Jazz Professional               


There are good vibes around today

My life in and around jazz
Happy again with the trio
There are good vibesaround
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982

With the Trio now, Tal Farlow and I play new things every night—you know, you say: “How about this?” That’s the way things usually did develop before with the Trio. We never tried to push ideas; it just normally happened, and we’d get into ‘em. I think it flows a lot better that way too; if it’s too thought out, too pat, it can be a little stiff. If what Tal and I play come out intricate, it’s not just off the cuff, so to speak. With Lennie Bush, we were getting into a lot of tunes we’d never done before. There were maybe two or three things that we had bass parts on; I had Tal write out a things that he was doing on “My Romance,” and we used to get so many requests for “Fascinating Rhythm” that we wrote out a base part for that, which Lennie played. Outside of that, everything was: “Do you know. . . Let’s play that.” Yes, I think Tal and I play off one another. Well, Tal is very creative; he can go into some things that are just wonderful to hear—sometimes I feel I’d just like to stop and listen to what he’s doing. That’s the exciting part in playing jazz—when you improvise like that. Every night it’s different, nothing staid about it; so it’s interesting to go to work every night. You play, it happens, you get a feeling from it.

Those flat mallets? I’ve brought some, but I haven’t used ‘em much lately—specially since I play on an amplified instrument now, as I’ve done for the last ten to twelve years. Which is a godsend, because my touch has always been so light from playing xylophone and marimba—now I can relax, and play much easier. This amplification has really helped me immensely—I can go back playing like I did when I played xylophones. Very easy and very relaxed.

When I got the first one, eleven years ago . . . this is the same system I have now, but I had it put on an old instrument . . . I realised that, from playing just in microphones, I was playing much heavier than I normally play. So I went back on marimba and xylophone for a while; I played a little bit of vibraphone every day, and it started to lighten up my touch again. It got so I felt freer about playing faster things. So it’s definitely helped. I enjoy it.

I think in the next five or ten years everybody’ll play amplified vibraphones—because it circumvents one of the big drawbacks that have been. It’s a very soft instrument—all mallet instruments are—and it’s usually very hard to hear all the notes that are being played, even if you have three mikes on it. Even recording—I think you get a different tone from different places, but now it’s the same all the way up and down the instrument. You know it’s that instrument, from the top to the bottom. And I think it’ll encourage maybe three–and–a–half or four–octave instruments; it’ll also encourage a lot of improvement in the instrument.

I don’t know how it is in England, but I know in the States there are a tremendous number of new players, all over the country. A big factor is that a lot of the colleges have courses on mallet instruments; so a lot of the young people are playing them. They’re still playing timpani if necessary, but as a rule they’re all going in that jazz direction—even young high school kids I see in California.

Which is very encouraging—I think it’s wonderful.

It’s great for me to see, because I can remember back to when I was the first one, I guess, that played jazz on that instrument—and there were so few, even up to twenty, thirty years ago. They’re all playing—they have a good outlook on what the instrument can do, and the different ways it can be played. In the next ten years, I think, there’ll be some positive developments in the playing of it, and different styles will develop.

Already Milt Jackson and Gary Burton have very different styles; I think most of ‘em are different—which is good. Then there’s Mike Mainieri. Another excellent vibe player is a friend of Gary’s—Bill Molenhoff, who used to teach at Berklee; he’s got his first album out, and I’m doing some of the notes for it. He’s written a lot of new music for the vibraphone. Oh, there’s a lot of ‘em; David Friedman and David Samuels in New York—have you heard them? On the Coast, there’s some wonderful ones work the studios—very good players.

Using four mallets—that’s not a big deal, when you think of it. I think some things sound better with two hammers—with just a single line. If you use four in some of those, it starts to clutter it a little bit. You could hear Tal and I play just two lines, and yet actually you’d know what the harmony was. If the tines are strong, you don’t need chords all the time—the two lines will give you all the construction you need in it. Now, in some instances, I use four to make a background for Tal. I’ve always played four hammers—I did back in the ‘thirties, on Bix’s things and all. I used to do it on marimba a lot. Then for a lot of years I didn’t, because when I had a big band there was a scene of being heard; so there was only a small section of the instrument you could play. I was doing all the solos within an octave–and–a–half, so I could get it even on a record. It clamped you in quite a bit, but you realised you had to keep it within that scope—otherwise the colour, the tone would start to change.

I enjoy most of the kids who are trying to play four hammers; I think most of the four–hammer players have been piano players originally. Mike and Gary have done some nice things. And all the material that Bill has written for schools is probably very much needed by them. Actually, there’s more and more music coming out for mallet instruments, and there’s more percussion groups in the States.

A lot of the symphony orchestras have them; maybe you heard the one from Toronto—a very good group. They’re using all the mallet instruments, timpani, everything, and it’s quite interesting music.

When you realise that there’s so much music written for other instruments it brings home to you how very little has been written for mallet instruments. And there’ve been some great artists in mallet playing—like the Furtata brothers, who were notable classical marimba players from Mexico, back in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. Classical—but great artists; they used to come to Spain and give concerts, and things like this. Then the Hurtata Marimba Band used to be featured in a lot of pictures—there were six of ‘em.

As for using vibes in a rock group—well, there was a fellow playing in a rock group down South, who had a four–octave amplified one, built special. I didn’t get to hear him; he was in Dallas and I was going to go in and hear him when I went to Texas to do a jazz festival in Odessa, because they told me he sounded very good with it. Now I find out that he’s got out of the music business, and is very successful in some other business. So I never got to hear how it would be with a rock group—but I imagine it could be very adaptable. I think it would be a new sound for them.

I’m sure it’ll happen.

I think Gary Burton has influenced most of the younger players. Mike Mainieri has too, but Gary probably more than any. He’s played some nice music too—I like a lot of his things that I’ve heard. He’s looking for new material all the time, which is good. That’s all part of progress.

There’s been a lot of thought about hammers—I just use the regular hammers they make. A lot of people have come to me over the years and said: “Would you try this? We’ll make a Red Norvo mallet.” and they’re going to charge ten dollars a stick or something like that. I say “No”—how can you expect a young kid in high school to pay forty dollars for a set of four hammers? And Deagan make ‘em just as good as anybody. I mean, I can use any hammer; it doesn’t many any difference to me that way. It’s a sales thing to have players’ names on instruments; if a young man likes Bobby Hutcherson, he’ll buy those hammers, or if he likes Gary, he’ll buy those—but it won’t make him play like them. A lot of the guys got worried about plastic sticks, but I didn’t find they’re any different. It doesn’t mean that much—you can find any stick for any sound that you want. On xylophones and marimbas, I always played with a rubber mallet, because I think that’s the only way you get the true sound of the wood. Of course, a lot of guys now are playing marimbas with vibraphone hammers, which I think have a tendency to take away from the wood sound. Of course, it’s what you get used to. Like, you used to have to hit so hard to be heard; then you’d go on a record date, and a lot of times they turn the highs up, with the result that the instrument gets a “ping” sound—but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. With the amplification, you can cut down on that. A lot of engineers really think that “ping” is the way the vibes are supposed to sound—but they’re over–hitting and it’s shattering just a shade. In that direction, there’ll be great improvement in the next five years too; the individual sounds will be more prevalent. If they go to amplified instruments, it’ll show more. It’s the same as the difference between guitar players’ sounds—you can practically recognise a lot of the good guitarists by the tone they get.

Well, I’m just happy for the instrument—I just love to hear anybody play it. I went over and heard the high school band that my housekeeper’s son plays with, in concert, and there was a fellow up there who reminded me of Tal—his stature and everything. He played so nice, and I enjoyed it very much; he seemed to know what he was doing harmonically—all he needs to do is play, and get with something. It’s a delight to hear somebody like that.

As far as swing is concerned—it just comes down to: either you have it or you don’t, I suppose, in improvising.

Along with the other elements. I used to think, maybe fifteen years ago, that the art of improvising was going to be lost—I wondered if it was going to live through the next generation of players. But it has, and there’s some new players coming out now that are playing awful good. Some piano players, saxophone players . . . young kids that have had the advantage of early education—and some of ‘em are very, very gifted.

Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.