The Bosendorfer

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 1976

How did you enjoy your recent engagement at Ronnie Scott's?

Very much. Especially after the Bosendorfer arrived; the first couple of nights, the piano wasn't really awful, but it wasn't tops. But the Bosendorfer is the best of the best, a sure pleasure to work on. In fact, because the piano offered so much more, I found myself, as I was playing, suddenly wanting to try new things— and things I'd fallen into doing the same way, I wanted to do differently. It just served to remind me how much the instrument has to do with the development of how you play music, and how you express it, you know. The limitations of many an instrument cause me not to get into as much as I could get into. On so many instruments the action is so badly regulated that you're constantly just being very touchy about trying to make everything sound, if you strike it soft. Not to mention tone— trying to get all the individual tones correct. On a really good piano, you can go from a whisper to a very full sound, and count on whatever you're doing to speak through the instrument. The Bosendorfer is great— I'd love to have one in my home.

So— yes, the engagement went very well. We'd been working rather steadily and touring; so the trio was in relatively top form, I think. Of course, Eddie Gomez has been on bass with me going on eleven years now. And our drummer, Elliott Zigmund, who's been with the group a little over a year, is doing a marvellous job. We're getting many remarks about Elliott's fresh and musical contribution to the group.

You feel that Eddie's playing is developing all the time, in expressing ideas that are complementary to what you do?

Definitely. Eddie is a completely resourceful player, within the context of what we're doing, and constantly disciplines himself to find new ways of doing old things, to explore the idiom in which we play. And I try to take the same approach myself.

Although a lot of rhythm section players are influenced by you, your approach is far away from that of the traditional rhythm section, isn't it?

Yeah, I think so. However, it's not really so far away basically, because we play with the same basic feel that we would play with in any rhythm section. But it's just that the beat is more internalised, and we play around that; so that would probably be the difference in the concept. I mean, it's not always that way, but we don't make making the beat explicit every four or three times a bar so much a rule as allowing the music just to flow. Allowing it to surround and happen as a result of an internalised pulse— I guess you might put it that way.

Recently, it seems you've been doing some varied recording. One album of yours that I've been enjoying very much is "Symbiosis". The writing, playing, sound quality, everything about it is just beautiful.

I'm glad you like that. I think it's beautiful, too. Claus Ogerman really wrote a beautiful piece. I thoroughly enjoyed doing that project; I hope it's well- heard, and stays. around for a long time— I think it will. Yeah, we have been doing a variety.

There was the duo album I did with Eddie, called `Intuition". Then there's an album I did with Tony Bennett, just piano and him singing. There's a trio album just out now in the States that we did live at the Vanguard about a year- and- a- half ago; Marty Morrell was still in the trio at that time. So there are four albums, each a little different from the other. Also, a solo album is in the can, as well as a live duo album with Eddie, that we did at Montreux this past summer— they will be coming out. Quite a bit of stuff, I guess.

The session with Tony Bennett was something of a departure for you. I presume it came about through mutual respect.

Well, I love Tony's singing so much, and it's really an honour and a pleasure to work with someone who's such a tremendous artist, and who, I think, is head and shoulders above the people that are in that area of singing. It was very enjoyable. We did it pretty much off the top of our heads— picked the tunes, went in, found a routine and did them; it turned out nicely— that one- to- one kinda thing. And we're scheduled to do another one for his company, and another one for Fantasy. I think the next one's gonna be all Kurt Weill material.

It sounds as if you're getting quite a partnership going there.

Yeah— it's not something which will function in a performing way too much. There will be some concerts I think we'll be doing together— Tony with his group, me with my trio, and then we'll join for a few tunes. But I'm still basically a jazz and trio pianist.

But there can be a parallel drawn, in that Tony is known as a great interpreter of ballads, and so are you.

Could be. Yeah, he sure is. . he just sings the hell out of whatever he does. I just feel, frankly, that there are so many really top accompanists, I'm so happy that he wanted to do the album with me. Because I haven't done accompanying in about twenty years. It was more a thing of just trying to get that one- to- one good feeling. So I just kind of approached it in a very simple way, and didn't try to get too florid, too thick or too complicated with it.

So there wouldn't have been any of your normal exploring of the tunes?

No more than structurally, you know. And I play some interludes, and things like that. There are a few spots in it where I explore them a little bit.

The album with Claus Ogerman was also different for you, wasn't it? Certainly, the second side, I would say, was more in the nature of almost a classical piano concerto type of thing. Would you agree?

That's right. Actually, the whole piece is well integrated, and it was quite challenging— especially one or two of the improvised sections. And I love to listen to it; I think it's a piece that says something, emotionally and musically, and it says it in a listenable way. It's a really outstanding effort on Claus's part. I’m really happy that we were able to do it. Fortunately, MPS believed in the project, and were willing to produce it. Which not every company will do— when you consider the size of it. Yes, it was a big undertaking— just the budget of it— because it's not a pop record, it's not even a purely blowing jazz record. So there's no guarantee about how it's gonna sell. But I really feel that a record like this, if they keep it in the library and keep it on the market, will sell through the years.

Actually, when we go to Japan and do concerts, they're selling albums in the lobbies of the concert halls dating back to my very first trio album on Riverside— not even stereo. And they're freshly pressed, with freshly printed covers. They keep
them alive, and they do keep selling, because people who are interested in an artist— in jazz, at least— don't necessarily have to have the thing that's hottest off the presses, or out of the studio. I think it's a nice idea, if they would do that. Unfortunately, a lot of the bigger companies drop things very quickly from their catalogues— United Artists, Verve, and companies like that.

This new collaboration with Claus was, I suppose, a direct result of your earlier Verve album with him?

Right— just because of the respect we have for one another. Actually, Claus was responsible, I think; for presenting and selling the idea to MPS. Yeah, a nice thing.

The other extended work that you were involved in, not so recently, was the "Living Time" LP, written by George Russell.

And that's another project that I was really happy to be able to do. It is not as easily listenable as "Symbiosis" would be for, say, my fans. Some of my fans tell me: "Don't ever do anything like that again", but what they don't realise is that it’s another side of myself. Of course, this was primarily George's album— it’s his conception and his music. But it's a music which I found challenging, a great enjoyment to take part m, and to feel that fortunately my contract with Columbia made it possible. I'll bet you that that’s probably dropped already out of the catalogue. I wouldn't be surprised; they didn't do any promotion on it— just that same old story.

A common factor to both these albums is your use of the Fender Rhodes piano. Have you only used that on recordings?

Yeah— really only on recordings; I don't carry one. I find that it’s kind of a refreshing auxiliary to the piano— but I don't need it, you know. I guess it’s for other people to judge how effective it’s been on my records; I enjoyed it, anyway. I don't enjoy spending a lot of time with the electric piano. I mean, if I play it for a period of time, then I quickly tire of it, and I want to get back to the acoustic piano.

You haven't done anything in the multi- recording area since the "Conversations" albums, have you?

I haven't— no. I might try it again some time, I don't know, I don't have any real desire to do that right now. The original "Conversations With Myself" album was three pianos, and the "Further Conversations" was two. It seemed that each time I felt the texture was a little heavy or thick or something; then I got down to doing a solo album, and that was that. I could conceive, though, of perhaps a more extended kind of a work, where I might employ that approach; you can get a lot of wonderful textures and polyphonic effects and so on, in stereo: It’s really an interesting experience for a pianist, because you can act as an orchestra almost.

In general, do you feel that a live context is better for extended improvisation than the possible confines of a recording studio?

Maybe extended sometimes. Because sometimes in a club you hit that rare mood where you just feel like staying with it for a while. But I like the recording situation very much; I think it tends to be more ideal.

Then, of course, you do have some live performances recorded. Which can be a way of getting the best of both worlds.

Except that it’s awful hard to say we're gonna have a record date next month on a certain night at a certain place while you're performing, and hope that that might be one of those special nights, you know. They're generally good, maybe above average, but to catch those really rare nights— it's a very, very touchy thing.

How do you feel about the field of jazz piano nowadays? Would you say there are some innovators at work?

I think there are some pianists who are very inventive in their approach, in handling music and all that. I mean, I certainly love Keith Jarrett, and a lot of things Chick Corea does; various other younger pianists are quite remarkable. But I'm not really a student enough or informed enough to make any kind of a survey appraisal. I just don't keep up. I hardly listen to my own music!

When you do have opportunities to just relax, what is the nature of your listening?

Well, not too much. I don't really do a lot of specialised or research listening. It's more coincidental— what I might hear on the radio, what somebody might play for me, or what I might just run into, dropping into a club or whatever. I would say, between classical music and jazz music, I listen to about fifty- fifty, I guess.

You've kept to the trio format, over the years. Presumably, you still say that this is basically the ideal set- up for you to work in?

Yeah, I think so— it has the scope. I can play solo, you've got the duo thing, the trio thing; you have a pure kind of a combination, as far as functions go. It offers me just about everything that I need and want, to perform. I don't really miss accompanying horns— as much as the horn sound might be refreshing in the group, once in a while, when somebody'll sit in, we'll do a concert with somebody. But I don't think that's my strong suit now, really; I've just been away from it too long. I haven't developed my group playing ability in that direction.

Do you find material to play as easy as ever to come by?

It isn't very difficult; I don't do much conscious research, though. If I have an album coming up, sometimes I just go through a lot of things I have at home, that people have given me or whatnot, kinda scramble around and come up with some material that I think might work. I would want to write more, possibly that's one thing.

As regards your general working area these days— do you plan a lot of concerts as opposed to clubs, or a bit of both?

A bit of both, because I think they're both necessary. We need the club work to stay loose, to keep the group developing and stretching out, and you need the concert work also, because the conditions are usually good, as far as the audience, the pianos, the sound and so forth. Many people think the club work should be looked down upon, but the clubs still are the basic sustenance of jazz groups. They give jazz groups a chance to develop into playing more than they would in concert alone. As for Ronnie’s— I hope they have the Bosendorfer there when I go back. In fact, I thought about sticking it in a sack, throwing it over my shoulder, and taking it back to America!  

Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved