© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The tone and tenor of Les Tomkins’ later-in-career-interview with Gerry Mulligan which was published in the June/July 1985 issue of Crescendo International is reflective of this assertion by the late author Tom Clancy:
“As a man gets older he thinks differently and see things more clearly.”[Clancy was gender specific].
Although Jeru gave somewhat similar responses in previous interviews, these are fuller; more thorough; more complete: in other words, Gerry is older and thinking differently about people, places and things in his life, both past and present.
“We know you, Gerry, as a musician who has been involved, as a player and a writer, in a wide range of activity. Working with a symphony orchestra is something else...
Stretching out a little more — yes. The first reason for starting to do the symphony concerts was to play this new piece of mine. I took off the Winter of '83/'84, spent four months working on the ideas, and then two months — well, about a month, I suppose -- scoring it. So altogether it occupied five months out of the year, preparing this piece — called "Entente". It's geared to be a piece for solo baritone saxophone and orchestra.' Then the other piece we're playing in these concerts is called “The Sax Chronicles"; I had this idea with my friend Harry Freedman, who's a Canadian composer, to do a piece that allowed me to play with the orchestra in various kinds of contexts that I don't get to play with — because none of the composers wrote for the baritone saxophone! And I wanted to be able to do this; it always breaks my heart to listen to the orchestra play even its standard repertoire and not be able to play the music of great writers of the twentieth, nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. So Harry decided the way to solve my problem was to take melodies of mine and re-compose them in the styles of Bach, Brahms, Mozart... We call it 'The Sax Chronicles" because we're jumping around in time, and it's sort of the idea of doing a revisionist history of the saxophone!
A fascinating idea. But your opportunities of experimentation with a large orchestra must have been strictly limited anyway.
Well, actually, after doing this piece, I had the opportunity to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl during last Summer  — and, of course, that gave us a deadline to aim for. And it's been a wonderful thing: because of the existence of the piece those other things have happened kind of naturally, you know. We spent a week in Treviso, Italy — that's in the Veneto province, North of Venice — we rehearsed for three days and did four concerts with them, and that really came about because the music existed. It was one of those coincidental things; this was when their orchestra was having its season, and they had asked me if I would do a Quartet concert. I'd said: "Love to"; then we got into a conversation about what I was doing…”Ah, you have a piece for the symphony — oh, that's wonderful!" So we wound up performing it, and it was great, because to have the three days of rehearsal as a luxury and to do four concerts in a row — it meant the thing really came to life for me. One of the drawbacks is always having a minimal amount of rehearsal time — it's a great luxury, being so expensive. This allowed me to iron out a|l the inevitable problems — copying mistakes and that sort of thing. Also — I put some time in and wrote an arrangement for the orchestra with the Quartet on one of the pieces that we do regularly, called "K-4 Pacific".
Oh, yes, I remember that from "Age Of Steam" — a particular favourite album with me.
Right — well, I do that all the time with the Quartet. You know, I hadn't really even thought about it before, but when I finished the "Entente" I was so wound up, spending that much time, that finally when I got down to scoring I couldn't quit! So I went on and did the other piece. When we've finished the current tour I’m going to go back to Italy and see if I can do some more writing.
Would you call it fusion music — in terms of fusing elements of jazz with classical elements?
It certainly is doing that — especially "Entente". "The Sax Chronicles" is intended to be in the styles of the various composers; really, the only thing that's jazz-like about it the fact that I'm primarily a jazz musician — so I tend to phrase things in the way that I'm used to. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be a symphonic player! It's the force of habit, you know — the things that are so ingrained in me, as far as phrasing is concerned. But what we have is a kind of a mutual adapting to each other, within the framework allowed by the styles that we're writing in.
In writing, this is quite a departure for you. Is something that you, hopefully, will be doing more of?
Yes, I intend to. Yes — I love to write for the orchestra. I really never thought that I would write for the orchestra— I didn't feel like I could do it. But it's been kind of a sequence of events — you know those sorts of things: you meet people and things happen, without thinking about it. And that really is what's happened here, because, in a way, the springboard for all this was the happy accident of meeting Zubin Mehta on a plane going from Los Angeles to New York. We got talking about this and that, and he wound up inviting me to play the soprano saxophone solo part on Ravel's "Bolero". And he invited me to come to rehearsals whenever I wanted to; so being in contact with and spending more and more time around the orchestra had its effect, and Zubin kind of gave me the confidence to go ahead and try it. I'd been very hesitant about taking the chance. It's not easy to be a beginner at any time in your life, but I think to get to be my age and feel like a rank beginner again — just trying something you don't know at all — is not at all easy.
Well, it's been in there sort of waiting to come out, I suppose.
I suppose so — because I've always been interested in orchestration, I've
listen a lot, and I've always felt like I know a lot about it. Intuitively — because I never studied orchestration or composition when I was young; I never had the opportunity to. But I understand the principles and the logic, and I've always curious when I listened to any composer’s work... I'm always more concerned with why he would solve a problem in such a way, or why he would use such-and-such a combination of instruments!. The imagination that a composer can bring to what he does by the kinds of orchestration that he'll evolve for what he's doing — that's the great fascination for me.
But it's an extension, as it were, of what you've done for the jazz orchestra. You always tried, there, to get as wide a palette of colours as possible, didn't you?
It’s true I've always been attracted to the jazz band in an orchestral way, rather than a band way. I suppose that's one of the things that has always separated me — and certainly separates me now — from the general trend of the existing bands. Well, there are only a few of the well-known bands left. But, you know, one of the bands I wrote for and played with in the 'forties was Claude Thornhill's band — and one of the things I loved about his band, and Claude Thornhill's approach, was his conception of the dance band instrumentation, with seven brass or so. In this case, he had six or seven brass and a couple of french horns, with the five reeds — and we usually used a couple of clarinets in that. But his approach was basically orchestral, but with no strings involved. That's always fascinated me, and I've always leaned in the direction of orchestral writing rather than band writing.
Of course, Gil Evans, whose ideas are very similar, was there too...
And that's precisely what Gil was doing — and that's why he was so ideally suited to be writing for Thornhill. But that was Thornhill's conception — his band was like that when he first put it together, before Gil ever wrote for it. Did you ever hear any of the things that Claude wrote? Marvellous things — there's one thing in particular...
Yes, it was Gil who drew my attention to them, and I later got hold of a record. The one you mean had a funny title — "Portrait..."
“Portrait of a Guinea Farmer" — well, that's an example. The kinds of things he was writing were very much in the vein of some of Debussy's humorous music. Aside from the tone poems we associate automatically with Claude Debussy, he had a sense of humour — and this was the thing that Claude Thornhill enjoyed so much. Anyway, that was the conception of the band; that was an inspiration to me, and it made me very conscious of orchestral writing. Another bandleader that I worked for, who also inspired me to listen to orchestral writing and to his favourite composers, was Gene Krupa. Oh, yes — Gene's first love was Delius. He loved Delius, and we'd spend a lot of time listening to that music. When we were on the road, Gene always carried his record player and his records, and he would invite some of us up to his hotel room, And he listened with such enthusiasm; he'd say: "Now, listen to this... listen to what he does here... listen to the bar of five-four he puts in here..." Oh, he was a great inspiration — lovely man. I've always considered myself lucky with the leaders that I worked for, and Claude and Gene were certainly two inspiring people for me.
How about Stan Kenton? Was he not an inspiration?
Well, you see — Stan's band I didn't really like, because it represents the opposite extreme. Everything was brass, and it was all this kind of thing that we associate with the concert band — like the Sousa band, you know. Although I use Sousa band only to explain the conception of the concert band, because Sousa's band, unlike Kenton's band, was a very soft band. When they play Sousa marches today, they sound very loud, very military and all that — but when Sousa played them they didn't sound like that at all. They didn't use trumpets, for one thing, and when they did, the cornet was still the primary instrument — and the cornets had a much softer sound. And they used woodwinds; the clarinets served the function of the strings. There are recordings around of recreations of Sousa's band, that were probably done in the 'thirties — it was a revelation to hear those things. It appealed to me; I liked it very much — because I don't like really blasting loud music. As a consequence, I don't think Stan really liked my things that much. He kinda got stuck with me, because the musicians playing in the band liked my
arrangements, and I think he felt he would have lost face with the band if he'd refused to commission me to write more, or to play them. But I know that he wasn't really comfortable with them. My music is too horizontal, and what Stan liked was vertical structures. He wanted power — sort of wearing your virility on your sleeve, if you will.
So what's happening with the band now? You've brought it over here a couple of times. Are you still keeping it together?
Yes — you know, some years I do a lot of dates and a world tour with the big band; and then the next year we'll probably only do a handful of dates. But we keep the spirit going in the band; we're always in contact with the players, and they all live around New York. There are usually very few changes when I put it together; we did a concert very recently, and had almost all the regulars. And, of course, we've done enough dates like that, that there are plenty of people in New York in various chairs to make it feel like we've been together a long time. It always amuses me — sometimes we'll put the band together for a date, and we haven't played together for six months or more; we don't have a rehearsal, but we go out and play — and it sounds like the band has been working every night! I never spring new arrangements on them without rehearsing first. The amusing thing about it is: we'll go and do a concert some place, with no rehearsal, and then there'll be the comment in the paper that they think the band may be over-rehearsed — it's a little too polished! I always save those to send around to the band — it makes them feel good. And the other thing we do: we periodically have Softball games with the band, because they're all baseball nuts — that helps to keep the spirit alive. That's one of the things about a band — aside from the music and what you can do with it, as a social organisation it's the thing that we all became musicians for in the first place. That's part of it.
Do you pretty well divide your time between the small group things and the big band?
Right — and now we have the third area: spending time on the symphony concerts. As for the Quartet, Bill Mays is on piano — you've heard him? He's wonderful; we have a great time together. Frank Luther has been here with me before on bass — two or three times, I guess. Also our drummer Richie De Rosa has been here with the big band and the Quartet. So we have a continuity going. No — we never have recorded; I don't do as much recording as I'd like to.
I’m always looking out for new things from you, and I get surprised sometimes when you come out with something unusual — like with the accordionist Astor Piazzolla, with Lionel Hampton or whatever.
Or the other one in Italy I like very much — with Enrico Intra, playing on his compositions. There's a lot of good music on that one.
Yes, you recorded that in Milan, and it was put out on the Pausa label in Los Angeles. Great stuff.
Then, of course, the most recent thing, "Little Big Horn", that Dave Grusin and I planned. That's really musically quite a departure for me, because it's not like the stuff that we do with the Quartet — and it's different kinds of approach to arranging of things that I wrote. The idea being that Dave thought we should use different groups for the different pieces, so that a piece like "Little Big Horn" or "Another Kind Of Sunday" should have the kind of feeling supplied by some of the players who as a rule play with him in the New York studios — we have Buddy Williams on drums and Anthony Jackson on bass. That's a totally different feeling than the Quartet, or even the kind of quartet things we did on that album — like "Sun On The Stairs". Or we have the thing that Dave did a lot of synthesiser work on — "Under A Star". Of course, it's something that I can do in that way when I'm playing concerts, because I'm not about to start carrying all those synthesisers around. I think those are invitations to disaster; you can imagine all the problems inherent in carrying that stuff— I never want to start with that. But in the recording studio it's great, you know; you have control — if a fuse blows, you can fix it!
Well, as long as you've got somebody who is a total exponent of it — and not just using it as a toy.
Dave is such a complete musician, and he uses it as a composer and arranger. Of course, Dave and I have been friends for a long time, and we always enjoy working together because we both think as composer/arrangers. You can hear how we adapt to each other. Bill Mays does that also — he listens to me and starts following what I'm doing, and I do the same thing. It's wonderful to feel things evolving — find yourself doing things that you like, that you wouldn't do otherwise. And it's that way with Dave Grusin. We did some tracking on that; he did one pass with synthesisers set up in one kind of mode, and then we'd do another pass — we could overdub two or three times. I could hear the processes at work — how he was laying out the composition for himself, to go back and improvise on another part of it. For a composer to use instruments like that — it's a new palette to work with. You can get a lot of satisfaction out of it.
The other thing you've apparently been doing sometimes latterly has involved Mel Torme. You played on some tracks of a double album by him, and I gather you've done various special concerts where there’ve been you, he and George Shearing.
Yes, we started doing that as part of the New York Jazz Festival. Mel and I both love songs, and George Wein wanted to do nights, as part of the series of shows that were a dedication, a celebration of the American songwriters. And, as you know, we had some great people to choose from — there've been incredible writers in this century. So that was really the basis for the first couple of shows that Mel and I each appeared on separately. But we always felt that we would like to do the whole show as a concept — really make the most of the whole idea. George Wein said: "Fine", and that's what we did; we put a lot of work into those shows.
It sounds as though they were a lot of fun as well.
Tt was a labour of love. 'We didn't get anything extra for all of the production work we put in it, but I felt it was worthwhile, and Mel and I enjoyed it very much. Of course, he brought George Shearing into the thing, and the three of us had such a good time putting those shows together. And a couple of shows, I think, are some of the best of the concept shows that have been done with the New! York Festival. I have a vested interest in feeling that way, being that they were partly shows.
Didn 't you do some singing yourself on them?
I did. Mel said: "If we're going to be doing American songwriters, you've got to sing." And for a couple of years there I was probably the one person anywhere who could say: "I only sing at Carnegie Hall"! I don't even sing at home in the shower! Only Carnegie Hall. But, you know, it gave me confidence, and I enjoyed doing it. That's why I wound up doing that vocal version of one of my songs — "I Never Was A Young Man" — on the "Little Big Horn" album. That was Dave's idea; he wanted me to do that — he thought it would be fun to do And he's right — not taking it seriously, it's a lot of fun — that's important too.
Have you done any other novel recordings lately?
I've appeared on some other people's albums. I did a couple of tracks with a friend of mine — Italian singer Ornella Vanoni. She's one of the favourite Italian popular singers, and she'd been wanting us to do something together for a long time. She had an idea for an album, and she wrote some songs; it was fun, and I like the way she sings very much. And I had a telephone call from Barry Manilow; I'd received a letter from Barry years ago, saying that he'd always been a fan of mine, and telling me how I had been an influence on him when he first started out. He wanted to know if I was interested in doing this album with him; I said: "Sure — I'd love to." Because I think he's a very talented musician — I like Barry. Even though it's a totally different field, I've heard some of his pop records on the radio and said: "Oh — I like that." So I made this album with him, and it was a lot of fun to do also.
But will there be a recording of the present orchestral venture?
Yes, there will — I don't know when, but some time; I hope it's soon. It's kind of difficult these days, because there are not too many companies that are really very concerned about recording jazz. The recording industry has changed; they're enjoying such incredible success in the pop field. Now that it's a multi-billion dollar industry, they haven't got much time for us fringe musicians. Which is a shame; it's an odd form of discrimination against various other kinds of music that are not in the mega-bucks arena.
That notwithstanding, we still manage some things recorded. Of course, do
An album with a symphony is an expensive project, but eventually I'm sure we’ll get these things recorded.
Perhaps with the LSO, if you do it in this country?
I’d love to — what a good orchestra! Incredible. They sounded so wonderful
on our concert. I'd certainly heard them on records a lot before, but this was my first personal encounter with them. It was a Close Encounter of the Best Kind.”
- Les Tomkins. Crescendo International