Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
For about seven months now, Tony Bennett and I have been travelling around together all over the world. I conduct and play the piano for him, of course And actually, I’ve been writing for him since 1967. Which was when I did the first record date with him; we did “For Once In My Life”, “Get Happy”. Over the years, I’ve done about fifty things for him—they’re all on various albums. A more recent chart I particularly like is “My Love”.
Then the very last thing I did was “All That Love Went To Waste”; that seems to be doing very well for him.
I think my getting this job resulted from my writing association with him.
We seem to work well together at rehearsal sessions, preparing the music for record dates. Our temperaments appear to be in the same gear. When he offered it to me, it came at the right time in my life; I really felt ready for it. And my wife felt that it would be a nice change, to travel and see a lot of places. Because prior to that, for about ten years, I just lived in New York and did all my work from there.
The person who’s needed here has to fill three requirements, and they’re probably in this order: conductor, pianist and, if possible, writer. The writing part of it—it’s nice if it’s there, but it’s really conductor/pianist, because there is a lot to play in the book, as well as the conducting aspect.
And if you have a jazz background, it’s fun. I mean, he’s a pop singer, but he’s also a jazz singer. The result is: when we do rhythm songs, they’re always of a jazz nature. There are numbers we do that feature soloists on various instruments. Like, on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, piano, bass, two trumpets, trombone, tenor sax and drums are featured. We’re also lucky enough to have Kenny Clare—which is great. I really like his playing, and him personally.
I’d heard of him in the States, and I knew his work from the concert that Tony did at the Royal Albert Hall. Kenny was on that, and I saw a videotape of it; also an album was made of that concert. So in this way I became aware of him. He’s the greatest. And Arthur Watts was working with us on bass the other night—he’s wonderful, too. He isn’t travelling with us; so that was the first time I had worked with Arthur. He just knocked me out.
I’ve become very much aware of Tony’s jazz orientation. He never really does it the same way twice. There’s a basic similarity, of course, singing the same song with the same lyrics, but his phrasing and interpretation of the song is different every time, and very interesting. I love the way he sings. Yes, you can term him a musicians’ singer. I’ve worked with a lot of singers over the years, but I’ve never seen such a respect amongst musicians as that which they have for Tony. Truly, he’s loved by musicians; it’s a reciprocal thing.
We work a lot with Basie’s band; also Woody Herman’s band. For the jazz side, we have the Basie or Herman band; then we add a string section from whatever the locale is that we’re working in. And that’s fun; the guys in both bands all dig him.
Woody’s band is made up of very young people at the moment—and they’re excellent, too. Sure, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in and playing with those bands.
I was born in upstate New York; when I was twenty I moved to New York City, and I’ve lived and worked there. As a player, I guess I really stopped about fifteen years ago. That is to say, I stopped performing publicly; I went into the writing side, and stayed with it, which led to my working with a lot of people. In 1961 I did an album with James Moody; then some work with Herbie Mann—these were strictly instrumental kind of things. Others I worked on backgrounds for in the record field: Morgana King, Frank Sinatra, Andre Kostelanetz, John Lennon—I scored his “Imagine” album; that was very enjoyable. I also spent some time in the commercial jingle field.
Getting back to my jazz origins, I guess it all happened in upstate New York. There’s a group of jazz people who came from that area, whose style I always felt was peculiar to the area, for some reason. I can’t really explain it, but there was a certain type of feel . . . and I know, as a kid growing up, these jazz people were around.
Not even names—just people in the area. I had a great liking for Horace Silver in those years; Bud Powell, of course, and Charlie Parker. That school of jazz.
So I tried to get that going in my writing. When I write jazz music, I try to make it as if you’re just blowing, so to speak—to allow it to get that same sort of flow. Almost improvisational writing; although it’s on paper, but still so it has that nice loose thing.
Later on, I guess I became more interested in the ballad kind of writing for orchestra, as opposed to jazz band, or even jazz band and orchestra combined. When I really got attuned to the orchestral thing, I was greatly influenced by the Impressionists—Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, etc.—and somehow I tried to marry that within the pop thing. I feel that some of the arrangements I’ve written really have an impressionistic flavour to them.
This was particularly so in the things I did with Morgana King, because she has this ethereal kind of way of singing, anyway, She has a tremendous range, and you really never know what she’s going to do. I would say it’s an ethereal sound—it always sounded that way to me. And as a result, the songs that I set for her seemed to lend themselves to that impressionistic kind of approach. Like, I did an arrangement of “Lazy Afternoon”, for example, with all the soft strings and celeste sounds; they fit with her more than anyone I’ve worked for.
For Frank Sinatra, I did arrangements on two songs from a musical, Skyscraper, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. This happened because Frank heard the things that I’d done with Morgana, liked the approach and was interested in having me do something. The songs were “Everybody Has The Right To Be Wrong” and “I Only Miss Her When I Think Of Her.” It was most enjoyable; he’s very nice to work for. He used a fifty–piece orchestra, which was great.
I would say I’ve developed a special technique of string writing. At least, people tell me it’s unique to me in some ways. It came from listening, but mainly from just doing it. I mean, you can experiment with so many things, but after doing so much of it, over and over, you kinda fall into your favourite sounds and so on. In my case, anyway, I became zeroed in to a certain approach to writing orchestral backgrounds for singers. It wasn’t something I was even particularly looking for, I’d say; it just sort of evolved.
I’ve done some piano playing these recent years, but it’s not often been a matter of going out to play. My brother, Ronnie Zito, is a professional drummer, working in New York; he spent a while with Woody Herman’s band. So Ronnie, myself and a bass player would get together on a Sunday afternoon occasionally, and have a go at it. But as far as playing in a club, or going to jam sessions—I didn’t really do too much of that kind of thing over the last fifteen years. Because I had really felt like I had given up playing, in a sense. I was making my living writing, and I was playing the piano more as a hobby. Working at it, practising, keeping my chops up and all, but I wasn’t interested in playing as part of a job—until Tony approached me.
And of course, now it feels nice to be out playing again; the people we work with are nice, and it works out well. Now I can just go at it, however. There are really no restrictions with Tony. Since he’s so flexible, and such a capable performer, it gives the accompanist all sorts of leeway.
Whatever I can think of to play is fine. Which makes for a very good relationship. Some singers that I’ve worked for in the past are sort of locked in—they want to hear the same kind of thing all the time. Whereas Tony isn’t like that at all—being a jazz–orientated person. He likes variety, because he performs that way himself.
As far as my thoughts about the jazz scene—in the first place, I haven’t really followed it all that closely. I followed jazz through the fifties, and into the ‘sixties; then somehow I became more interested in finding my own approach, not only to jazz but to music in general. Yes, I was more into commercial things. Although I haven’t really heard anything over the past few years that I could say was strikingly new. But some of the real out stuff—I really don’t get the message from it. I guess I’m kinda locked into more of a straight–ahead, swinging feel.
What I like best is the big band kind of jazz of today. I’ve followed the work of Thad Jones—Mel Lewis, Don Ellis—and Woody’s band, of course.
There’s a certain kind of jazz writing that I’ve always admired and liked an awful lot—and that’s the writing of Bill Holman. Somehow, there was a thing that he could do with saxophones, brass and a rhythm section that was so unique to him—that he still can do. And I find that really incredible, within the medium of a band. For years, I’ve listened to his writing with the greatest admiration.
Neal Hefti is another writer who I’ve admired over the years. I like Gerry Mulligan very much, too. I had an occasion to write a composition for him a couple of years ago, when he did a concert in Town Hall with a woodwind group. Alec Wilder and Eddie Sauter had both written something, and I contributed a piece to it. He was really fun to work with.
An orchestral writer I’ve been greatly influenced by is Bob Farnon. He did the first part of the programme on Tony’s Festival Hall concert. I feel that he has a really unique talent; his approach to music has always knocked me out, from the first time I heard it around twenty years ago. I’m one of his biggest fans.
What first attracts a jazz–orientated person to Farnon’s writing, I guess, is the beautiful harmonic quality they hear—but that’s just one aspect. As vou listen to it, you become aware that he’s got it all: melody, harmony, counterpoint—the whole thing. It’s cloaked in this light music area: which is understandable—he’s done a lot of light music. But some of his other compositions are swinging things. It’s impressionistic, but it’s him, too. I mean, no one else does it like him. If I hear one of his records, I know his sound right away. He has a way of going about it that’s really great.
This was actually the first time we’d sort of worked together, but I did meet him in New York a number of years ago. He did a Christmas album with Tony, and I think it was the first time he’d been back to New York in a long while; it was quite an event, really. Tony was with CBS then; it was recorded at their large 30th Street studio. And I got to visit with Bob a little. I just think he’s a superb musician.
The involvement with Andre Kostelanetz has been on about four albums, where I’ve done three or four arrangements on each one. The first thing that got to me was what was available to work with: a nice large orchestra; so you had everything at your disposal. I found it very interesting. Kostelanetz was probably the originator of the sort of mood/ orchestral/pop music thing; I guess he started that some time in the ‘thirties. It was quite a challenge, because they were primarily current vocal hits—like, say, something the Fifth Dimension would do—that he would want set in an orchestral context. But I think the most fun I’ve had writing has probably been my work for Tony. Because you have everything. He does great ballads, and there are no restrictions on what you can do in the way of backgrounds. And in relation to jazz, his head is just about where mine is; so there’s a nice meeting there.
Other singers I like? Well, Sinatra, of course. Morgana King, Peggy Lee. I think Jack Jones is a good singer. Sarah Vaugban I’ve always liked. Dinah Washington—I worked with her as well.
Yes, it’s good that Sinatra decided to return to singing. For a man with that kind of a following, who is really capable of still performing—why not? If he feels good about it, he should do it. In fact, Tony and I and our wives went to see his show at Caesar’s Palace in ‘Vegas, and it was really a knockout to see him back performing. He sounded wonderful.
In both Frank and Tony’s case, they sing the best of new material as well as the older songs that they’ve been so associated with over the years. You know, the wild thing is: whatever song they do, old or new, the way they sound is such a personal expression. They make it their own. Like, Tony takes a Beatles song or something, and it’s as if it was never done by anyone else but Tony. The same with Frank. It’s the mark of greatness, to be able to do that.
Some of the songs being written now are very nice and refreshing: some of it isn’t so good, but I think it’s always been that way. Although now it’s probably more diverse, in that so many more people are writing. I’m sure there were a lot of other songwriters in the era of Gershwin and Kern, but for some reason they do seem to be a lot more plentiful today.
I’ve composed a number of songs myself. Nothing that Tony’s recorded yet, although I’ve written a couple that he’s been looking at, and may do. My jazz compositions have been recorded by people like Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Mann; now I think I’ll get into the song thing more, because I like it.
I like film music—underscoring a drama, that kind of thing. There’s some co–relation between that and writing for a vocalist, with an orchestra, where you can set a mood or a feeling. The only thing with underscoring a dramatic scene of some sort, the material you would use would be original—but still you have to create the mood of whatever the situation may be, through the orchestra. With music, there’s no limit to how much can be done.
Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.