Particular about pianos

Group dialogue
The Bill Evans Trio 1
The Bill Evans Trio 2 s
Particular about pianos
The stimulus of the city
How things started
The Bosendorfer
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1969

I think that what you would call individualistic in my playing was always there. Because my fundamental thinking never changed, as far as building lines, harmonic ideas or anything goes. It's all been a step- by- step thing. I think perhaps you'd be surprised how well I was playing when I was 18 and 20. It wasn't till I was 29 that I put the trio together; I was 28 when I went with Miles. So that gives you an idea, maybe.

I'm only conscious of just trying to play music that sounds the best to me. If that's said to be beautiful, it's a compliment. I wouldn't play something harsh for its own sake; everything has to be first music to me. And to be music it has to have a certain aesthetic value. Within that can take place many feelings of expression, like Stravinsky or Bartok, Bird or Bud. All played music all the time, but they expressed a great range of feeling.

I don't feel the need to express frustration or rage, or anything like that. In fact, the only reason I would is if it were a dramatic piece that required that particular emotion at that time; like an opera or something. But I would never express my own frustration and rage, because I wouldn't impose that on anybody They don't want to hear my problems. When I'm going to experience art, I don't want to hear the artist's problems; I want him to give me something that’s the best part of him. If he's just going to indulge himselfstanding up there and letting out all his daily problematic emotions, then he can do it, and some people will probably pay to listen to it. 1 wouldn't want to hear it.

The "Conversations With Myself" albums? It was more like fun, but required a great deal of concentration. Fundamentally, it was interesting, let's say that. I think it was more interesting than anything else, because it was something I couldn’t prepare; I didn't have the equipment. It was just an idea that I went in the studio to try to do. So I had to decide on an approach, and do it that way. It was not so much a revelation when I did it. In fact, I felt that I didn't get where I wanted to get with the thing. The revelation came on listening to it in retrospect, a year or so later, when I discovered that there was a lot more overall unity than I had expected.

The problem that I found was the texturekeeping it from getting too heavy. So when I made a second "Conversations" album, I only used two pianos for that reason. But still the darn thing bothered me in the same way, in relation to the texture. Many times I'd feel like I was just pasting something on that was unnecessary. I don't know whether I'll ever do another one. I've done the three- piano album, the two- piano album, but I've never done a solo album. Maybe I'll end up doing that.

A perfectionist? Well, I don't know what perfect is. I only know what would be an ideal performance for myself, at any moment. And I'm aware of when I fall short of that, or if I miss, or if my thinking isn't smooththings like that. In that way I'm a perfectionist, I guess.

Naturally I'm particular about pianos. After this many years playing any instrument you'd want the best, wouldn't you? And pianists have to go through horrors for years and years. So now that I'm in a position to sometimes get a better instrument if I need it, I'm sure going to do it. It's really a suffering thing to play on a bad instrument. Though the people don't usually know it, I'm suffering terribly and the chances for me to create, the scope of what I can do, are lessened considerably. The other guys in the group are suffering all the time, too; and the musical level of everything we do is lowered I really don't understand why all clubs don't have a permanently good piano. So a lot of the musicians don't respect the instrument enough? That could be taken care of, I'm sure, with a few rules. Like, for instance, Monk is very hard on the piano. But that doesn't change the fact that most of the places he plays in the States have good pianos.

All piano jazz interested me initially, I guess. Earl Hines was one of the first to attract my attention; the way he put things together. And Nat Cole was to me one of the greatest jazz pianists there was in the 'Forties; he was just marvellous. But he underplayed it so much during his life that he never realised how good he was as a jazz pianist, I don't think. He was never recognised that much for his piano playing by the public, or even by critics, it seems.

Nat had this terrific lyrical sense, which later gave him the wonderful vocal style that he had. Plus the terrific swing. You know, just a marvellous feeling of time. And taste. His taste was so great; he played so economically, and so beautifully. I'll always remember his record of "Body And Soul" with the trio. The improvisation of his chorus on that was like a little masterpiece. It was put together, the ideas following one another, unlike any jazz that I'd ever heard before. Because he used one idea throughout the whole chorus, in sequence, shifting around and everything. He just was a hell of a jazz pianist.

When I got out of college, I went right on the road with Herbie Fields' band. Before my senior year in college, during the summer, I'd worked a little with Mundell Lowe and Red Mitchell in New York. I was looking to get away from home, and to get on with my business of playing. Tony Scott called me in New Jersey from New York, and said something like: "You wouldn't want to go with Herbie Fields, would you?" I said: "Yes".

So I did, and that was a seven- piece band that was modelled after Lionel Hampton's big band. He used the same format: the "Flying Home" flag- wavers, all the very hard, loud- type tunes; he was quite successful with it. Not many people are aware of it, but he had many many outstanding musicians go through that band, such as Tiny Kahn; Max Bennett, Doug Mettome, Jimmy Nottingham, Bobby Burgess, Frank Rosolino. He had Stan Getz in his big band at one time.

Anyhow, I was on the road with Herbie for about seven months, and was drafted right off the bandstand into the army. However, I enlisted to be sure I got into a bandand had to serve an extra year as a result. I was stationed near Chicago. On my release from the army I went home for about a year, played around Jersey for a while, and sort of got myself together a little bit. I moved to New York the next Spring, to make it or break it in jazz.

Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved