The stimulus of the city

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 1972

It's been nice to work in Ronnie Scott's again. If it isn't my favourite club, it's on a par with maybe one other that I enjoy- Shelly's Manne-Hole, in Los Angeles. But I've always liked this club, and I love London; so it's great to be back. I don't know what the magic is, but almost without exception; every time we've been here we seem to work up to pretty much peak performing level. It's the stimulus of the city, the club, the audiences or whatever, but it all adds up to the fact that we usually end up looking back at any visit here as one of our favourite times.

Yes, Eddie Gomez has been on bass with me for a while now—I guess it'll be six years shortly. And Marty Morrell on drums, about three years. So it's very comfortable; naturally, I'm very happy with the group.

We're doing a few newer things. The new CBS album isn't out here yet, although it's been out in the States for six or seven months. I think they may push it out here quite soon now. And I'm pretty excited about being with CBS. I have at least two more albums to do with them. The next one is scheduled to be a composition of George Russell's for the trio and two other independent groups, performing against each other and simultaneously. He's working on that now; we hope to record it in late April. I'm looking forward to that.

I've always thought that George is perhaps the most legitimate, true jazz composer, as opposed to arranger. His composing has absolute jazz roots. And it seemed rather a shame to me that he had to go out of the United States, for a while, to find support for his writing. I hope that this album we're doing together will show him that people do care, back in the States. He's been teaching at the New England Conservatory, but most of his composition and recording has been done in Scandinavia during the past seven years or so.

He's not designing the album specifically for me. It's a composition of his—one long piece—which I'll be performing. Its dimensions, the whole idea of the piece . . . I expect it’ll be challenging. Certainly, it’s a challenge for George—it would be for anybody.

I can't quite explain it, but it has an emotional scope. In a sense, an emotional story to tell, musically. Of course, it's mostly on his shoulders to write it, and then there'll be a lot of improvisation, But I don't know whether I would call George's composing exactly `free'. Maybe he's gotten out into a sound area that gives that impression. However, he's got a very strict kind of mind. He couldn't just be called a `free' composer; but he's utilising a lot of more advanced theoretical concepts. And perhaps some different concepts about improvisation, off of which creative improvising can spring. I'd like to try these things, anyhow. It may not be typical of the type of album that I usually come out withó I hope it isn't- thatís why I am looking forward to it.

So thatís the next thing, to try and get together in April, if we can. After Ronnie's, we're going to do some TV and concerts on the Continent for a couple of weeks; then back to New York.

We play clubs as well as concerts. I could cut down the clubs, and emphasise concerts more, which I might be doing to some extent. But I like to keep a certain amount of club work, because I think it's necessary for a steady group to have that volume of playing, in that environment. The concert environment is ideal, but as a completely unrelieved diet it tends to pressure performance. Which, in some cases, is very successful. Overall, though, you need the relief of the relaxed circumstances in a club.

What is it about Eddie's playing that I'm so happy with? Well, I think you only have to listen to him for about ten seconds to discover that. And, even though he does so much with my group, his playing has an even wider scope. I've heard him in other contexts, from Israeli folk music to, let's say, more avant garde jazz, or with hard- blowing jazz— and he can do just about anything. The marvellous thing about him is that he's a complete virtuoso on bass, but the virtuosity is always motivated by a musical thought.

He's come together more and more. What's remarkable to me, working with him every night—and the casual listener would not perceive it—is that he comes up continually with new, resourceful ideas, on the same repertoire. Not just superficial variations- new fundamental things. And this is really being creative, as far as I'm concerned. It's a real mental challenge, to be constantly delving deeper. Eddie does that. Even on a bad night, he's tremendous; on his really outstanding times, I've never heard anything that approaches it.

As for Marty, he's quite. unique, in that he never lacks fire. No matter how light his touch becomes, the thing always moves. It never stops moving. And he has a very great forward impetus in his time. He's entered really strongly into the music, and his playing has come into its own in the last year especially. So we have everything to look forward to. If I can just come up with ideas, I know the guys are ready any time.

I suppose it is true to say that my style has stayed pure. I try to be flexible, but somehow I am myself. I do want to always progress, and I would like to change every day, if I had the resourcefulness to do it. But I just have to follow my own path step by step. I don't think I'll be going into any really revolutionary changes. However, I would look forward to taking even a year off to research and dig into myself. More or less, just live with music away from performance. But I can't see that being possible for a couple of years yet. I'm trying to get heavier into writing; I'd like to do more of that, too. Until then, we'll be playing. And I believe we go through certain subtle changes, that will be evident to people who get involved in our music.

Jazz piano today? No, I wouldn't say it's been at all overshadowed by the electric piano or the organ. Certainly, the public does love the electronic sound- possibly because, just as a sound, it's fresh. It may have to do with the electronic age or something. But any musician knows that the scope, the depth and the ability of the electronic instruments to express
music is very limited in comparison with the acoustic piano. Likewise, the same goes for the acoustic bass versus the electric bass.

Itís always a matter of the man behind the instrument. I mean, a great musician behind an electronic instrument is somehow going to make great music. He would have a better chance to do so, though, on an acoustic instrument. I think, so far, these newer sounds still have a long way to go in development before they can compete on a really pure musical level with the acoustic instruments.

Personally, my interest is not drawn to a variety of sounds. The problem with me is basically an emotional one of getting to a feeling and expressing it through some adequate musical medium. And the piano as an instrument is adequate for me for the rest of my life, I'm sure.

In fact, they're abstract problems, not related to timbre or anything instrumental. And trying to get to a feeling concerns me increasingly, nowadays. Because if you get to a deeper feeling, then the expressivity takes care of itself. It actually drives your music forward, or into other kinds of music.

So I don't think too much about the electronic thing, except that it's kind of fun to have it as an alternate voice. Like, I've used the Fender- Rhodes piano on a couple of records. I don't really look on it as a pianoó merely an alternate keyboard instrument, that offers a certain kind of sound thatís appropriate sometimes. But if it's not around, I don't miss it at all.

Is a major voice likely to emerge on electric piano? I don't think so. I mean, I couldn't see why, really. Any of the good pianists I know, even the younger ones like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock - they obviously look upon the acoustic piano as their fundamental instrument, and as a much greater instrument. The only reason I can visualise is that of seizing an opportunity or something, because the public likes the sound. But any really great musician isn't going to limit himself for the sake of that.

Maybe one record like that might bring him to the public's attention; then I think he would return to the acoustic piano. I know Chick Corea is playing his acoustic piano as much as possible, and I imagine Herbie Hancock does, too.

Where is my style rooted? I'd say it's just about out of the whole scene, and out of my own history of working dance band jobs in America and listening to jazz. It comes from all sorts of directions. Every kind of music that I've gotten into—classical music, blues, loud jazz, soft jazz, society bands or whatever—it all kinda comes together. The roots, I suppose, are more in the music that I grew up in, as far as the specific influences are concerned. Other than that, it's just the abstract challengeó playing according to a sort of an improvising process, or whatever you want to call it, that you learn to play by. You have to sort of adapt a style to this process- and it's not like composing. If I were to compose, at any time, I might write in an altogether different area of music to that in which I play. But in order to improvise, you gather a certain melodic feeling, a certain harmonic feeling, etcetera, which all unify themselves into something which you can think with ih an improvising way.

And, as I say, that just comes through your own history, I guess. Which is sort of why I can't really jump out into what might be called the avant garde or the free jazz, or whatever. Not that I couldn't play effectively in it, I think, after doing it for a while, because I've touched on it here and there for a short time. It's just that, the way my playing has been unified, the next fundamental step for me isn't there. I could arrive there, possibly, but it's certainly not the next thing. And to just jump into it, to me, feels like an affectation when I'm doing it. I don't know exactly how to put it, but I feel as if I'm approximating something, not really doing it.

In formulating my style, I was very analytical. For every note I play, I have a very precise principle and theoretical reason. But, of course, that doesn't direct the musical thinking; it only clarifies it, so that I know which buttons to push when I want to do a certain thing. I have been very specific, and conscious of taking everything apart, in order to understand it as completely and as clearly as I can. Then, as it has developed very gradually from being more plodding and obvious, it has probably gotten more sophisticated and subtle in its own way, within that area.

When I play, usually it's all guided by a basic structural thought. There's some kind of structure, whether it be song form, or blues form, or perhaps just an outline over which to play. And thatís the thing that dominates and unifies everything now. I learned to play off of that and get into it deeply enough, so that it could maybe sound like you're doing more than one or two structural things at a time. But it's still all coming out of one inner unified structural thought.

As for the melodic quality in my playing—yes, I do love good romantic music. But to me all music is romantic; that's its basic quality. Bach is so romantic that it's ridiculous. So I don't think of it strictly that way, as drawing from any one particular element. That might be my more identifiable characteristic; people seem to emphasise my so- called lyrical or romantic side. But, in fact, we play a variety of material. I think of my jazz playing as mainly based on rhythmical impetus, and this gives motivation to the melodic lines and all of that.

Basically, I'd say music is some sort of a spiritual feeling, and that can be called romantic. All the music I like to listen to has this. I love any great classical music; in particular, contemporary composers such as Bartok. You know, it's a yea or nay thing. I listen to a little bit of everything; some things I really get a strong positive response to, some things I don't. As I said earlier, when the time comes, I intend to concentrate on re- evaluating, myself in relationship to other music as well as my own.

I don't believe jazz has reached its creative peak at all. Firstly, it attracts so much talent, through its magnetic nature. It draws in a lot of committed, dedicated people; among them there are always the wise talents, who will keep the aesthetic quality of it high. So it's always in a healthy state. There are times when a great proportion of jazz will be affected in an extreme way; then it comes back to a more central road, and so on. This is the, path of all art, I suppose. There are the innovators and there are the co- ordinators or organisers, whatever you want to call them.

I have no doubts that jazz will remain and continue and progress. I look for a return to. . . not a healthier aesthetic, but perhaps not so much of a reflection of frustration and protest—you know, that element in jazz. I think that if any artist examines his art in relation to his desires, he'll eventually come to the conclusion that he can accomplish more by being an example of the things he wants, rather than just a mirror of his frustrations about the things he doesn't have. Consequently, the aesthetic should have a little more to do with beauty. Although that's indefinable, I suppose. For some people, beauty is what other people consider to be cacophony; for others it's schmaltz; for others it's a mixture, and so on.

A musical standard has to be applied- that's the only answer. Like when you begin to use machinery, clocks, ratchets, sirens—this is all legitimate on dramatic grounds. But on musical grounds, I don't know. I think you still have to have a musical basis for what's happening. I like to feel that somehow there's that indefinable harmonious thing that directs music. A l6th century French composer said that all music has to come from harmony, or harmonic feeling. I agree with that—even if it's pointed in a horizontal direction.

You can't consciously simplify your music, though. Any artist first has to speak to himself, and he's his own severest critic. He sorts it out, and it depends on him- what sort of person he is. You know, does he want complexity, and if he does, what are his reasons? Is he trying to hide something? Who's he speaking to, and on what terms? Usually, it should be to himself.

I mean, I know I'm a very simple person basically. That is, I don't understand complexity; I don't have that kind of a mind, really, to get to any totally abstract things. Certainly, the deepest communication I've received for music has been in very direct ways. So I try to reach it that way myself, if I can. It would be as impossible for me to fill up some space with a bunch of florid arpeggios as it would be to, say, run on one hand. It is just not in me to think like that.

It's true that I play little or no blues. I like to play blues, but somehow I don't; I feel that itís not specially my forte. I wouldn't mind listening to blues all night; somebody like Milt Jackson, maybe, could play blues for me for ever. I just don't seem to get into it much any more; I might get back to it.

But the blues is a feeling, after all. When we say blues now, we're talking about it in terms of a form and a statement. Blues feeling, however, is in a lot of music. I think it's in Chopin; it's a little bit in all of music. I've absorbed blues a lot; itís just part of me, and it probably speaks to some extent in everything I do.

I can identify with a pianist like Ramsey Lewis. I can listen to, and I can certainly enjoy thousands of players that I don't play like. I'm just not compelled to play specifically that way. I've drawn from a million sources. I don't claim any originality; I just put the thing together according to all my experiences and the things that I preferred, in the elementary way in which I can think. However it comes out, it's just a result of that.

You know, I was really surprised when people said I was recognisable; then later they said that I was an influence, and all this. And I realise now this is somewhat true, but it was quite surprising to me at the beginning. Still it seems a bit surprising, because I never strived for that. If I had, I think my style would have been more esoteric; I would have tried to get out on the periphery of things, and tried to do something which had identity. In doing so, maybe I would not have had any; I don't know. Because without me having tried for it, apparently there is some there. I know I've been widely copied, but to me it is a peculiar thing to have happened. You see, I was trying, in a way, to be the norm. But in collecting everything and reassembling it, I guess you just can't help but be yourself. That's something nobody can help, really.

And for my self-expression, the trio is wholly suitable. People do ask me occasionally if I would add a horn or something, but in adding even one horn it would change the musical thinking of the group. In other words, I wouldn't be able to direct or shape the musical flow- and this is kind of important to me. So, even though I enjoy playing with horns, and, of course, I did for years and enjoyed it, I always wanted to shape the music myself; I'm happiest when I can do that.

The only way is with a trio; I think it's a very pure kind of musical group. As long as I'm able to succeed with it in a practical sense also, I'm going to continue playing that way. I might try a duo some time; that's very enjoyable. Basically, it's the bass- piano relationship, but I like the drums in there, too. Of course, with recording I vary the output quite a bit; trio records might occur once every third or fourth date, or something like that. We try to find a different format.

Copyright © 1972, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved