Jazz Professional               



A rich past, and a bright future

Evolution of an individual
At Ronnie's
A rich past
New fields still to conquer
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980

As I'm totally convinced now, alto is my natural instrument. But at the one time, I didn't have money to buy both horns; I was able to get credit for one horn, and I picked a tenor, because I thought I would be able to get more work.

Which was true, at that time—the tenor was what everyone used. But the main thing—what it really was, and I knew it deep inside—was because of 'Trane. I just loved the way he played so much that I just wanted to play the tenor, and see where I would go with it. And I had quite a few people come up to me and tell me that I was the first person playing really outside that they could understand. Right—the form was there, even through this kind of madness.

In 1968, I had the offer to go with Buddy Rich's band, playing lead alto and alto solos. All I had was the tenor, but Don Menza had an alto, and he let me use that—which was really nice of him. So I went to Las Vegas, and I made the rehearsal at Caeser's Palace on a strange alto, a strange mouthpiece, everything. When I walked in, Menza just pointed to this case; I went over, opened it, and took it out, like as if it was my horn. Then I went down and sat down to rehearse. I mean, talk about a challenge—wow! Anyway, after the rehearsal, Buddy seemed to be pleased. I returned to the motel room, took the horn out, started just blowing it and looking in the mirror. All of a sudden, I heard this sound, and I said: "Wow—that's me! " It was almost as if I'd been a genie in a bottle, and couldn't get loose, and suddenly someone rubbed the bottle and out I came. I was back home, From then on, I haven't had any doubts.

With Buddy's band I was featured on "Alfie"; also I had a short solo on the "Channel One" suite, and one of these kind of jazz waltz pieces that Woody played so well, with the solo by that excellent tenor player—yeah, Sal Nistico. I had a nice solo on that, and a couple of others, but "Alfie" was the longest one—that featured me all the way through. But I was very unhappy with the way the recording of it came out. When I heard the playback of it, it was great. It was about four o'clock in the morning when we started it; a whole bunch of people were let in—they were digging the recording, but we were tired. We'd been working all night, with no chance to lay down and rest; we just had about an hour after the job to go back, take a shower, have a bite of food—then we had to go and start recording again. So with the professional equipment, the playback sounded wonderful—but when the record came out, and I listened to it, I was really disappointed. I had heard from Don Menza that Buddy does this: he wants the rhythm and the brass be predominant. Stan Kenton was the same way; he wanted the brass—saxophones were like a second cousin or something; everything was lowered a little bit. Instead of sounding real big, like it was when we recorded it—the sound of the sax section and the soloist—they had cut it down, and it wasn't the same. It just should have been louder. Other than that, I thought it was a nice thing; we did it after I'd been there about a week or so, and that just reaffirmed it—the alto was it. I got hold of a Selmer, bought it from a guy—and I've never changed.

It was kind of like fate or something, I would have gotten back some way—I know that—but it's really amazing, the circumstances that have got me to where I'm at now. Then I got sick, had the operation, and almost died. Yeah, I was supposed to come over here with the band—but they left their altoman in San Francisco. I was really looking forward to it, too—I thought it would be so much fun, specially with that band. It was an excellent band.

Those charts were a challenge, reading and interpreting them—and I loved the way Buddy played with that band. A couple of times a trio thing came up, and he didn't sound as good to me with the small group—but with the band, he was phenomenal. Boy, you talk about working and giving your all—he pours everything into every performance; he never bullshit, man. And he won't stand or anybody in his band to mess around. He says: "I come to play. If you didn't, just tell me, and get your ass back home—I'll get somebody that wants to play. I want people that want to play." If you get yourself into a position where you're not physically able to play, like being too loaded, or not taking care of yourself; not eating right, you're in trouble. But it's hard—it's like a ballplayer. I'd be playing up there, and the sweat's just pouring off me; it's indescribable, what that feeling is—how you work at it. I think that's one of the reasons he liked me, also—he knew that I was trying just as hard as I could to play. It was a very interesting experience.

Another interesting band came later on. After leaving Synanon and everything—not too far back—I played with Don Ellis's band. And a lot of young players around L. A. and stuff . . I had heard from different people that guys were saying: "Man, he can't play with that band." Because everything's in nineeight, seveneight, fivesix, fiveeight, nineeleven—just these unbelievably hard arrangements, and they said: "No, he's too old, man." And I had a solo, in fivefour and seveneight, that was just marvellous—a duet with the cello, then the strings—what a showpiece. I had to take the book home and practice—it was really hard. In this club one time, I played this solo—and the whole audience stood, which they don't usually do if you're playing with somebody's band. Michel Legrand was sitting right in front; when I got off the stand, he grabbed my arm, and he said: "Oh, superb—I had tears in my eyes when you were playing. It made me really feel great." He was real nice; I told him that I'd done "The Summer Knows" and that I would send him a copy. It's on "The Trip"; I start out playing two different minor chords for a while—the same as "Patricia". That's in a major, and then the ending is like a blues, but "Summer Knows" was like a minor to a minor—same type of thing, but with minor chords—and it really came out nice. Oh, you heard the soundtrack of the film Heartbeat, but it doesn't have the unaccompanied alto parts on it? It's in the movie—maybe they didn't put it in the album because it was just by myself, Conte Candoli was also on it, and I played alto on one swinging arrangement; then in one spot they had Bud Shank and I playing together—we didn't record it that way, but they put it together. But I guess the things that I played alone—they would just have to have a very tiny section, because they were very short. Then there were some other spots where I was just with a piano, and so forth.

You enjoyed hearing me with strings on there? Well, I'll tell you—during this tour, I'm trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, and part of my contract with Fantasy was that I'd be able to make a large album. First I want to do a ballad album with strings. What I've been thinking about: it might be good to have maybe. three different groups—say, a couple of ballads with strings, and then some kind of authentic Latin thing, with all those instruments, and maybe have it written by . . . there's a great Latin writer who was around the same time as Machito was, when Bird recorded with him—yeah, Chico O'Farrill, I think. Then maybe a real downhome Gospel type of group, with the fender basslike, jazzrock, but jazz, So now I'm toying with that; I don't know whether to have it that way, or to have it all ballads with strings. If I were buying, I would enjoy more of a mixture of tracks, I think.

At any rate I'm going to start listening to some people's writing. I wanted to do something with Gil Evans, too; he's such a great writer, and it would just be so wonderful—I'd just love to play with him. I'm keeping my ears open, trying to hear some things; if I hear something that I really like, then I'm going to remember it and talk to Ed Michel, who's the producer. We did the "Art Pepper Today" and the "Straight Life" albums together, and we have a nice working relationship.

I talked to a head guy of the company—the one who decided that he would sign me, Here I was—no one had offered me a contract at all; I could have maybe stayed with Contemporary. Then Fantasy called, and I went into Hollywood to see this guy about it. We talked, and I was saying that I would like to get some kind of an initial bonus; this might have been my last chance, but I said: "Well, I want ten thousand dollars in front, without having it go on my royalties—a real bonus, that I don't have to pay back." And my wife Laurie looked at me, and she said: "Oh, Art." The guy thought for a minute, and he says: "That sounds reasonable. I'll make a call." He called the director, said "Okay", and that was it. Later, Laurie said: "My God—I never dreamed that you could do that. You were so cool. I would have taken anything, if I had no other offers." But I figured; that's a shot; I'd find out right away whether they really wanted me, or it was just: "He's been a nice player—let's let him record a few songs now and then." If I knew that I could have a string album, then a Latin album, and so on, I'd say "Okay"—but I don't want to take a chance; I want to do the best thing I can for the whole album. "Landscape" is coming out on Galaxy very soon—that's an album I made in Tokyo live. Then I'll be doing this other one, and if the Phil Woods thing comes through, I'll be doing the album with him. I'm looking forward to all of it.

Copyright © 1980 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.