is rotten, as usual, and I'm going back to Nice first thing in the morning-where it's great! But I'm always happy to be here in London. That festival down there in Nice, though, as you must know-it's really a great spirit. I was standing at a certain spot, and it sounded like Charles Ives music coming at me in all directions, from three bandstands. It's great.

As I recall, our last chat was in a restaurant, in '76. Yeah, I've been keeping pretty busy since then. I eat a lot, actually-I think about you every once in a while, when I'm sitting in a restaurant. I have been getting to play a good deal-thankfully so. I have seniority rights now; so they just say: "Give this guy a chance, until he gets it right." I do get it right sometimes, I must admit.

My nine-piece band? I played with them recently for the first time in some while. I've been travelling so much, alone mainly, that I haven't had a chance to establish that week-to-week continuity that's necessary-for a larger band, especially. For quite a stretch we were working one or two nights a week in New York, and I built a library from that; now it's impossible. But I got a bunch of good guys together, who had played with the band before, and it was just like we had kept on playing.

Now I'm looking forward to renewed activity with the Nonet. There's a lot of new music. I've been asked by the Smithsonian Institute to get six of the old Miles Davis Nonet pieces together, because they want me to play there in January. Martin Williams had heard the records of my Nonet, and he said: "I love your band. Would you play there, and how would you feel about playing some of the Miles Davis charts?" I said: "I'd love to. I've been looking for them, but I can't find them, and I'm a little intimidated to transcribe them, because there are some things that are inaudible." He said: "Well, go ahead, take your time and transcribe them." So I did what I could, and I decided that in order to hand the authentic thing to the Smithsonian and to have them extant authentically that I would consult the composers. That was the next project. I called Gerry Mulligan; he said : "I don't have the scores, but come on over to the house." I went over to Connecticut, and for four straight hours I sat there while Gerry rewrote one of the arrangements-George Wallington's "Godchild". He listened to the record, and he couldn't hear it either; so he made, maybe, a new and better version of it-but in exists now. For technical and other reasons, certain things just can't be heard; so you use your logic and imagination to know what the next voice .is doing. Well, that's the best thing-if it's a little different from what's on the record, at least he'll be responsible for it.

So that will be music that my band will play now also. As for recording them-I don't see any reason to do that, unless I come up with some different angle. If we could think of some new way of doing that, maybe so. It certainly is classic music, and it could even stand a better rendition-because that was a little rough on those records, as I remember.

The band didn't play together that much.

There are three albums now of my Nonet. The last one is on Steeplechase, the one before that is on Chiaroscuro, and the first one was on Roulette. They're all nice-I like 'em. And that came from just doing those one-night-a-week things-like Thad Jones' band did.

In recent years, I've been doing mostly touring. And I have certain meetings; like, going to play with Martial Solal-when I come to Europe, I have an act, so to speak, with him. We play duos and with rhythm sections; Martial is also writing ninety minutes' worth of music for a sixteen-piece band, that we're going to do some touring with later this year.

In different places there are particular people that I know; when they're available I can play with them: That's the next best thing to carrying your own group around-which I can't do yet. I have to wait till I get my hit record before I can pay to do that.

I'm sorry that my association with Bill Evans a couple of years ago was so short-lived-I felt a great affinity with Bill. There was a bit of a problem at that time, with certain things that were happening on that tour. But it ended up, of the three tunes that we played together, that I played two of them as a duo with him. I remember how strange that was when we played on a bandstand right in the middle of a soccer field in Middlesbrough; I walked out on the stage, and the nearest audience was fifty yards or so away-it was weird. The two of us played some quiet ballad, and then I could see the hands hitting before I heard a sound. The only recordings of Bill and I together was that one we did in '76-Bill's trio, Warne Marsh and myself-I believe it was on Milestone. That was nice, although there was very little to-do about it; no one really pointed it out as anything extra special. It sounded extra special to me. I always enjoy listening to that.

As for the reunion with Warne-that was it. We met in '76 over here, and made five albums that year.

Warne is to play in Berlin, with Sal Mosca, Eddie Gomez and possibly Max Roach; I had a letter from George Gruntz, the director of the festival in question, asking me if I would join them. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to accept than; they have been playing together, and I didn't want to just come and join them without having played for a while with them.

Is my playing reaching a new kind of plateau now? I've always felt that, just the way I'm constructed, to some degree it's a new plateau each time I play. I am not one to sit down and work far six months intensively for sixteen hours a day trying to hit a new plateau. I just go along each day and play, and hopefully learn a little more about how to do it. When it works, it works-on whatever level it works on. It's hard for me to say. I mean, Coltrane obviously was looking for new directions; he would work his ass off trying to get a new thing-and get a new thing. I don't function like that. I try to make it happen, rather than just let it happen-but on than kind of, hopefully, consistent and modest level. I'm not Gung Ho about anything.

I'm trying to lay out. . . I don't like to sound introspective. I like to sound as if I'm trying to improvise, but I don't want to over-blow, to get the outgoing quality by force. And it's hard the other way: I always felt that I was going to live forever; so it wasn't really necessary to prove myself. I mean, Bird died at the age of thirty-four; that's really living pretty heavy. I'm fifty-two now, and I'll never live long enough to play as good as him-but I will live long enough to play as good as me. As I have said a couple of times, I was very involved in Lennie Tristano`s music. To play like Bird was plain old difficult; so I figured I'd just stick to whatever I was doing there with Lennie.

It's been just great to be part of the Charlie Parker Tribute concerts in New York and London-especially not being a be-bopper per se, I feel honoured to be part of that group. Sure, I've always played those Bird tunes; they've been my favourite tunes. Most of 'em are the nice standards that we all like, and I just feel at home with them. But I'll tell you a surprising thing. Clark Terry and I played "Donna Lee" on the London concert; there's one spot in that that Clark said Miles wrote out for him-and it conflicted a little bit with what I recall getting from the record. So we asked Dizzy about it, but when we played it, he said: "What is that?" I was surprised to find out that he'd never played that tune.

On the question of whether working with Stan Kenton made a change in my playing-you've got to huff and puff to play with that band; you can't be too introspective when you're really trying to project. It was a great lesson for me. That's why I accepted that job-I knew, without being able to verbalise it, maybe, that it meant playing in a very strong environment, and having to really dig in. It was tough, but I appreciate that experience.

I've always tried to play out. As long as I'm in this body I'm going to try to play as out-I mean straight ahead out-as I can. That's the name of the game for me. On the New York Charlie Parker festival I played with James Moody and Lou Donaldson, and Richard Sudhalter reviewed the concert; he said James Moody sounded gregarious and conversational, Lou Donaldson sounded bubbly and buoyant or something, but I sounded introspective and whatever the hell he said. Later, I teased him about it; we were rehearsing other things, and I referred to it every time I could. I said: "I just want to tell you that that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to play out, see. If it sounds introspective, well, that's a shortcoming, as far as I'm concerned." I don't like to sound introspective. I like to sound like I'm trying to improvise, and all that, but I'm not trying to over-blow or anything, to get the outgoing quality by force. I don't want it by force. And it's hard the other way, if you're not forcing. So it tends, by comparison, to sound introspective, I guess.

Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.