Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978
Really, Toots, you’ve built up quite a reputation as an accompanist as a fillerin behind singers.
Yes, I like it. Well, it’s part of working, you know—but it’s nice work. It’s easy work, and it’s usually financially rewarding. Peggy Lee, Paul Simon and other sessions now and then behind pop singers.
Yes, you came over here with Paul Simon, didn’t you? That was a very nice TV show you did with him, from Bristol.
It was cold, too; it was in December, and there was practically no heating. We did it in a big square house or something. As I played a note on the harmonica, I could see all the air coming out of my mouth. But I enjoyed it very much.
He gave you a fair amount of playing space. Paul would appear to be quite a jazz enthusiast.
If not a jazz enthusiast, a man who respects a jazz player. He likes something bluesy well–played, and he hears—he has his own taste, but he likes good musicians and treats ‘em right. From what a musician can do, he knows exactly what he wants—or he squeezes the guy until he gets that particular result that is good for what he hears. Believe me, I have so much respect for him. He sees everything and he hears everything. Like, in a stage presentation, the decor, the setup of where things go, the visual thing and the sound thing—it’s all his. The same with his records. Of course, he’s in a position to spend six months to make a record: “Okay—we’ll go to Atlanta for the string section. We’ll go to London for this part.” For eight bars, they come to London.
Would you say you get the most kicks in a small group context, rather than, say, on a massive studio date?
I do—yes. Unless it’s arranged by somebody who’s very sympathetic. It’s not a matter of how much you write; it’s how right it is, and how comfortable it feels to play against or with. Harmonica is a very special instrument, to start with.
What sort of a proportion of the two instruments do you play? Overall, do you divide your time between them, or do more on one than the other?
Well, I get more recognition, more attention from the harmonica, you know. I’m not that spectacular a guitarist—but I love the guitar. I’ve had a few good moments. With George Shearing, I have a couple of good solos on record—for that period, I thought.
You’ve done some very enjoyable playing on guitar, I’d say. Who would you name as inspirations?
The first, of course, was Django; then Charlie Christian and the whole evolution. I guess I listened a lot to Wes Montgomery. I enjoy so many good players; George Benson is terrific, and there’s a guy in Belgium now who’s really amazing—Philip Catherine.
Oh, yes—have you worked with him at all?
We often meet as friends, but not to work. We have to find common ground, you know. It’s like two rivers meeting—the waters are completely different. The temperaments, the two generations are different.
He’s more into that rock/jazz—I hate the word, but it’s an easy definition for now, I guess. A more modern style, anyway. But I want to expose myself to everything. I feel this way; if you consider all the kinds of music surrounding us like a bathtub you jump in the water, and see what sticks to you. Whatever sticks to your senses, you use spontaneously—but it has to be spontaneous. I don’t feel like copying, trying to emulate or get into some sort of direction just because it’s supposed to be modern, or a lot of people talk about it. It has to suit me. There are some sounds by Chick Corea and others that I enjoy. Today my main hero is still John Coltrane—specially the period, roughly speaking, where he played songs. But he plays a song on a C7, anyway! He plays a song on anything.
With the way electronics are used nowadays, have you been into that at all with the harmonica?
I’m fooling around. I bought an echo machine, you know, but I’m afraid to use it in public yet—1 don’t know all these buttons! I’ll have to practise in my room for a month or two. I got it in America, in fact, and I brought it to Brussels, but it’s still in the package. It’s a nice thing; for instance, you play one track, it comes back and repeats itself, and you can add to it—things like that. What I was looking for, and I haven’t found yet, is an octave–type divider, or whatever they call it, that you can put on a saxophone to get an octave lower. I hear some synthesisers can produce effects like that. But the tone signal from the harmonica is not thick enough to generate the electronic vibration that gets the octave going underneath. I tried it—it sounds terrible. Only in the low notes it gets going; then—you go up, and nothing happens. I’m certainly interested——if somebody makes a good machine like that, I’ll buy it. Or I’ll go sit with somebody until they find the frequencies that work, or something.
Have you found some fresh musical motivations recently?
Really, I feel very stimulated, I must say. I’ve learned a lot from Rob Franken. I’ve been playing and listening for thirty–seven years, and somehow he has a beautiful . . . synthesis, do you say . . . I hate to call it a system; you know, all these scales you’re taught—the melodic, minor melodic, pentatonic and all that, and the substitutions—sometimes it’s a little easy to call it a system. And I went on a crash diet of pentatonic scales, and stuff like that, to find variations from some of the old bebop runs into chord progressions. Sometimes, after playing many years, a musician’s mind gets stiffened in a certain direction, from which you cannot detach yourself so much. I’ve been fortunate, I think, to be able to . . . cleanse myself of old clichés a bit. But it cannot sound like you’re just trying to be hip. I set myself to figure out all the progressions, mostly of the standard songs: how to play “Stardust” in a pleasing way, in what I would call the “modern melodic” concept. In which John Coltrane is still the boss. If he’d left only one solo for me, it would be with Miles Davis—“Some Day My Prince Will Come”. The chorus he does on that record is a textbook for the next fifty years, for me—to my ears. Because melodically the Herbie Hancocks and all the guys spread out from that root. But John played so much stuff that has not been absorbed yet—that’s still flying out there, you know.
Well, I’ve felt it’s a pity that a lot of musicians emulated only one side of his playing, instead of studying the whole. Thank goodness there are now ample signs of what you advocate being applied.
If anything, that’s my little message—listen to it all. I mean, that’s what I do. Again, you have to give yourself a John Coltrane shower, so to speak, and let the drops stick that suit your own personality. In my case, I may have a little originality of my own. My roots are different; I’m a French–speaking Belgian who grew up on French music—Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf and all that. So that’s bound to leave you something. Like, “Bluesette” is a French song; there’s not one blue note, not one syncopation in it—it’s a musette waltz. But I used chords like Charlie Parker; when guys like Charlie played the blues for a while, they started to get away from the basic blues chords, and made the cycle all around. Which is what “Bluesette” is: you start in the key, then you’re in a cycle of fifths, and then you jump right again. That’s why the song keeps turning around, and is so easy to play all the time. Different ways, too.
It’s certainly lent itself to some varied treatments. You yourself have recorded it several times, in different settings, haven’t you?
Oh, yes—several. And I’m not finished yet! What is your general set–up now? Are we likely to hear you on some more orchestral–type studio recordings?
Well, at the end of the month we’re planning a recording session here in London—a string–type, melodic session, with the Dutch arranger Rogier .Van Otterloo. And we’re bringing in Niels Pederson as a member of the rhythm section—and Rob will be there. Nice songs with strings; the producer in Holland said: “Let’s put the accent on the ballad side. Nobody plays a ballad like you. You got to play something where everybody wants to reach for his handkerchief. Make everybody cry—that’s you.” I said: “Okay”. So I’ll do it.
The only time I’ve heard anything to parallel what you do on a ballad was from a musician named Max Geldray on a certain comedy radio show we had here years ago. But you’ve certainly developed it into a fine art. What about recording with this present group of yours?
Yes, in Holland we’re doing a tele1evision show together with an appearance in a club, where it will be put on tape. Playing two sets, we hope to come up with a record.
You seem to move about from place to place a great deal. DO you find it heavy going sometimes?
The hardest thing is stress, really. When things are going in a smooth way, when everything is handled properly, there’s no problem. I just sit on my chair and play. These days, the phone rings all the time, and I’m booked pretty solid for some months ahead. Since my wife died, I’m a little in a daze; now I have nobody, really. I could stay home and relax, but what would I do home?
Playing is totally in your blood, I’m sure, and you’ve got to do what you do so well.
That’s it. The thing I really hope to be able to say is that I’ve made, if not one complete good LP, at least separate spots here and there that, in total, leave enough of a picture of what I do well. And that I can objectively say that I did my best with my given talent from upstairs. That seems very important to me right now. The shortage of records under my own name has been partly my fault. It’s a matter also of finding material and knowing what to record. Or finding the right producer, really; I’ve always found producers who were more like fans—they leave me too much of a free hand. Because I really don’t know what to do with myself on record. I have to have somebody to say: “No—not that”, instead of saying : “Oh, that was great, Toots, yes.” And somehow this guy in Holland seems to know what he’s after, and will argue about it. The accent in this thing will be on beautiful songs—and the little tear, you know.
I’ll look forward to that. I’ve been on constant look–out for some personal releases by you for years.
True—I goofed. Because these albums are not expensive to make, and there‘s always somebody who’ll do it. But again, you go through evolutions, and after a while you lose confidence in your own sense of creativity, or ability to express yourself fully. It’s not an ego thing; it’s finding something that you enjoy listening to, that you play yourself. I may have fun onstage, but I’m dead serious, you know—music is my life. When it feels good, it shows; I smile, and become a little bit of a “personality”—which sometimes leads to criticisms by the purists, about being too commercial and so on. I can only face myself about that.
The important thing is: is it musical? Certainly not whether it’s pure jazz, or pure something–or–other.
Very good thinking. In fact, a Dutch journalist did a nice piece about me, referring to me as a “music purist”. That I liked.
Yes, it’s a question of what makes musical sense. And I must say I’ve never heard a solo of yours that didn’t.
Thank you. Well, when you talk about making sense, that’s maybe my mathematical mind, my need of an explanation for whatever note I play. Even when there’s a lot of stuff every note is accounted for. I try, anyway.
It’s been marvellous to talk to you. All the very best to you, Toots—and keep blowing that thing!
I’m gonna do it till I die ! They’re gonna have to kill me!
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.