Jazz Professional               


The Spanish Leprechaun

Return To Forever
Spanish Leprechaun
Acoustic awareness
Chick and Gary
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978

Did you put this line- up together specifically for this tour?

Yes, what we call "the foreign tour" is the first project of this new band, with the London concert as its first public performance. We spent about a week- and- a- half— close to two weeks— in rehearsal, and a week or so prior to that was spent by me preparing the music. Most of which had already been written— from the albums "Leprechaun", "Spanish Heart" and "Mad Hatter"— but to which I had to do some touching up and reorchestration to fit the exact instrumentation of the band.

Was it a question of settling on an instrumentation that would be workable for a full tour?

It’s actually the least workable for a full tour, if you think of it economically! But for my own musical desires, it's the most workable; so we've pushed it on through.

Yes, you're able to embody in it the approaches you've used in these recent albums.

That's right. I've never actually performed live any of this music. So this'll be the first chance to do that.

It's nice to see that you have one British musician— bassist Rick Laird, whose excellence we know well. But this band seems to be composed almost entirely of people who haven't been an your albums.

As a matter of fact, a lot of the musicians in this band are new to me, too. I needed to have string players and certain brass players so I went out looking, and actually pulled together quite a high degree of musicality in the musicians. They're all great musicians.

Two of them, Jim Pugh and Al Vizzutti, I've met when they came over with Woody. As regards your musical career, would you agree that it really took off in a new and more productive direction from the early 'seventies?
I'd say that with the Return To Forever group and what you've done since then, the scope of your writing has been expanding immensely.

I think that since the early 'seventies my general productivity has been much higher. I've done more, written more, and moved through projects and periods of musical interest quicker. Which, in just these amount of years, has brought me to this thirteen- piece band that we're getting underway now.

Is the Return To Forever group virtually dissolved now, or are you liable to use that name and that group on occasions?

I don't think I'll use the name Return To Forever unless Stanley Clarke's around. For sure, because he was a real co- creator of the group, since the beginning. Certainly not for this band. I would say Return To Forever is in a sort of limbo state right now. Stanley and I have decided to have our solo bands for this next year- and- a- half or so— at some point, we'll get together, to do some more projects, you know. Right now it's like a period that the both of us feel is for stretching out in our own musical directions, and I think our next coming together should be very, very fruitful.

You've both been developing very noticeably in latter years; I've very much enjoyed "The Leprechaun" and "My Spanish Heart"— I hope to hear "The Mad Hatter" soon. In the 'seventies I'd say you've spearheaded a trend in jazz which I, for one, welcome very much— towards a kind of melodism. Is this an apt word?

It's an actual intention that I had around the beginning of the seventies— to .make a more melodic music. I find that every kind of really good jazz that I've ever been interested in— like the music of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane or Miles Davis— it's always very lyrical music, you know. And it's one of the most attractive elements in the music for me— the melodic line. So it's something that I desire to have in my music as well.

But you dabbled briefly with the free form idiom, didn't you? I would say more than briefly. I really spent years in experimenting with new forms and different kinds of improvisation.

All of which was very fruitful; I think, and I don't consider wasted time. Yes, it was a stage towards what I've been doing more recently.

One ingredient of this latter music of yours, from Return To Forever onwards, has been the female voice. Presumably, this is something that you think enhances the music.

It's something I hear, to have in my own music. And I don't sing, see— I would if I could, and I may even some day work on it a little bit. But the reality is that I don't sing, and I like to have the song form as well in my music. So I was very happy to find Gayle Moran and her voice, because the way she sings pleases me very much; it fills out the kind of music that I like to make. It adds a very aesthetic element to it, that I enjoy.

I suppose you could say it's a kind of link with Duke Ellington, and "Creole Love Call', where he had the sound of a female voice.

Yes— I remember those. He's one of my favourites, by the way, Duke.

The advent of electronics has been something in which you've been a prime mover. You were originally turned on to the electric piano by Miles Davis, I believe.

Sort of turned off, too, at the very first encounter. But then I gradually grew to like the new possibilities with, at first, the Rhodes piano, and then some synthesisers after that. I feel like I've gathered some new toys, and added some new sounds to the palette that I have of making colours. And in this group I do use synthesisers— probably in a much more limited way than I have in the recent past— because I have the fullness of an actual string section and brass section with this group.

Whenever I see a mountain of equipment on a stage, I always think that a lot of know- how must have to go into it. Are you electronically- minded? Have you had to do some research on these instruments?

I've had to do some; I think what I've done is: I've learned just enough basics about the synthesisers to be able to produce various sounds from them that I want. I wouldn't consider myself an authority on electronics, by any means. I have an equipment manager, named Rory Kaplan, w'ho knows quite a bit about the technical end of it, and anything I can't produce or fix with it, I can always call on him to help me out with. But I've learned enough of the basic functions of synthesisers, and I know enough about positive and negative as far as electricity goes, to know how to predict the sounds a little bit. And on the synthesisers I generally don't use a lot of varied sounds; I'll find one or two sounds that do the kind of a thing that I want to do, and stick with those. I'm more interested in the actual music I can make with the instruments.

A recent project of yours that we came into contact with was your "Suite For Hot Band" that you did for Woody Herman. Was this your idea, that you felt you wanted to write a piece for Woody?

It was my idea that I'm very open to writing music for other artists who I admire. Woody came along with the idea of having me write a piece for his album, and I grabbed at it immediately; I thought that would be a great opportunity to write some music. So I squeezed a four- day period, sat down and worked eighteen hours a day, and came up with a suite for Woody. Then I went up to Boston, where he was rehearsing, and rehearsed the piece with him for three days. It was pure joy, the whole encounter— it was great.

Well, as I believe I said, reviewing the band's performance of it here at the Festival Hall. . .

Oh— you heard the piece? Oh, yes— he gave it its premiere in London. I felt that it somehow managed to combine your style, your way of writing, with the Latin elements of late and so forth, with the Herman band style.

Yeah, I thought it was a very successful co- operation between the two of us. And my respect and love for Woody has just gone right up. I think he's an amazingly beautiful and ethical and musical man. I was so happy to give my support to him.

I'm sure that's an important piece of his repertoire now. And another recent meeting of yours has been the one with Herbie Hancock. Regrettably, I wasn't able to catch your London show, but I gather it was a very interesting, entertaining concert.

We had a wonderful time. We played twenty- five concerts all around the world— mostly in the United States, some in Europe and one in Japan. Just wonderful. Herbie and myself had a long existing friendship that never materialised in actual music together, you know, but a very mutual respect. And having that five weeks of being together musically was just a real beautiful experience. It was very easy; the music was very light, and constantly creative night to night. It was just one of those little gems that happen in life.

You found that you sparked one another off a great deal?

It was just a wonderful complement, yes. Continually, night after night, we were feeding off of one another, and learning from one another, and being inspired by one another; it was great.

Copyright ©1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.

Click here to