Photo by Denis J. Williams
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
I came on the scene quite young. I’m twenty–six now; when I was fifteen, I played with the Sonny Dee band—Stan Daley’s group. At sixteen I played with the band Lennie Hastings had when he left Alex Welsh. So that’s over ten years ago. In more recent years I’ve had the pleasure of working with Stephane Grappelli; recently I enjoyed very much doing some British concert and club dates with Buddy De France. When I think about some of the people I’ve played with over the past ten years. . . I don’t know whether I can call it hick, but these things have to come your way. Certainly, some wonderful opportunities have come my way.
In fact, one of the first professional jobs I did: I went and played on the QE2, and we did a two–week cruise out of New York to the Caribbean. The Count Basie band were on it and I got to play with the band. I was still only sixteen. And I took part in a lot of jam sessions with those musicians. It’s things like that that have given me a lot of encouragement, I think.
I’m from Harlow in Essex originally; till I was about sixteen I spent most of my time in the London area. Then I really went away, on the ships to America and all that.
A year ago I decided to move out to the country, and I live in a quite remote part of Scotland now—my wife is from there. The way I work now, it doesn’t really matter too much where I live, because wherever I play I’ve always got to travel. In fact, at the time I was thinking of moving, I was talking to Jim Hall down at the Village Vanguard one night, and he said to me: “All you need is a telephone as long as you’ve got that, you’re okay”. So I took his advice, and I moved up there. I mean, when you’re travelling around all the time, playing in cities and leading quite a hectic life, it’s great to live in the country you can’t beat it. Away up in the hills—it’s the best. I’d been saying to people: “Oh, I’d love to go and live in Scotland”; then one day I just thought to myself: “Stop talking about it, and do it —and see what happens. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out”. Right now, I can’t possibly imagine living anywhere else; I love it there.
And there are lots of musicians up that way that I’ve become friendly with. I’ve got a trio now, of course—Alec Moore on bass guitar and Tony McLennan on drums and we’ve got some nice things going. So I’m not starved musically at all. Mind you, I don’t spend much time there, really! I was four when I first played. My dad played the guitar at that time; all his friends used to come round, and I got interested in it. It wasn’t an obsession; being a kid, there were loads of things I used to do it was just something I used to mess about with.
But all my dad’s friends seemed to lead such a good life a lot of them worked on the ships and I was sure it was a pretty nice way to earn a living. Very early on I decided that was what I wanted to do.
Music for me was hearing my father playing first of all; then his friends. The first guitar player I heard on record was Big Bill Broonzy; after that it was Django. The funny thing is, in fact, that I’ve listened to very few guitar players. Of course, I know them all and the way they play, but I’ve always been more interested in piano players particularly, and also sax players.
Really, I look on the guitar more like a portable piano there’s so many things you can play on the guitar. I don’t approach it as a guitarist, but as a keyboard player. You can get all the things on the guitar you can do on the piano just about. Chordally, you can get something very similar—and, of course, when you go to a gig, you don’t have to worry about duff pianos! I think what George Van Eps says is quite nice: he calls it a “lap piano” because, in his style, he plays the seven strings, and he gets the whole thing on the guitar. There’s so much more to the guitar than just single string, which so many players stick to that’s only part of the instrument.
Pat Metheny? Oh, I like his playing very much. What I really like about him is his compositions; probably, if I have anything similar to him, it’s the way I compose music, rather than the way I play the guitar. Listening to him opened my eyes a lot not so much to guitar, but to composing.
His music sounds very open I like that a lot.
If I had to say who my influences were, I think I’d say Art Tatum and Ben Webster. You probably wouldn’t hear it; it’s not so much that I try to copy the way they played it’s the feel those guys had. The spirit of their playing, really.
As for the technique side—I think that comes from playing so young. You grow up with the instrument, Practising doesn’t bother me too much; in fact, when I’m at home I never get the guitar out of the case.
It’s all in the head; I think of everything in my mind, and then I get down to play it. But if you start playing an instrument later on, you have to practise a lot for your technique. Practising is really for technique because it does nothing for the imagination at all. If anything, it stifles the imagination.
The guitar is only a tool—it’s a way of expressing yourself. I don’t think of myself as a guitar player, really I think of myself as a musician. I’m an interpreter of music; that just happens to be what I play, because it’s the first thing I did get to play. At one time, I thought: “I don’t think I want to play the guitar everyone plays the guitar. I think I should play something else”. But I’d probably been playing it for about ten years by that time; so I decided to stick with it.
No, I’ve never been drawn into the rock field. Well, I was brought up listening to jazz, you see, and although some things I do I suppose you could say are jazz-rockish, my roots are in jazz and not in rock. I did play very briefly in a rock band for about six months but I got extremely bored with it. You know—once you play the fourth chord, they think you’re entering into another sphere. So I finished with that very quickly. What I like to do is just play around changes, because that’s what it’s all about, really it’s where I get my kicks from. That’s why I took to playing jazz, rather than anything else.
As I said, from the age of four I could always pick up a guitar and knock out something on it —just a few chords. I got very interested in it when I was about eight pears old; I used to try and copy some of the easier solos on the Django records. It was when I got into my teens that my interest in playing really developed. But I think it was in the back of my mind all the time anyway that it would be my livelihood—I never really thought of doing anything else. If you ask me these sort of questions, I don’t actually know how it happened. Before I realised it, I left school at fifteen and was making a living as a guitarist.
My initial training for this came when I was twelve: my dad had a dance band, that I played in for a couple of years. Six months with the Sonny Dee band followed; then Lennie Hastings and a few other people. At about fourteen I used to go to a pub called the Goat in St. Albans and sit in with Dave Jones, John Barnes and Roy Williams.
At the time, I didn’t think of the QE2 job as a chance to see the American jazz scene first—hand; I was offered it and I took it, that’s all. The only other thing, in fact, that I ever contemplated, other than playing the guitar, was to go to sea. I liked the idea of going to sea. And the first job I was offered was to play the guitar on a boat—so that seemed like a perfect thing. As well as the QE2, I worked on a ship called the Adventurer around the same area the Caribbean. I did that for about three years, before I came back to London.
Of course, I was getting the opportunity to go and see people play and even sit in with a few people occasionally. I used to go down to the Village Vanguard and watch “The association with Stephane has been very rewarding.” various people, such as Elvin Jones. It’s a great way of broadening your horizons. By now, though, I’ve toured America with Stephane seven or eight times; in four years we’ve been twice a year, sometimes three times a year all over America, and I know a lot of people there now.
So, having made the “Skye Boat” record for Concord, I was asked to go out there and do a tour of my own for the first time in January. Some of the time I was working with guitarist Emily Remler. We’d played once together previously at a club called the Jazz Alley in Seattle, Washington. We’re about the same age and we’ve got similar ideas about music.
On that original trip to America, I found it very different from any preconceived notions I had of it. When I arrived there at the age of sixteen, I was completely overawed by it. I didn’t like it —it was just all too much for me. In fact . . . I’m really talking about New York now. . . New York has calmed down a lot in those ten years. Admittedly, I was a lot younger when I first went there, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be as wild and as dangerous as it felt at that time. I go there a lot now. I’ve got a lot of friends there, and I always enjoy myself in New York.
There’s a remarkable thing about America, I’ve found. You’ve heard so many American musicians before you go there, and you think: “Oh, America it’s full of great players”. Which it is, of course but you’ve heard the best. America not just the music, but in everything seems to have the best and the worst. I’ve been into places and heard the most incredible music in just a tiny club; then you go around the corner and you hear a band that wouldn’t get a gig in a boozer over here. It’s a very strange paradox. You get these extremes in America, and it goes right through to music from incredibly good to incredibly bad.
Also the reception you get is quite different. For me, of course, playing with Stephane, it’s really a kind of reflected glory—because everybody’s coming to see him. Wherever we go, it’s always packed, and the audiences just go mad. From the moment you walk out on to the stage, they’re going wild. Particularly when you get over to California. It varies, actually, from state to state, the way people behave but nowhere do they have the reserved way that people have here.
A good example of this is: we’ve worked many times in America with David Grisman in San Francisco, where the crowd just goes crazy. We came here and we played a concert together at the Wembley Conference Centre; when David had been out for the first set with his band, it took a lot of convincing to tell him: “They really enjoyed themselves it’s just that they don’t shout and scream like they do in America”. But he came off white as a sheet, thinking they didn’t like him. It’s like Marc Hemmeler went to Russia; they don’t applaud until right at the end, and he couldn’t understand what was going on.
Yes, the association with Stephane has been a very rewarding one. It came about because I was working quite a bit with the bass player Phil Bates, and we worked a lot at the Bull’s Head, Barnes. He came in there one night and he said: “I think I might have some work for you, if you’re interested, because Diz Disley’s broken his wrist, and there’s three concerts in France with Stephane coming up”. I said: “Well, I’d love to do it”. So it happened thanks to Phil; I went to France for the three dates, and then Stephane said: “Well, we’ve got some work to do in Belgium—a television and a couple of concerts. Would you like to do those as well?” And I did, and stayed ever since. It’s something that I’ll always look back on as a great time. You could say it links back to my original exposure to his records with Django. When I think about it sometimes it’s something that never even entered by mind, that I would play with Stephane.
I couldn’t play like Django, even if I wanted to. I just try and do my own thing, and Stephane seems to like it. When I first played with the band, actually, we played acoustic guitar, because Diz introduced the whole thing as being two acoustic guitars as in the old Hot Club instrumentation. But then I went to Switzerland with Stephane, Jack Sewing on bass and Marc Hemmeler on piano and I took the electric guitar for that. And Stephane said: “Oh, I like that. Play the electric guitar”. From then on, that’s what I played with him. The electric is really my thing it’s another instrument; a completely different way of playing. You don’t have to rely too much on the sound. Because if the sound isn’t right with the acoustic guitar—which very often it isn’t then it can be very difficult to play. Although I like to play acoustic, I think electric guitar is more my instrument. It’s got more of a ring to it—which comes back to what I’m saying about piano. I can do a lot of things with the electric guitar that I hear piano players doing. Also I do a lot with harmonics that would be a lot harder on the acoustic guitar because they wouldn’t come out that way.
You enjoyed the “World On A String” album that Stephane and I did? Yes, it was nice to do that. It goes back before our duo spots on stage; we always used to sit in the dressing–room and play a few tunes together—well, we still do. Then one time we were playing at the Festival Hall and we were tinkling round the back when John Fraser from EMI came in. Stephane said to him: “Ah —just the guy I want to see. Why don’t you record the two of us together?’ So we made the record which was like a dream come true, really for me. We had a free hand to do whatever we wanted to play. Stephane played a tune on the piano which was very, very nice, I thought. In fact, we have done concerts, just the two of us. We did one in Switzerland, one in London at the Cafe Royal, and one very recently about two miles from where I live in Scotland, at a place called Hollybush —a small concert to about eighty people in a lovely old baronial type of home, with a big log fire and everything. It’s very nice to play to small audiences sometimes.
That wasn’t my first duo record—I made one with Peter Ind, and also one with Ike Isaacs. In fact, Ike Isaacs and I used to play every Thursday at the Pizza On The Park—that was my first experience of duo work. It’s a fantastic thing to do, because there’s no room for mistakes you’re so exposed. Working with Ike Isaacs was a great experience for me I consider him to be one of the greatest guitar players ever.
My association with Ike in those few years really transformed me; I really grew as a musician, through working with him. I learned so much from Ike, just sitting playing together he knows things that nobody else knows on the guitar. He’s unbelievable. And he can get the message across very well—he’s a very good teacher.
Yes, he taught me a lot about the guitar—a lot about life too. We’ve become very, very good friends, and we were always having philosophical debates, you know. I miss him a lot. I’d like to do the duo thing again with Ike. Maybe he’ll read this and come back and see us!Copyright © 1983 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.