Jazz Professional               



Playing with big orchestras

The timely emergence
The flute's voice
Sophistication, the Samba and the Search
Playing with big orchestras
Enjoying a more interesting life
Let's get rid of the categories
Food for thought
Improvisation: Can it be learned?
Bud Shank Today
Selected performances

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981

Playing with big orchestras, and the bringing together of different elements, is a lot of fun. Through a lot of work and a lot of effort, two composer/ arrangers, that I work with a lot in the Los Angeles studios, put together an orchestra that, in their minds, is the ultimate—actually, in my mind it is too. They call it The Orchestra. Its first concert was to raise money to pay some guys to write music so they could have another concert. It's essentially a symphony orchestra plus a complete jazz band inside the orchestra. All the first chair players are symphony musicians—though not from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Curiously enough, in Los Angeles, some of the better players—maybe the better players—are not the ones in the L. A. Philharmonic; they're the ones doing the studio work, who have been with orchestras in prior times.

As they put it, they left orchestral music to do commercial music; to make more money—that's a better way to put it. And there are some excellent players out there.

In my particular case, the first flautist is a lady named Louise Dutilleux, who is one of the greatest flute players in the world. I'm the second flute player, but I'm also the first saxophone player. Bill Perkins is the third flute player and the first tenor saxophone player. The clarinet section—the first clarinettist is Dominic Fera, an excellent legit player, and the second clarinet is Jerome Richardson, who also plays tenor and soprano. The first oboist is Bill Crisp, who has been working with symphony orchestras all over for all his life. The second oboist is Gene Cipriano, who's one of the most important studio guys, doubling—he also plays saxophone, flutes and everything.

It’s this way throughout the entire orchestra. The percussion section has all the top guys out of the film studios, plus some legit percussionists. The string section is—what can I say?—it's unreal. Anyway, it's a beautiful thrill to play with that orchestra. Fortunately, I've had quite a bit of solo work to do with it, and it was dynamite—I loved it, playing on top of an orchestra like that, with some tremendous music. The thing that I had most to play on was written by Pat Williams; he's one of my favourite writers, and he had composed what he called "An American Concerto", making use of all kinds of different American music. It's almost in the Charles Ives/ Aaron Copland vein, where he's grasping different parts of things, but the most important thing, that ties it all together, is a jazz quartet which is out in front. In this particular concert, we made it a quintet; Bill Watrous, the trombone player, and I were the two solo voices with a rhythm section.

And it was really one of the biggest thrills in my life.

The object of The Orchestra is to combine jazz and classical approaches in the best possible way. Right before I left town, I didn't get a chance to talk with either one of the two co–leaders, but the other musicians I ran into said that they had pretty much set a seven–concert subscription series at the Los Angeles Music Centre—essentially in competition with the L. A. Philharmonic—but with all new music specially commissioned for it. The bulk of the tickets for that original concert sold for a hundred and twenty five dollars apiece—which is a lot of money for a concert in Los Angeles—but it was a sellout, and they raised a nice little nestegg. The composers that I talked with, who were at that concert, were saying: "If only I could have the chance to write for something like that. With such a combination of people, you can do anything you want to." There are hopes that this orchestra can travel. I don't know whether it's possible to try moving eighty–five people around, without some kind of state subsidising. But those guys don't back off from anything; if it's impossible they say: "We'll do it, anyway." So who knows?—it may be over here one of these days.

That particular concert was recorded, and it was with digital—one of the first remote digital things that's ever been done, I think. So they're shopping around for the proper record company. There was certainly some great music on there, including Pat Williams' piece. The concert was finished off with a group comprising Tommy Scott, Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin and Harvey Mason—which is most definitely a fusion group. They were the featured soloists as such, collectively, and it was effective in showing what the orchestra can do with some more contemporary musicians added to it. Tommy played nothing but lyricon—which is a blown synthesiser, if you will. It was a very electric group, in front of a symphony orchestra—so it was interesting.

Have I got into any electronics? I've been using the usual Echoplex tape machines, and I've got a ring modulator and things like that. I’ve done that in the studio work since 1966; I was one of the first guys out there to do that. I've never done anything of my own with any of those things; I just left it for effects in the studios. I've really not been that excited about any of it; also, once I started with all that, I'd have to keep going. I did have one time a thing I did with my own group, when I was doing some concerts, where I would prerecord something on my tape machine on flute, maybe using a minor ninth–type bass chord; I'd do a whole lot of sounds and things, then put it on loop, and improvise on top of that with my saxophone. That was kind of fun; I did that a few times, but that was the only time I've ever used that kind of equipment away from the studio.

To this day, whenever I Ro to work I have to carry all that stuff with me; so we're still using it a lot, but not quite as much as we had to before. It’s important in its own element; it’s great for film scores—you can make all kinds of spooky music. For doing what we do, in jazz, I don’t really see that it’s necessary. We have all been striving to acquire some kind of identity—an identifiable sound and way of playing—why distort it with electricity? That's one of the big problems I find with some of the younger musicians—not the ones with roots, but some of the rock musicians who are coming straight into the jazz fusion. They all sound the same The desire to produce an identifiable sound or style doesn't seem to be there any more. That’s lacking, and it's really unfortunate; but it'll turn around, when they all start looking back on the records they made, and find out that all their records, everybody else's records and everything sounded the same. Then they'll start saying: "Okay, wait a minute—them old guys is right."

Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.