On musical craftsmanship and the recording trap
There are certainly greater possibilities when you go in the recording
studio today. It’s changed a lot over the years, due to the improved recording
techniques, although that can never substitute for your creativity, your
sound—the way you play. These are just things that help you to put what
you want on the tape—if possible. I’m not talking about synchronising, dubbing,
echoes and all these electronic tricks.
For example, in London in the summer of ‘87, we recorded three
LPs in two days—myself, Nathan Davis and Kenny Drew on piano, Jimmy Woode
on bass and Al Levitt on drums; we were brought over by Mole Jazz. We rehearsed
for one day; then Nathan did the quintet recording in the daytime, and in
the evening we played a completely different programme at the 100 Club,
which was recorded also. The next day I went in the studio and taped a quartet
set with the same rhythm section. It was interesting.
In the last couple of years I’ve done seven or eight albums, and
only two of them are out yet. With a good group and a good set–up, I like
to record. I feel that now, after all these years of learning, practising,
collecting experience and all that, I’ve come up to the point where I can
concentrate in a few hours on that certain thing, and get the essence. In
this one afternoon or several hours when you record, you have to be very
concentrated and actually get what you’re wanting to get. It’s not like:
you made eleven tracks, but you threw away ten and you try again tomorrow.
It’s usually first track, second track, and you keep it—fresh.
Before I go to record, I usually think about it—what I’m going
to play. approximately how it’s going to sound, and all that. Then it’s
a matter of what musicians are with you—everybody has his own personality,
his own way of playing. You have to adjust the arrangement and the music
so that each player fits in and gives his best. Starting with me—first I
have to think about my problems! But I do feel, the older I get, the more
concentration I can get out of myself during the recording. It takes some
time to get there.
You know, all the years that I’ve played trumpet, my idea has been
to compose and play using the material, for example, of Balkan or Yugoslavian
folk music, and bring it, through my personality and my way of playing,
into jazz. Which means I don’t only use a given song that exists; I can
write a new song based on that feeling, that metre, that harmonic movement,
but adding modern harmonies, of course. and maybe putting another bridge
in, to develop its jazz potential—and then record that. And it’s always
new—that’s something that I have inside, and like to do. That gives me a
feeling of doing something that nobody else does.
A lot of my compositions are in this folk–music–based direction;
so, if I have a chance to record, I usually try to put in at least one or
two tracks of this kind of music. Mole have said they would like me to do
a whole album in this special vein—which would be beautiful. It takes courage
for a record company to tell you: “Okay—go ahead and do your own thing.”
They usually say: “Can we sell that? Better play standards—something that
everybody knows. We don’t want to take risks.” SoI appreciate a company
that will let you do what you do best.
What I hear from American musicians is that most record companies in
the States don’t really care much about jazz—they want to make money.
For a freelance jazz musician, it must be very hard; most of them have
to go to work in the studios and play everything except what they
would like to play, in order to make a living. That’s why some of them
come over here, and then stay in Europe; because they find they have better
conditions, and they can maybe do ninety per cent of what they want to
I may be wrong, but I think that in the States only the big jazz names,
that have existed already for
twenty, thirty, forty years, have a chance to record, with good contracts
and all that—Getz, Peterson and so on. It’s playing safe—if you have that
name on the cover, you’re sure of sales. But what about the new generation?
What about people who are not that known, but have outstanding talent?
They have no chance to record. The record company says: “You’re very good;
we like you—but nobody knows your name. We cannot make a record with you,
because we won’t sell it.” And you cannot have a name unless you have
records and the people hear you. So it’s a vicious circle. That’s always
been the problem.
Breaking through, therefore, is difficult. Sometimes they give
you conditions that are . . I wouldn’t say demeaning, but maybe not that
which you would like to do at that moment. I remember Freddie Hubbard was
telling me about a contract he signed with one company. We used to see each
other often, and talk for hours. They tell you what to do, what to play,
where to play, and in general you have to do what the producer thinks you
should do. And after five years—they’ve probably sold those records, and
when you come out of that contract, although you’re actually a jazz musician,
the whole world knows you as a rock player. You’ve got that stamp on you,
after all that ‘packaging’. They’ve squeezed you out for five years like
a lemon; now they’re through with you ..Next…
So I’m quite happy to be in Europe. I have an apartment in Munich—my
wife and I have lived there four years now—which is centrally located in
Europe; you can fly and get south, east, north fast—it’s approximately the
same distance. The town in itself is nice, comfortable; there are a lot
of musicians there. I go out for a few days, and come back home. And since
I’ve been there in the same place for a long time, they all know my phone
number and address, and when they call me they already know what they are
getting—what I can do and cannot do. That works out tine for me, because
I don’t like to run around every day. I’m not one of those that likes to
be on a tour every day for years—we all did that before. We all paid the
dues on that bus.
The thing is: in Europe, most of the time, you don’t have to be
very commercial. You don’t really have to do things that you don’t believe
in— and you can still survive. I’ve been enjoying the way my life has turned
out, for the last several years. When I go out, I play good music with good
musicians. and I feel I’m in a jazz environment. Fortunately. Years ago,
we had to do a lot of studio work; yet still I tried to keep my personality,
and my way of playing. thinking and interpretation—not to be pulled, through
the money and the material things, in a direction that you really don’t
want to go.
You have to look out for your musical life, because it can happen
easily. I saw some excellent jazz musicians. . . once they start playing
those things, and start making money, they can never get out of it. After
a few years. there’s no way back. And I never wanted to go that far. I would
Now, George Benson—I like him; he’s a good musician. From what
I’ve heard, I think he still plays good music. Now that some of his things
sell good, it’s beautiful—for him, it’s nice. I just hope that he won’t
end up just being another commercial guitar player. So far, he’s managed
to get his own thing through; you can always recognise him. Which is difficult.
As for the main instrument I play—there’s a little story as to
how I came by it. I’d just joined Maynard Ferguson’s band, and we were in
Chicago—I think it was ‘63, something like that—and I went to the Schilke
factory there; old man Schilke was still alive at the time. I went in, and
I said: ‘I’m with Maynard’s band. I want to buy a Schilke trumpet.” Everybody
was raving about it: so I had to have it.
There was a big row of trumpets; I stayed there for several hours,
and tried everything. Then I saw one by itself somewhere, picked it up and
it was great. I said: “I want this horn.” He said: “Unfortunately,
you cannot have that one, because we made it for Bobby Hackett—it was specially
ordered by him. But you can have any of these others.” But I insisted on
having this one, because it had the best sound, it fitted me, and I loved
it. So for another hour I had to argue and talk and offer more money… “I
must have this horn.” Finally, the old man said: “Okay—you take this one.
and we’ll make another one for Bobby Hackett. He will just have to wait
another few weeks. He’s not here now—so next month when he comes by, we’ll
have another horn for him.”
And I never gave that horn away: I’ve been playing it recently.
I play other trumpets: Bach, Martin, all kinds of horns, but this one I
kept always. You know, sometimes you play one trumpet for months or a year,
and then one day you change to another one. I usually have three or four.
You switch for a while, and then you go back; it’s not always the same.
I don’t know exactly what it depends on, but it gives you the feeling that
this is the one you want; maybe the embouchure changes.
A very important thing for me is first to have a good sound on
the horn—before technique, before everything else. That depends not only
on the mouthpiece, but on the horn also—the bore, whatever. Then you can
do certain things—bend notes. play soft and loud. play up and down the register,
play very deep. very high. It depends, you know. When I feel comfortable
I stay with that horn for as long as I feel that way. Some problem may arise;
so I switch. and it opens up again—you have some other aspects for the embouchure
and all that. I guess every trumpet player does that.
Now, the flugelhorn. . . I used to have a French Cuesnon instrument;
then I had a Getzen. Then one day I saw a friend of mine in Brussels, and
he had a handmade flugelhorn that sounded very good. He ordered one for
me, and I’ve had it for several years now. It’s made by an old Belgian company
that nobody knows, but I just like it. Although I’m looking for a new one;
it’s about time—after a few years, I want to get another sound.
They have good instruments now—there’s a lot of new products, and
most of them good. It’s not like in the old days when it was hard to find
a good instrument. Now it’s hard to make a choice.
Copyright © 2001, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved