Jazz Professional               



Making the Best of the Single Life

I never studied
Making the Best of the Single Life
Hip Music from the Horn of Plenty

The British tour last year was my first trip over here since October,'79, when I came as a member of the Louie Bellson band. It was also my very first time as a single. It looked like I was going to try to put it together about three years ago, when I went to Scandinavia. I was in Sweden for almost two weeks, and then I went on to Helsinki—that was my third time there as a single. In Sweden, I did a single in a club, made an album with Hector Bingert, a Uruguayan tenor player who has a jazz/salsa band, and toured with a Swedish big band at all the various folks parks that they have. In Helsinki I played a jazz club, the Club Groovy, and did a live album there also.

I don't know why I didn't put the British thing together earlier—or even Germany, for that matter. It always seemed like I was so busy, getting involved in different projects in the States. I always said: "I'll work on it six months from now; I'll try to set it up for next Spring"—and there was always something else that came up. Last year's trip was arranged six months in advance, and it worked out real good.

For a couple of years I've been playing the first flute chair in Cats in Los Angeles; that's at the Schubert Theatre in Century City. It's been very nice to get a steady pay-cheque, and to play my flute all the time—the book is ninety per cent flute. L.A. is really not a theatre town; it's probably been one of the longest running shows they've had there.

This was another first for me—I hadn't done pit work before. And it's a totally different set of rules. I thought it would just be: go there, play the music, smile through it all—but night after night playing the same music involves an extreme amount of discipline. You start to memorise all the cues real quick; what is essential is: not to get bored with it, to keep it sounding fresh—to keep it interesting is the big thing to do, I think.

A lot of the guys sit there and read—and it bugs the hell out of me. I feel they should be listening, and constantly aware of where the pitch is. I don't know—maybe I'm taking it too serious. But I take music very seriously—and music has been my whole life.

Of course, you can't get too creative with notes that are expected to be the same, and phrasing that you have to adhere to every single night. There are a couple of little things that are just out-and-out solos, which have absolutely nothing to do with anybody else except you alone. At the beginning of the second act there's this short one—well, you consider it short by jazz standards, but when you're playing it al1 alone in front of a theatre packed with people, it suddenly becomes very long! But I try to take a little bit of liberty here and there, and play it slightly different. You keep trying things—you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You have to take chances—but when you do, sometimes you'll slip. I am an interpretative artist; so I'm liable to do it that way. And sometimes I'll get the high sign from the conductor; sometimes not! It's okay, though.

It gives me an extra interest—and people around me. There's a short tenor solo in the first act, and I promised myself that every night I was going to play it different. It's a rock 'n' roll, honking tenor solo, with a lot of high notes in there. They want it in the contemporary vein, and that's the way I do it. I use that pinched, squealy sound—it works perfectly. I've been having more fun with it; every night it's a different trip.

Listen, I've played on a lot of rock 'n' roll records. I've played solos that in a million years people wouldn't think that it was me. Nobody would pick it out and say: "Oh, that's Don Menza". It doesn't work that way. I turn into a chameleon; I wouldn't dare go in there and approach it like I do when I'm on the stand playing "Airegin" or something—that would be totally out of context. And if you've got a rock 'n' roll tenor solo to play, you give it that contemporary thing. I'm not talking about a 'fifties tenor sound; I'm talking about the sound that's right here and now—there's a certain element in it that you should have.

But after more than a year in this job, you can imagine how much I needed a little break, to go out and play some jazz again. I started to feel that irresistible urge to do something else—oh, I had a terrible appetite for playing. When you're not out playing every night, you start to get the feeling: "Gee, am I forgetting how to play?" It took one night; the next night everything started to get very clear again, and I felt much better.

Working with changing rhythm sections is no problem, really—it's the same situation in L.A. Somebody comes to town, and if they're going to work a club for, let's say, four or five nights, any given night you'll never know who's going to be in the rhythm section. They'll hire one rhythm section, and when any of them can't make it they have to worry about their own deps (or subs, as we say).

For me, going out as a single has always been very good—whether it's up in Toronto or Buffalo or Phoenix or San Francisco or San Diego. They always understand that, in spite of those anonymous records, I'm not there to play rock 'n' roll. So long as they pick a good jazz rhythm section that is fully acquainted with the jazz concept—fine. And I'm talking about anywhere from early Swing to avant garde—I don't care which direction they go; so it makes it easy. But I can usually sort it out—and I'll usually go their way.

I've talked to some people about it, and they've said: "Why don't you play more of your original tunes?" That's difficult; I come to a town, and if I have one rehearsal with one rhythm section, that means I have to rehearse every day, any time there's a new player—unless they're tremendous readers. It's not worth it—it's far better to go in, have everybody have their best foot forward and play it as relaxed as possible. I know sometimes for the people it's not as interesting, because they wind up hearing the same tunes from everybody that comes in. Sorry—but that's the way the whole thing is set up.

If I went to other towns, or came over here, with my rhythm section, or with my piano player and drummer, or piano player and bass player, it would be easy to ask one or two of the guys to start to follow what we were doing. When I play with my own group, if I play one standard a set, that's a lot. Back home we usually wind up playing three sets—here it's only two. So, in the single set-up, I try not to repeat tunes, and try to dig into the past and come up with a whole bunch of different songs to play.

No, I don't carry a note of music, nor a list of tunes and keys—nothing. It's more exciting that way. Just start playing, and everybody jumps in. And I try to treat things in a different way—either play a tune as a fast samba or a bossa nova, or something that normally would be played very fast played very slow, or play it on flute. It makes a more interesting show for the people out there, because, like Buddy Rich said: "We don't play requests".

When I've psyched out where they're at, I try to pick tunes that will make the other guys feel comfortable. By the same token, I don't like to play a tune that I don't know, and I don't expect anybody else to. If there's music to it, that's simple— I can read changes real fast. We simply find a common ground. Well, these are musicians that are playing every night— they understand it all. I have to say that sometimes I have to take a deep breath and try to get my composure together, because it tends to be a little boring. I am tired of playing "Green Dolphin Street"; I am tired of playing "Stella By Starlight"—but under these conditions, you do the best you can. You try to make it sound fresh. I'd rather do that than not play for the people, I'll tell you.

Is there a kind of a 1950 barrier for songs? Well, there are certainly a lot of sensational songs that were written pre '50. I started playing around '51-'52, and most of the ballads I learned originated before that. And I still play them: "I Can't Get Started", "Body And Soul", "These Foolish Things", "My Foolish Heart", "Fools Rush In"—I think most of those songs were from the 'forties and earlier. They were the war ballads—the love songs. And everybody seems to know them; it makes it simple.

But if you're going up and playing a jazz ballad, there's a lyrical approach to it that you should have. I think all the great players knew how to do that. You can separate the men from the boys real quick: let somebody play a ballad, and you can tell right away who knows how to sing, who has all that lyric quality. I'm a stickler about that; I'll talk to young students all the time—I'll tell 'em: "Learn how to play long notes. Do you know the words to the song? If not, learn those words.

Listen to a good singer, and imitate what he does." That's all the instruments are, anyway—they're just an imitation of the human voice.

I know many of the songs I play are songs whose lyrics I've learned. Then you learn how to phrase and how to sing. The whole thing about vibrato or non-vibrato—I don't care about that. There's some singers who will sing a note dead on. Joao Gilberto's a prime example of that; most people would probably say he's got a terrible voice—but, boy, can he tell a story! Does he know how to get that lyric quality happening! He has that beautiful, easy approach to it. He's one of my heroes of all time—then on the other hand I'm a Pavarotti fanatic. How does it add up? Well, it's all music. Absolutely.

As to whether the older songs are the best ones—I don't know. Lionel Richie's come up with a whole bunch of beautiful songs. "Lady" is a wonderful song to play. It's just that it seems like... how much do I listen to contemporary pop things these days? Not a lot—I've discovered Mahler; so I'm going even farther back now, and all of a sudden I'm into a whole different aspect of music.

I have been putting the majority of my time and effort into learning how to write film scores—I went to school for that. I studied conducting and orchestration; I'm still doing that, and I'm anxious to get into it. I've started knocking on doors, and it's funny now, the answers I get: "Well, we always considered you a jazz writer." Well, they never commissioned me to write any jazz scores either! Now I'm interested in the area of dramatic film writing—suddenly I'm a jazz tenor player and writer. Well, then hire me for that! But it's been extremely rewarding. I'm finding I know more about music than I gave myself credit for—and I'm winding up with a bit more confidence. Now I want to get into music that much deeper. I've started writing a whole bunch of new charts. It sounds like I've taken a step... I don't know if it's forward, but in a slightly different direction. Harmonically it's turned into something else. I'm writing a lot more for woodwinds, mixing colours and instrumentations far better, and getting some contrasting things happening.

I just wrote a new chart on "Caravan", and it's a totally different approach to that song from what anybody has ever done.

Hopefully, it'll be on the next album with my big band. All the ballads have woodwinds; there's no high notes, screaming and everything—it's all very nice. The ballads sound like ballads. It's all acoustic, for five, five and five, and three rhythm—but at times you'd swear you could hear strings, or you can almost hear French horns. I do it by different couplings of instruments, different colourings.

I may work some electronic instruments in there eventually—but there's something sacred about it, and I've made very few compromises in my life, as far as music has been concerned. Sometimes maybe I should have. If I were to say which ones did I make—I raised a family, and I definitely had to make compromises for that, in some of the music that I had to play. Playing in a studio is much the same as being on the Ford assembly line, or working in a factory somewhere. But I raised a son and a daughter, and I still have a beautiful wife—I have a lot to be thankful for. On the other hand, I'm anxious to get on with it now. Here comes another phase of it.

I don't think the dues-paying aspect was too bad, really. The music that I played, for the most part, was very good; I worked for most of the good writers in Los Angeles. The Munich years were certainly very productive; I had a steady job there, and they treated me as one of their own. I never felt like I was a foreigner when I was there—it was sensational.

And I have a lot to thank Max Greger for—to hire a jazz tenor player—well, he knew my reputation somewhat from when I was in the Army; I sent him a couple of records that I had done with Maynard Ferguson, and on the strength of that he hired me. Those were four very productive years.

I didn't play the flute with Max – I would say its in the last five or six years that I got real serious about that instrument.

But that came from going out with Henry Mancini, and not wanting to have to sit there all the time while the full symphony orchestra was playing. I said: "Well, print up a fourth flute book, so I don't have to read over somebody's shoulder." I learned how to play all the parts, and I started to hear all the great flute players sitting next to me in all the orchestras-and it didn't take long at all. I mean, I learned how to play saxophone that way—from listening to records. So once the sound got in my head, I knew what I was doing wrong. It's been very worth-while, the last fifteen years with Mancini. That's an education in itself—watching him conduct, and listening to the music that he's written. Aside from his jazz awareness, I'm talking about his approach to the orchestra—how he treats all that. Yes, he has his own sound; his colours are very lush, very beautiful. He's very much aware of what's happening.

Concerning my own band—I must mention the "Burnin' " album on the Real Time label, because I don't believe that showed up over here, due to distribution problems. The saxophone section was great: Joe Romano, Ray Reid, myself, Larry Covelli, Gary Herbig, Jay Migliori; Jack Nimiz played all the baritone parts. There were three dates, and the four saxophones varied in different chairs. I fronted the band; I didn't play in the section, because I felt at that point in the studio I'd have a little more control over it. The trumpet section was real good; it was Frank Szabo, Bobby Shew, Ron King, Chuck Findley and Don Rader—not bad at all! The rhythm section was Frank Strazzeri, Nick Ceroli and Frank De La Rosa. On trombones were Charlie Loper, Bill Reichenbach, Dick Hyde, Myo Tiana and Dana Hughes. I did all the writing; there was one standard—Duke's ballad, "Don't You Know I Care?"—which Louie Bellson, I understand, recorded here. Now I've got enough music for two more albums—I'm looking forward to them.

Copyright © 1987, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.