Interview by Les Tomkins - Part 2       


Part 1






Photo by Josef Werkmeister

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 do.

I may be wrong, but I think that in the States only the big jazz names, that have existed already Dusko with Dizzyfor 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 rather refuse.

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: Dusko with Woody“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

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