Jazz Professional               



The art of accompaniment

Working with Tony Bennett
The art of accompaniment

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1989

It must be a source of satisfaction to you that, in the course of your job as MD/accompanist to Tony Bennett, you are constantly in contact with tine musicians.

It really is. Wherever we go, we have the finest people working with us, and it’s always a joy. Then there are things like the “Bennett/Berlin” album, when we had George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon featured, which was very nice. I’ve met these people before—Dizzy is a wonderful guy.

And when Dexter Gordon came in, he looked like he’ d just stepped out of the movie “Round Midnight”. In fact, he said to me: “I’ve heard a lot about you, and I’ve always wanted to meet you.” So I said: “Well, that’s very nice, Dexter, I don’t know too many movie stars!” He liked that; he said: “Don’t pull that one with me.” I said: “No, you looked great in it.” And he was.

But he was just being himself, really.

He’s exactly like that—that’s the way he is. Yes, that really is quite an art—just to play a role in a movie as yourself is quite something. He’s a great character. Well, he’s been around, and he’s seen the whole scene.

I’ve interviewed him a few times, and I know what a great talker he is. As for any ambitions you had about being a piano soloist—do you feel you had to push them into the background?

Not at all, actually. Being a musical director for Tony includes conducting, some writing, and, naturally, accompanying. I feel that’s a very fulfilling thing for me. To play in a jazz club somewhere with a trio—that would be fun, but this is what I really want to do, and what I love to do. It is a responsible job, but I enjoy the responsibility. And we have very good musicians with us: Joe La Barbera  is really one of the great drummers; Paul Langosch is our bass player, and he’s great too.

That is our nucleus wherever we go; we pick up whatever we have to, but we still have our trio as the basis. So he knows he can always do his show, regardless of what happens.

And he’ll rehearse everything with just the trio. But do you do anything separately in any way as a group?

Actually, we don’t get time. You know, Tony works so much—we’re actually at it all the time. I did get one kick a couple of years ago, when Basie died and Thad Jones had the band, we were appearing with them at a club somewhere in the mid–West; the pianist, Tee Carson, couldn’t make it that night—so for an hour, before Tony came on, I had to play the piano part with the band. And I tell you, that was the thrill of a lifetime, to play all the charts with them. Thad really let me have my way; he kept saying: “Take another one, Ralph—take another one.” It was a joy. But as far as playing any other stuff—no, very little of that. Now and again, the other guys sit in with different people.

But there was an interim spell along the line where you weren’t with Tony. What happened then?

That’s right. What happened—I was with him from 1956 to ‘ 66, and then I wanted to move to the West Coast. Tony was living in New York; so we had a friendly parting, and I was out there for about a ten year period. But I still got associated with singers as a musical director, and still had to travel around. During that time I was working with Rosemary Clooney, Florence Henderson; then I was with Robert Goulet for several years. Until finally, after a few years, I got another call back from Tony, and now I’ve been back with him another eight years.

So supporting singers has really become your thing, as it were.

It’s my thing—and I accept it willingly. At least with Tony, he features the musicians all the time; there’s no such thing as not getting a solo, or not getting a chance to play. And the more I get into it, the more I can appreciate . . going back to the Billie Holiday recordings with Teddy Wilson accompanying her—things like that stand out in my mind as being the true art of accompaniment. And Ellis Larkins with Ella Fitzgerald. That to me is high art.

I agree with you entirely. A pianist with that skill is of enormous value to a singer.

But it’s a very specialised thing. I don’t think the public realise too much about it, but the people who are in the business know about it—that’s the main thing.

Well, even Tony, at his point of experience and everything, I’ m sure can have many times when he’s lifted up, even above what he might have thought he was doing, by what you do behind him.

Yes, what you’re saying is absolutely true. He has a good thought; he says: “If you’re consistent in what you’re doing, something very good will happen some nights—a magic moment will come.” His attitude is right—you find you might do something that surprises yourself.

You must have built up a kind, of intuitive rapport with him, inasmuch as you know what he’s liable to do, and are ready in advance, and so forth.

Absolutely. And with Tony you have to be very flexible, because he will turn round on the stage and switch tunes in one second. I mean, there’s no such thing as day–dreaming; you’ve got to be there. He’ll suddenly say so–and–so, which is not on the programme, or something like that. He senses an audience, and he also sings very much as he feels at that moment.

And you’re the man who, if he does go off in any way accidentally, can bring him back. Or deal with matters of keys.

I know. And you have to remember a thousand keys with Tony. He knows almost every song there ever were; I don’t know anyone that knows so many songs. I mean, he knows all the lyrics too—quite amazing.

Do his keys vary a lot?

A little—not too much. Sometimes he’ll say he wants to try something a little higher or a little lower than we’ve been doing it.

Like, Bb is probably a popular vocal key . . .

Funnily enough, he doesn’t do much in Bb. He does stuff in Eb a lot, F a lot, Db, C, Ab. No, he’s not a Bb man.

I suppose you’re constantly adapting material to suit him.

Yes—it’s got to be in his key. He may want it taken lower so that he can sing a high note at the end that’s not too high. The other thing that applies equally to the drums, bass and piano—we have to fit what he’s doing. It has to be accompaniment: it’s got to be swinging, but it can’t be where it’s drowning him out, where he has to sing over the drums, or over the piano.

It has to be an uplift behind him, to get him off the ground.

Absolutely. And we usually have—I won’t say a problem, but usually with sound systems, with monitors, we have to go through quite a bit to get a blend between the trio and the voice. Not in the house, but on the stage. On sound checks, our time is spent doing that, and it can be quite frustrating. You know, you play in a ballroom, or something like that—it’s almost impossible.

Well, I guess that’s why some singers take their own sound system around with them.

That’s right. Well, Tony really likes an acoustic sound, you know. He doesn’t go for electric instruments at all—he can’t stand fender bass or anything electric. He likes to arrive at a sound that is acoustic, so that he’s heard in the hall, or wherever he’s at, more or less naturally, without the loud—dare I say—Tom Jones kind of thing, where it’s blasting people.

He just isn’t that kind of a belter.

No—he can belt, but he’ll belt naturally.

I’ m sure he turns to you for general musical guidance. Of course, things like intros and codas have to be worked on.

They do—and figuring out the show. Tony likes a show to build—not just one song after another haphazardly. He likes to go into what he calls “sections”—to start it out, and to build it up by degrees. Right now he’s finishing his show with a very unusual tune: “Lost In The Stars”——1 don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

Oh, yes—it’s a Kurt Weill song, with words by Maxwell Anderson.

Right—but he explains that it’s about a black minister whose son gets in a jam and murders somebody. This song actually applies to South Africa quite a bit; so it’s a sort of political comment. I won’t say it’s daring to end his show with, but it’s a pretty strong statement. And he sings it without a mike too; he’ll put the mike down, have all mikes turned off—just voice and piano. He finishes it and walks off the stage. It’s quite stark; it’s very different from leaving the audience with a swinger. Completely different.

But it has an impact, and people go away thinking about it.

Very much so. yeah. He does that. I remember also another very nostalgic night: we had a week in Las Vegas with the Basie band not too long ago—and Freddie Greene died during the engagement. And he sang this song, and dedicated it to Freddie—everybody in the band was extremely moved. That was a tough night for us all. There was a great man too.

Another very nice guy—always natural and easy—going.. .

A charming gentleman—a quiet, wonderful guy. Nobody gets that sound, and nobody ever will; that rhythm guitar sound was something he absolutely had to himself. And when you played with that, it was like floating on air—it’d just carry you away.

Instrumentally, along the line, what recordings have you made by yourself?

I have a few trio things out—not for the last couple of years or so. I did some trio stuff for Columbia in the States; one of them was, I think, “The Ralph Sharon Trio Plays Tony Bennett” or something like that. Then I had another one: there was a Broadway show called Do I Hear A Waltz?, and we did a jazz version of that. Also I made some for various other labels; there was something out on Chess, called 2.45 A.M.—that was a complete jazz album. And several things like that, mostly with a trio.

I did do one album in the Sixties with a sextet over there. Of all people, I had Charlie Mingus on bass. At the time, I just phoned him for this date—and 1 found out later how sort of precarious that was, because he was into a different kind of thing by then—but he was very nice. I had all good people on it—Joe Puma on guitar, Teddy Charles on vibes, J. R. Monterose on tenor.

I’ve heard that LP—I remember it as a very worthwhile session.

I’d like to do some more piano stuff. There’s some talk about it.

Well, to my mind, with your jazz piano talent, it’s important for you to have an outing now and again.

That’s very nice—yes. Derek Boulton was mentioning to me that he wants to do something; so I look forward to it.

Copyright © 1989 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.