The Brazil–born classical/jazz guitar virtuoso

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979

My last visit to Britain was when I was touring as a guest artist with the Modern Jazz Quartet—1964, wasn’t it? You like the L.A. Four, eh? Yes, it’s a good group. It really gets warm there in Ronnie Scott’s club during the night, but besides that, we’re enjoying it, and we have nice audiences. With the number of delicate things going on, we really have to count on the appreciation of whoever comes to hear us.

I believe I was the prime mover in the L.A. Four’s formation. I have had the format, of guitar, saxophone, drums and bass, since 1952, when we recorded “The Laurindo Almeida Quartet, Featuring Bud Shank” for Dick Bock on Pacific Jazz. Then for a few years I was playing the same repertoire with another saxophonist, Gary Foster, with Chuck Flores on the drums, and different bass players. When Ray Brown came to town, we started playing together. First we had a duet; we played a few concerts around, and as a result of that we did an album, “Blues In Greens: Bach Ground”, on which we did a lot of Bach and other pieces. After doing a job with a quartet at a very famous Los Angeles nightclub, Donte’s, I had a concert to play in a very prominent place there, Cal Tech, which belongs to the University. I invited Ray, and Chuck Flores was then the drummer; then Bud Shank came in– and that was the first time this group played for the public.

Soon afterwards, we played at Shelly Manne’s club— he had a place in Wiltshire Boulevard. That’s when he fell in love with the group, and enquired if he could come in. As it happened, Chuck Flores was having a little difficulty, and didn’t want to go on the road. So Shelly came into the group— and then we changed the name from the Laurindo Almeida Quartet to the L. A. Four. Yes, it’s the same initials, but it doesn’t mean that; it can mean Los Angeles, or anything. But alphabetically my name is still on top. Sometimes accidentally, like here, they put Ray Brown’s name at the top, but really it should be alphabetical : Laurindo Almeida, Ray Brown, Jeff Hamilton, Bud Shank. I am first by coincidence only; it isn’t meaning that I am the leader. There’s no leader in this group; we’re all the star. We have a corporation.

Since the beginning, I have written most of the arrangements for the group. And now I have help from Jeff Hamilton, who is our new drummer— he came in place of Shelley. We’re very, very happy with him; he’s not only a percussionist, but a very accomplished musician— he’s a wonderful arranger. He’s already written a few arrangements, such as “Spain” by Chick Corea, and a thing that they call; “Hammer Tones”; now he’s writing some more. It’s good that someone else can write— it’s not all in my hands now. Although we all arrange; Ray and Bud have done some for us too.

Yes, I would say the L. A. Four reflects my musical feelings not being strictly a jazz musician, and liking also to play classical music. In our programmes, I come in alone and play a couple of solos; then I play duets with Ray pieces by Bach, things that he plays with the bow. Right now I’m arranging a piece that involves the “Quasi Una Fantasia” by Beethoven, which is the so– called “Moonlight Sonata”, mixed up with Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight”; so it’ll be very interesting. We’re always doing things of that kind. I can put it this way: they say that if you take from one, it’s plagiarism, according to the dictionary— but if you take from more than one, then it’s research! Sao Paulo. Brazil is where I was born, right, and I was raised in Ri6 de Janeiro. 1917 was the year of my birth, which makes me over sixty years old now. Still going very strong? Thank you— I feel strong, yes; I feel young. Not today— if I have to work until three o’clock and write arrangements overnight, then I don’t feel so hot. But if I take another nap, I’ll feel all right.

Yes, my mother was a concert pianist, and my sister played guitar— you know a lot about my life! In fact, in those days there was no radio or television to distract you. and I first came into music by listening to my mother. As she was a classicist, that’s what I heard; she would play Chopin— a very vast classical repertoire. As you well know, we learn everything, even to talk, by imitation— by observing the movements of our mothers’ lips at a very tender age. The same thing happens with music; when you begin to hear things, you assimilate whatever is there to be absorbed. I wrote a concerto for guitar and orchestra, in three movements, the other day, which I played in Los Angeles— and I dedicated it to the memory of my mother. Because, you know, I owe her all these things. She taught me how to read music when I was seven years old; so I really am indebted to her. This was stated on the concert programme.

But it was not the piano that I wanted to play— although I love a piano. I’m a concertgoer in Los Angeles, where I live; my wife and I constantly go to see concerts at the Music Centre. Usually good names— like Horowitz we never miss; we saw Rubinstein several times, when he was playing, and we’ve seen other masters, such as the late Gieseking. In other words, we go, and I love the instrument. But I never liked it as much as the guitar, because I thought always that the piano is a percussive instrument. It’s not as intimate and direct, the way you can be with the guitar, in which you stop a note with your left finger and pluck it with the right finger. Even the violin has to be played with a bow. So the guitar was first place to me.

As far as initial guitar tuition— we had a difficult situation at the time in my hometown. The instrument was banned for boys, as a result of an accident. A boy went to a bar with his guitar, got in this fight, and was hurt; so all the mothers and fathers met at the church, and said: “Did you hear what happened to little Joe? Let’s not let our boys learn guitar.” This became the order of the day, and lasted quite a few months. Mean: while, there was I trying to learn.

One day my father came to me and said: “You are to sit by your sister. She is going to learn the guitar. A teacher will come, and you sit by her, to give her moral support and incentive. That’s the order.” I said: “Okay, Daddy.” My sister never really learned— she was so much in love with her dolls; as soon as the lesson was over, she would run to the dolls.

But I was just eating this guy up, you know observing his fingers, paying attention to everything he said. When he left, I’d grab this guitar, and go in the backyard there was a barn there— and that’s where I learned. I had no guidance.

I taught myself, totally: I had not seen anyone play guitar, except this gentleman. And when I was nine, two years after that, I was playing better than he played. I was taking things that I heard from my mother on the piano, and mentally transposing them to the guitar. I think I could have been called a child prodigy. There were certainly not many brilliant guitarists around in those days specially in Brazil. In the world, yes; Segovia was already around, and there had been Robledo before him, in Europe, There were some other people in Europe— but not in Brazil, no. I had the advantage of being exposed not only to classical music, but Brazil is a country of much rhythmic music, and I have heard both all my life. So that’s why I can swing and I can be serious.

My father died very suddenly with typhoid fever when I was nine; from that point on, I perfected myself, you know.

I have always been a selftaught musician. Later, I learned music; I even went as far as studying composition and orchestration all by reading books I never had a teacher. As I told you, I wrote a guitar concerto a month ago I orchestrated it myself. I’m prepared to write a symphony, because I know all about the orchestra; I learned this in my years working for the radio in Rio— I wrote a lot there. I was invited to play with and write for different combinations on the radio. That was a great teacher; you were dealing with first– rate pro’s. Many times, if I did something wrong, the musicians would be kind enough to tell me: “Laurindo, this note is not in the instrument.” If you write a note that’s not in an instrument’s range, of course, it cannot be played. I learned all that, and I would consult books too, so as not to go through funny situations and things like that.

I have written many books. In fact, I wrote a tutor for guitar in three parts. It was meant for guitar played by ear, for jazz guitar played with the pick, and for the classical guitar. The classical tutor has been published now, very successfully, for fifteen But originally I felt that I got know the English language well enough to put the book out, and I had a friend over here, very prominent in the British guitar world, by the name of John Duarte, who used to correspond with me; he offered to correct my English— so I sent him my book, and he helped me a lot with it.

At the age of nineteen, I wanted to know what was going on in Europe. I think musicians should not stay in their own home countries; they should go out and explore other horizons. So I took a job on a boat that was going to Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany; on that round trip I learned a lot. We stayed one week in Le Havre, France, and I went up to Paris— that’s when I saw Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli for the first time, playing together with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. It was a very enjoyable experience this man was a fabulous player. As I think everybody knows, because of an accident, two fingers of his left hand were useless— but he did things on that guitar with three fingers that most players couldn’t do with five. His execution was really fantastic. Hearing him was a great inspiration for me, although I never tried to play that style, because I’m a finger– style guitarist mainly. I started playing jazz on my guitar with fingers before anybody else did. When I came to America, everybody was playing that pick style.

I had already been listening to jazz in Brazil. I had a collection of American records— in those days it was only 78’s.

I used to collect pianists, and Fats Waller was my favourite— I had everything that this man ever recorded. I learned plenty just by listening to him; he was a great player, and I liked that style so much. I still have albums by him.

But I had my mind on going to America. I found out that you needed money, affidavits, all kinds of things to go there; so I started saving money, and in 1947 I just went. I had a permanent visa to stay in Los Angeles. When you go to America, you must become a resident of a certain state; I chose California, because I knew there was a lot of studio work there, and I was trained for that kind of work. But my first job was not in the studio— it was with Stan Kenton. I joined his orchestra, where I remained for three years.

He hadn’t heard of me from my work in Brazil— but he heard from me right there. Because the first thing I did on my arrival was a Danny Kaye film, A Song Is Born. I worked on it for a month, and just about every famous American jazz musician was in that film Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Lionel Hampton and many others. One of the musicians, Joe Riddle, heard me play with the fingers, and it was very strange to him, because everybody was playing pick. So he told Stan Kenton about me. Stan was always looking for something new; he said: “I don’t want any more pick or electric— I want something really pure and clear.” Which was odd, in view of the fact that his orchestra was very, very noisy. But that’s what he wanted.

So next thing, he contacted me, and I had a meeting with him in the office. I couldn’t speak English very well, but Pete Rugolo, the arranger, was there, and he spoke Italian; we got along that way. I speak a little bit of Italian. because it comes like a second nature, being from Sao Paulo— there’s a lot of Italians there. That was how I got engaged with the Stan Kenton orchestra.

It was a fine experience working with him. He’s a very nice man; I owe a lot to Stan. I was three years on the road, in the United States and Canada, travelling by all means of transportation—trains, planes; on the bus, mainly. And I was a featured soloist out in front; I had “Lament” written for me by Pete Rugolo, and then I composed “Amazonia”. By this time Stan had added strings to the orchestra; yes, he called it “Innovations In Modern Music.” Bud Shank was in that band; he came a little later than me. I think we travelled together for two years. Then Stan got sick in 1950 and he disbanded; otherwise I would have stayed maybe a little longer. After that, we all remained in Los Angeles; well, most of the guys— like Bud, Art Pepper, Shelly Manne, Eddie Safranski the bass player, trombonists Milt Bernhart and Kai Winding. Some of the others went back East.

I started looking for a place in the sun. And I did my first album for Capitol; the twelve-inch had not been invented yet— it was a ten-inch album, called “Concert Creations For Guitar.” In it I played all kinds of music— from Bach to “Tea For Two.” My intention was to show the contractors what I could do— so I could get some bread. I think a record is the best means of getting yourself known to the contractors—to the public, too.

As a result of the first album, I got a contract with Capitol Records: I think EMI bought a great part of Capitol— they have released a lot of my past output on the Angel label over here. I did about twenty albums for Capitol— classical first, and then I started doing popular ones. It was a nice association that I had with those people.

Besides making albums, I did twenty-five years of freelance work in Los Angeles— working in the studios, you know. I played guitar under so many, many films; so often do I see a film, and hear myself playing there. It was very profitable for me— and another experience. It was frantic sometimes; calls usually go on all day long. You open your book, and there it is; you don’t have time to wet your feet— you have to be prepared. For all those years, I was the only classical guitarist in Los Angeles who could go to the studios and read— cut the mustard, like they say. Then, with the advent of rock’n’roll, I started getting tired. They were asking me to bring my wah– wah pedal! I got disgusted with all that; from then, I just did certain specialised things. Which I still do—– they call me for specialised work, and I’m ready.

As far as the electric guitar is concerned, I had always been afraid of a shock, from electricity. The sound of the classical guitar fulfils my desires. I love it so much, that I have one of the greatest collections of records. You have two fabulous players here— Julian Bream and John Williams, whom I know personally, and go to hear whenever they come to Los Angeles. I think I have more of their recordings than they have! And Segovia. of course— I believe I have his complete recorded work. Then there are so many of the new generation of guitarists around; in Canada we have a young lady named Leona Boyd— she already has about five albums out. I buy all these kids’ albums with very great pleasure, because there was one time that the guitar disappeared completely from the scene— we thought it was going to die for ever. Now, thank God, I don’t think it will. So many good ones. From Brazil now, Carlos Barbosolima is fantastic; also the Abreo brothers.

Here in England, besides Bream and Williams, there are others coming to fame now, aren’t there? In every country, the guitar is well represented.

Amalgam Yes, the records I made with Bud in the early ‘fifties were something of a departure— but we never called ourselves inventors, discoverers or anything. See, I brought from Brazil not only the knowledge of the samba but a great deal of repertoire. A young man named Richard Bock, who knew I had a little name because of the Kenton exposition, the films and things. asked us to do an album. It was going to be the Laurindo Almeida Quartet, featuring Bud Shank. Bud agreed, and he said: “What’ll we do?” I said: “Well, let’s marry our music together, and see what happens.” We had Harry Babasin on the bass and Roy Hart; on the drums. Harry was very helpful also in bringing about the amalgam, on the jazz side; so was Bud, of course. As you know, we didn’t call it ‘bossa nova’. The term was in use; it was invented by Joe Carioca, a close friend of mine, but not in the way of music. Joe would see a new car, or a guy who had a different suit, and say: “Look— bossa nova! ” It just meant “the new thing”. Then later, musicians adopted it for that rhythm.

Our amalgam of the samba and jazz was in 1952; ten years later, in 1962, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd recorded an album of songs by Jobim that was much more successful. l would say that the people were not prepared for that thing when we did it, but they were when Charlie and Stan did it. That’s the way it happened, really. You know, the other day a young man came to us with the original copy of our first album; it has now been reissued in Japan.

Anybody listening to it now would “This is bossa nova”; it was the jazz feel with the samba behind .it. We changed the chords, on things like “Terra Seca,” which was in the format of “Tea For Two,” with the minor chord resolving to the dominant, In that kind of way, we put all the samba things into the area of improvisation. Later on, you heard ‘the jazz samba records,— and said: “Well. I’ve heard that before.” I think they really got inspired by our style to compose all those pieces, in the later years. Although all these people denied that they ever heard the albums by Bud Shank and, myself, I believe they did hear them.

Yes, Stan Getz and I did an album together in 1963; it was released in 1966. He’s a fabulous musician— although he had an accident at that time; someone stole his saxophone from inside of his car. Two hours later he came to the New York studio with a new saxophone, and he was in tears: he said. “I wouldn’t mind losing the saxophone, but the mouthpiece was fifteen years old.” It had the impression of his mouth on it; because a player bites on a mouthpiece— it’s a very intimate thing. And they stole that; so the man was distraught. It came out a good album, but the best sides had been done the day before, when he still had this good mouthpiece. Stan Getz is something else— he’s a great, great jazzman.

Bud is a fine jazzman, too; not only that, but he’s got such a sweet sound— oh, he’s beautiful at that. I think he’s the only one who can get that sound, when you need it for ballads. A singing sound, that’s right so beautiful. But he’s an alto, you know, and Stan is a tenor; so they’re different. Yes, Stan gets a singing sound on his tenor— his technique is amazing.

So is Bud’s; it’s not to compare them. There are so many good players in the country there; it’s hard to pinpoint who is best. They’re all good in their own way.

Living four thousand miles apart, I had never met the guys in the Modern Jazz Quartet before we did that tour; they were in New York, and I have always been on the West Coast. At the beginning of 1964, John called me on the phone, and asked me if I would like to join them on a tour of Europe for four months. I thought it was a little bit too long, but I wanted to go. I was already a great fan of the group; I had some albums they had done. I accepted, und we went to eighteen countries over here; it was very, very enjoyable. We went to Scandinavia, to France many times, and we came to London several times— that was when I met my dear friend Roland Harker, who passed away recently. I think the only Communist country we went to was Yugoslavia, which I liked very much. The people are very nice; they all want to go to the States, and ask about jobs there.

And I really enjoyed travelling with the guys; John Lewis, Connie Kay, Percy Heath— who was my buddy, to go out fishing during the day and the fabulous Milt Jackson. They’re such a nice group, you know; we were really close and friendly. As for John Lewis he’s a marvellous musician, who is not only knowledgeable academically, but is a really good player; he has such taste on the piano. He’s a fine arranger: he embraces a great deal of music. Those were some of the greatest times I’ve had in my life, musically.

Although, all by myself in Europe, I sometimes got depressed— it’s lonely to be out for four months. And I have this home in the hills of Sherman Oaks; I had it built to the specifications I drew up. I have a swimming pool outside, and the view is beautiful. So I really miss my home when I go out, when I don’t usually have the comfort I have in my own house.

Certainly, I’ve recorded the Adagio from Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez” several times, including with the MJQ and with the L. A. Four but I’ve never recorded the complete work in a classical context, although I’ve played it in public many times. Unfortunately, in America it’s very difficult to make a recording with the symphony, because the musicians’ scale is so high that, even if you play with a chamber orchestra, it costs a great quantity of money— fifty thousand, something like that— you can’t dream of it. So people come to Europe and do their recordings here, because the scale is much lower. You can save half of the money— sometimes more than that. I recorded the Villa Lobos Concerto For Guitar And Orchestra. I was the first guitarist ever to record that piece— a world premiere. Also I did a concerto by Radames Gnattali— a fabulous Brazilian composer; I recorded his Concerto De Copacabana. That was twelve years ago, and cost twenty– five thousand dollars. Can you imagine that? Well. that’s a lot bf money— over here ii would have been much less. Now, it would be three times more. Everything went up three or four times: a guitar used to cost a thousand dollars now it’s five or six.

On one of my solo guitar albums, I play “Sonatina” by the British– born composer Albert Harris. He’s an old buddy of mine, who lives near me, in Sun Valley I live in San Fernando Valley yes, I’ve known him for years. An inspired composer. A suite in four movements by your John Duarte is on the same record.

A recent recording of mine that came out very well is a 45 rpm direct– to– disc album on the Crystal Clear label, called “Virtuoso Guitar”. They claim the sound is better at 45, you know. The first side is in popular idiom, with “Yesterday” by Lennon and McCartney, and two of my compositions— one of them written jointly with a guy who was born in England, Leonard Feather, who lives there in the Valley. The other musicians with me on these are Clare Fischer on piano, Chuck Domanico on bass, Chuck Flores on drums, Emil Richards on vibes and marimba, and Aime Maurice Vereeck on percussion. On the second side I recorded the Sonata For Guitar And Cello in three movements, again by Radames Gnattali. The cellist was Frederick Seykora; I wrote some percussion effects to be played by Chuck Flores in addition— a little cymbals and things here and there.

The direct– to– disc thing is very difficult to do, because it’s not done on the tape— it’s done on the disc. You start each side from the beginning, and if you make a mistake you’ve got to start the whole thing all over again. It’s very, very demanding. I just finished doing an album for the same label last week before I came here. It was direct– to– disc, and there were the difficulties of that to deal with again— specially since I was using three voices, clarinet, guitar, piano, bass and drums. Abe Most was on the clarinet he’s a fabulous musician. The singers were one alto and two sopranos— my wife was one of them.

My wife was born in Canada; she is a very accomplished opera singer, and she also sings popular things her professional name is Deltra Eamon. So we do concerts together; right now we have a concert in Australia coming up. Then I have two weeks with my own trio at Disney World, Florida. We keep busy.

There are six albums out of the L. A. Four so far; four were made in the States for Concord, and two in Japan for East Wind. But now we have to make two albums very soon at one of these jazz festivals around here. That’s why I was writing all night long: we have this deadline, and we don’t have enough new music for two albums— that’s a lot of music. Jeff Hamilton, our drummer, has been very busy copying the score I put under his door this morning.

As for the heavy amplification that has been applied to the guitar— I go along with the maestro, Segovia; he says that such a guitar should not be called a guitar. Because it’s not a guitar any more; the finger– board is much longer and narrower than the classical guitar, they use steel strings instead of nylon, there is no rosette, there are the f holes like the violin, the upper part is oval rather than flat. It’s entirely different. Yet they still call it a guitar. Well, a mandolin is not called a guitar, and nor is a banjo; so I think they should find a name for that.

Some of the rock music is okay it can’t be all bad! You had a fine group here one time in the Beatles, and they came out with very nice songs. Those boys had a nice knowledge of composition; their chordal routines ,and melodies were very pleasant. I don’t like it when it’s too loud, and they go for half– an– hour playing tonic and dominant. The rhythm is so loud that you can’t even talk; it’s an offence to anyone’s intelligence.

On the question of practice it’s always necessary. If you don’t practise the guitar, you can’t play it. It’s worse than what Rubinstein says about the piano; he says that if he doesn’t practise one day, he knows; the second day. his wife knows: third day, the public knows. On the guitar, you know it right away. It’s such a demanding instrument, you have to keep at it all the time. You have to find time; if you don’t, you have to warm up on the job, and that’s not so good. My routine is: I do some scales, then some pieces that have scales in them, and some chords and arpeggios. But I don’t practise as hard as I used to; it’s not really necessary. You try to do just what is necessary, rather than killing yourself. There’s no need to put in more than three hours, I think— but I should say that that’s a minimum.

No, there isn’t a lot of repertoire for the guitar, but I do like everybody else— you have to make your own transcriptions. I don’t trust transcriptions that I see written, except if it’s by musicians of reputation, such as Bream, Williams and Segovia. It’s ticklish; some works transcribed by famous composers have been done wrong I have found some big mistakes in harmony. So I decided not to use transcriptions by anybody I do my own. And that’s time– demanding, you know.

But I have written loads of guitar transcriptions from originals for the piano which I have available to students. Because I have a publishing firm, and the catalogue is sent free to anyone at their request. It contains about six hundred items it took a lifetime to do that! One possible happening I’m looking forward to: Charlie Byrd called the other day and snake of his desire for us to dd an album together. Which I think we will; it’s just that he lives in the East, and it would probably have to be some time when he would come to the Coast— or I would go to New York. He wants to do some duets— material written specially for us. I’m excited; we just have to find the time to do it. Because I like Charlie: as well as being a nice player, he’s a nice man. He had good instruction from Segovia, and he has a great deal of jazz in his blood. So you’ll be hearing an album by the two of us some day.

 Copyright © 1979, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.