The jazz audience
Second part of a meeting of Les Tomkins and the wisecracking saxist in 1963
I'm sure a lot of jazz musicians feel the need of other outlets than blowing with a rhythm section. Generally, though, that's just about enough for me. As regards whether the jazz public can be made substantially larger—it's hard to say. It's hard even to say to what extent the Brubeck Quartet's audience was synonymous with the jazz audience. People have constantly come up to say that we introduced them to jazz; I suppose that's a good work. And if they wander on to outgrow us and end up with the avant garde, so much the better—the avant garde needs all the help it can get!
It's probably to do with things like the unexpected hits—and hits are almost always unexpected. "Take Five" was certainly never meant to be any kind of a hit. It would have seemed insane. Five–four was a rare thing in those days; now, of course, it's fairly ordinary.
That was only one of the eccentric rhythms that Dave used on those albums. It became sort of a challenge to include as many as you could. I think it got up to thirteen–eight, or something like that, And then I did another thing in eleven. Well, it was one bar of five and one bar of six— not exactly eleven, but who's counting?
But even quite a number of years later, when I played away from Dave, recording or whatever, guys still wouldn't be used to playing in five—even excellent musicians—and I'd feel edgy about it. Because it's a weird thing; it's a lot like riding a bicycle. Sounds dumb, but that's really almost exactly what it is. There's a point at which you can't do it, there's no way, and you fall down every three feet. And that's how we started, the first time we played it. You find yourself playing an idea that's based in four; then suddenly that fifth beat is there, and you're stuck with it. At some magical point—as with bike riding—you find you can do it, with no effort at all; it seems perfectly natural. You can stretch over bar–lines, get very complex, and always know exactly where one is going to be.
Oddly enough—I've never yet figured that out—the record of "Take Five" was made before any of us could play in five. We were being really careful on that. Like, the chorus I played on the record I think is really dumb. A month later, and ever since, I've been totally at home in five, playing a lot more interesting things. If you listen to that chorus, there's a couple of places where that fifth beat takes me by surprise, and I don't know what to do about it. I just sort of wait for it to go away; it goes away, and I start all over again! Yet that's the record that was the hit. It's very mysterious how that happened. Incidentally, we did a thing in five on the new CTI "Skylark" album.
Although it still disturbs some purists, that facility that exists now for overdubbing opens up so many tremendous possibilities. It's kind of a challenge, to make a creative use of it. Don Sebesky, who has always done all the arrangements on my things with Creed Taylor, has used it particularly well on his own CTI album, "Giant Box". A fantastic track on that is a combination of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, played exactly as written for a long time, and then very subtly switching into sort of vintage Birdland jazz. It's the most marvellous amalgamation of a large orchestra and a jazz group that I've ever heard.
And, of course, I've been in that situation with Dave a few times—not with the choral/symphony/rock group/everything monster productions, but earlier on, with just the Quartet and the symphony. Yeah, things like "Brandenburg Gate". But there was always a problem—especially in live performance. You have the rhythm section, and you're clustered together, defensively, feeling mildly paranoid—at least, in my case. It's a feeling I never quite got over, walking out on stage with the New York Philharmonic, or the Philadelphia, or the Boston Symphony. Here is this whole forest of Stradivari!—or however you would say that—all these Ukrainian child prodigies, who could sight–read the Bartok Violin Concerto upside–down and read a book at the same time, probably. And I know they're going to be sitting there playing whole–notes minute after minute, while this dumb saxophone player stumbles around and tries not to play wrong notes.
It was the sort of situation where the trick was to get through the piece without getting hopelessly out of sync with the orchestra. Which was always a possibility, because the conductor is going one way, the rhythm section is going another way, and the guys in the back row of the symphony are subject to a bit of a time–lag. The disaster actually happened a couple of times. We were recording the "Dialogues For Jazz Combo And Orchestra" with Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic—and those guys, of course, are as good as you could ever get. Possibly because we weren't being quite as careful, in a way, as during a live concert, we relaxed a little bit. The next thing we knew, they were one beat away from us, sure enough; we had to stop, and do it again.
The symphony by itself is just too unwieldy. That's where the art of conducting comes in—it's like the difference between steering a small motor–boat and bringing the QE2 into port. They respond to control much more slowly; when you want something to happen, you make the move first, wait for a while, and then it happens. So in those things with the symphony, if we just finish with a minimum of mishap, that's considered an accomplishment. If you succeed in playing a good chorus somewhere along the line, that's a bonus.
But this album with Sebesky was never a problem, because modern recording techniques enable you to break up the earphones; everybody is absolutely together and completely free. It's a stunning record; it starts out with the Firebird, and sounds like the entire Boston Symphony right there. Very gradually, you look around, almost like hallucinating, and you're in Birdland circa 1963, or something like that, with Hubert Laws on flute, Freddie Hubbard. The piece it's mingled with is one I evidently hadn't heard before, called "Birds Of Fire". As a matter of fact, I'm on the album—not on that track. Just about everybody on the Creed Taylor roster is there, one time or other—Ron Carter and Airto, of course; also Jackie Cain and Roy Krai, Milt Jackson, and a whole bunch of people.
When I was involved in that orchestra/group set-up, it always came as something of a jolt to switch from one to the other. Which is why the Sebesky thing is so impressive. The first appearance of the jazz element practically makes me cry every time I hear it. Really wild—it sneaks up on you. There's one beat, I think, that isn't in the actual score; because it starts, as I say, absolutely straight. You play it for somebody—I've done this, a number of times—alongside of any existing record of the Firebird and ask them what orchestra they think it is, they'll say things like: "Well, it sounds a bit like Zubin Mehta . . . but the sound is so fantastic, it must be the Philadelphia . . ." Suddenly Hubert Laws comes in, and they say: "No—it's not the Philadelphia either!" It's a wild thing. Well, Don's primarily entitled to the credit for it—and Creed, of course, as the producer. But the engineering, by Rudy Van Gelder, the original fussy person—it's almost unbelievable, what was accomplished.
As for my own private listening— yes, I have a record collection. As a matter of fact, I have much too much of a record collection. That's not a plight, I know, calculated to break the heart of anybody reading this. But most people who get review copies know this feeling; after a certain amount of time, they take over the house and you have to move out. Well, I sort of got into that. If you belong to the National Academy Of Recording Arts and Sciences, known as NARAS—they're the ones that give the Grammy awards—you get, at cost, every record that's produced. They send you this list, and you're always tempted—the price is kind of irresistible. Something like the complete Bartok String Quartets—£1! Not too far away from that, in some cases. You say: "Well, what the hell—I already have them, but I'll get this version, and see what happens with that." So you end up with a wall–full of records, and go crazy trying to figure out which ones you want to hear.
I think the only way to resolve this is the way most people do, and the way I did most of my life, until quite recently, when we stopped travelling. You have about twenty records that you really love, and Just about know by heart; it's the old desert island thing: which ten books, which twenty records would you take if you were going to be isolated for a year? And that's it. You can listen to the Bartok String Quartets every day for a year, and find something different each time. Or Bach, or whatever. Or many jazz records.
Unavoidably, anyway, a lot of the things that come out aren't all that good. If you make records, ultimately—no matter who you are; this applies for absolutely everybody that I can think of—you put out an album, and there's got to be something in there that you're not really knocked out with, but you've got to get that twenty–one minutes per side. They can't all be gems. Nobody is that perfect. Classical music makes more sense, obviously, because you can get different versions of the same thing. But when you start checking off jazz names, because Miles has a new record, or Bill Evans, or whoever you happen to like ... in most cases, you can rely on it. In some cases—no. You get this record and say: "Hmm, okay—once through, and that'll do it for me."
Actually, I'm on the verge of applying some discipline to my listening, since they came out with the Dolby cassette system. Come to think of it, that was invented over here, wasn't it? It's a noise–reduction process, but it seems unique in that it's one of the very few electronic advances I know of that, in many cases, was available in home equipment before it became available in studio equipment. Apparently, it can be done quite easily on a small machine, at quite a reasonable cost—maybe £100. Whereas to convert an entire studio, with the monster sixteen-track or thirty-two-track that they have these days, that is a monumental job, and many of the studios are only now catching up to using it.
But with a Dolby cassette, you can tape a record, and it will literally sound better than the original—it cuts down the surface noise. Besides which, you have other advantages: it's on a cassette, and it's not going to get scratched or warped or anything like that. Also, you can go through your records, picking out those little jazz gems. No matter whose record it is, or who you are, it's almost certain you'll have different tastes; there'll be something that bores you to sleep the first time you hear it, as well as something you can listen to a lot. You just put all the winners on one cassette; that solves the problem.
I listen to more classical music than jazz. In my choice of favourite composers, I'm afraid I haven't advanced very much throughout the years; they're pretty much the same ones that they were when I started with Dave. I like the Baroque composers, by and large; some of the Romantics. I'm not too crazy about the really heavier ones. And vocal music always drives me up the wall; I don't like to hear people singing opera, for instance—it's a total lost cause for me. Choral sounds are fine, yes—as long as they aren't individual voices. I can appreciate some fantastic qualities of the real superstars, but even so, when they assemble the whole bunch of them for the definitive version of "Tristan And Isolde" or whatever—I am out the window.
I really enjoy Stravinsky, obviously, and Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Charles Ives—sort of up to what would be considered contemporary music, I suppose. I get off the train pretty much when it gets too far-out. By the same token, the most outrageous jazz of today leaves me cold—absolutely. Even some of the not so outrageous jazz I'm not too crazy about.
Copyright © 1963, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.