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Talking to Les Tomkins in 1977
Les Tomkins chats to the jazz guitarist Al Viola who spent 25 years working with Frank Sinatra.
Source: Jazz Professional
Doing studio work, I've had all kinds of calls; I've worked for the majority of Hollywood composers, such as 'Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, Michel Legrand. It gets scary once in a while, because they put something in front of you and they don't want to know about the fact that you were up late last night; they want you to read it, and run it right down. So that's been a thrill; and the nice thing is that I've been able to do all that, while still keeping up my contact with Sinatra.
That side got stronger when he went with Capitol, and when he won the Oscar for From Here To Eternity. Then 'Vegas came along; Bill Miller called me and said: "We're doing the Sands. Frank would like to have you." I said: "Well, I'll have to get out of a few things." But I always managed it, and it was like a vacation for me, anyway. At that time, he wasn't doing that much travelling—it was just 'Vegas. That's when he did all these movies.
Available When Nelson Riddle was involved with it, we did some of the background music for his films, like Pal Joey and Robin And The Seven Hoods. The only time we were actually in camera shot was a nightclub scene in Some Came Running, with Shirley MacLaine. Other than that, we were in the studio, looking at a print that had already been made. Unless it was where Frank had to do a number with me alone; then he would be in the studio, and we'd track it.
Now, it's come out that, although Frank is travelling, I'm available for it—which is super. If Frank slows down a little bit—I don't know when—I'll get my own group going. The club dates I've done from time to time have been local things. I haven't travelled; if I do that kind of thing,. I want to have more of an organised group—really something. Plus you should have some records with your group, which I haven't. I've recorded with a group backing some singers, but that's about it. Instrumentally, it's just been the calls to play local clubs. I work Donte's in Los Angeles—that's similar to Ronnie Scott's; it's that kind of a thing. A lot of times they hire local musicians as the house band; then they'll hire another group that travels. So I get into that, and enjoy it.
One of these days, I'm going to do an album of my own. I've been hit many times about it; fellow— musicians and friends of mine say: "Al, you've got to do an album. 'It's long overdue." But when you're doing something for somebody else, all your efforts go into that. They call you and ask you to do it as a special favour, and they say: "Well, look, we'll pay you for the arrangement—you can do that, too, can't you?" Then you're involved for several weeks, getting it together for this certain singer. 'If you're doing it for yourself, there's a sacrifice in it—whatever your ideas and so on, you have to wait until the product is there. So that's what I have to remember. The only thing I thought about . . . somebody said: "Why don't you do the writing on your time off when you're travelling." Which I am; I'm sketching a few things out. This way, when I get back to the States, then I'll have it.
No, I haven't done any writing for Frank. I would like to, but how can you come up to the really super talent he's hiring? I won't say that I couldn't turn out a great arrangement; it's just that after such giants as Nelson, Don Costa, Gordon Jenkins—it's rough. I can prove my arranging ability for someone else; to fit in there, though—I don't know. Although there is a guitar player—Joe Beck—who has written a new arrangement of "Night And Day" for him, that we've been doing on the concerts. It's in 'hustle' style, and I use the wah pedal on it. So, once in a while, somebody new brings something in. For me, after all these years playing and listening to the top arrangers' work—it's kinda demoralising. To challenge that— I would have to be a complete outsider.
As for other guitarists, whose work I like: there's only one I really admired, and we became good friends—that was Wes Montgomery. Wes, to me, was a truly great talent, with a completely different style—playing with the thumb, and all that. When guitar players ask me about approaches to picking, I can only tell 'em: "If it's there, it's there". Not that Wes' approach would have fit what I've been doing—but what he did for himself, he was a giant. Now, when I hear the guitar players today, I'm not that impressed—after hearing him. He sent me a couple of albums, and I have some tapes of him when he was jamming around or something. But he hadn't really started. You know, when he was playing the jazz, the potential of his ideas was tremendous, the chord style he had and everything—then he got commercially involved, and it was all held back. It'll be a long time before I hear somebody else that I'll be that knocked out with.
But there is no jazz approach. If you're talking about classical playing, there's basically one style only. In jazz, there are so many different techniques: they do up and down strokes, or all down strokes, and so on. There's no set book that says: this is the way you should play jazz, for guitar. Everybody's completely on their own. I'd be a liar if I wrote a Definitive Jazz Guitar Method book. It's a complete bastard. First of all, you have to have the talent; then you have to associate with the right musicians. Just because you play a pop tune, you don't become a jazz player; you have to be involved in playing the solos, the fours, the certain standards, the blues—the total idiom.
Through being involved with so many things, I haven't really gone into it yet. My solos on jazz records . . . you remember Pete Rugolo? I did a lot of stuff with him, in a rhythm section that included Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell. Jack Sheldon, Conte Candoli, Bud Shank were in the band—I think he used to call it the All Stars. We have a TV show, for which Pete wrote some jazz scores. He was, like, the Hank Mancini of the 'fifties. But my solos were limited to eight bars or so, on certain tracks.
What I'm intending now is to do a jazz guitar album with my group. I hope to do it some time this year. But, being a particular person, I don't want to put out any garbage. If I write some original jazz themes, they've got to be more than just the same old twelve–bar blues—something with more potential. And I want the bass player and the drummer to be very inventive, and very simpatico to what I'm going to do. That counts.
It's easy, if you're making a jazz record, to go in the studio and say: "Okay—we'll play ten choruses of this, and then five choruses of that. Let's see— there'll be two tunes on one side, and four tunes on the other side." No, I want to do something where they're hearing a ballad, an up–tempo, an original song, plus some standards. I may even do some standards that they associate with Sinatra. I could do, say, a jazz version of "The Lady is A Tramp", starting off in a simi
lar style to the way we do it with Sinatra, but then going my own way with it. That would be an interesting thing to do—I've been approached, in fact, to do a date on those lines. So I may do that.
Whatever I do, though, it's not going to be junk. As Marty Paich used to tell me many times: "Al, whatever you do on record—it's on record." He meant—it's programmed, it's in the books, it's right there. Somebody can say: "Hey—how come you played this chord on this thing?" Al was right—what goes on the record is important. Talking of Marty Paich—I did a lot of work with him in the late 'fifties, backing singers. We used to call it West Coast Jazz at that time.
Again, he's a talented man—always devoted to good music, good harmonic changes, and that kind of thing. I was on that album with Ella, where Marty did "Sweet Georgia Brown" and other things for her—that was a good album. In fact, I 'had a surprise a couple of years ago in 'Vegas, on a show with Sinatra, Ella and Count Basie's band, when I heard her open with that same chart on "Sweet Georgia Brown" that Marty had done seven years earlier—it still sounded beautiful.
It's nice to be still talking about the future. I wouldn't want to say: "Well, I've done everything, and I'm just going to relax now." People ask me if I still practise a lot. I tell 'em: yes, I do; once in a while I get the Bach book out, and play some etudes—it keeps your mind fertile. Like Pablo Casals said: when he used to get up in the morning, he played a Bach etude or something, and that got him started; it was like a cup of coffee for him. It's true; if I want to start just limbering up, I do it with things like etudes, and I can tell how the technique is. It lets me know if I need a little more practising to get it to the top—to feel that I'm loose.
Of course, I have some good jazz records that I listen to. I have my own theory as far as jazz practise—some runs that I have. But, you know, Bach must have been a kind of a jazz player himself: when you start playing the etudes and things, the runs he has in there are all flattened fifths, flattened ninths, sharp ninths—it's amazing. As I believe Dizzy Gillespie said—it's already been written. So this does it for me. I'm not saying it's just practise for reading; years ago, I had quite a bit memorised—I still do, but if you don't play 'em constantly, you lose 'em.
Away from the job, Bill, Gene, Irv and I don't do any working out together. We don't need it, because each guy in the rhythm section complements it further, I complement Irv, he complements me, Gene's bass line goes with Irv, so that the time is there. And whatever Bill plays . . . he plays Count Basie— style when we're playing jump things . . . he gets involved in playing only some of the songs, because he has to conduct.
I've worked with Sinatra a long time—but this rhythm section is the best he's ever had. Not because I'm included, but—it fits. They talk about certain rhythm sections, such as the old Count Basie one; Freddie Green is still there, but in the 'fifties, when he also had Walter Page and Jo Jones, they said that was just perfect. For Frank, in the same away, this just happened; when you've got something like that, there's no need to rehearse. When we first worked a gig together, when Gene joined us, it was in 'Vegas —you could sense it, right there.
It's just great for Frank—just what he wants. It's strong, it stays there, and it swings. Frank doesn't want the tempo to stay there, like you're hammering something; what he wants is groove, see. He wants the 4/ 4, like a 'Count Basie thing.
I'm playing an instrument here that is ideal for what I have to do for Sinatra. First of all, I have to have an instrument that plays like Freddie Green all the time; because he wants that thing—the straight four. Then, when he's singing a ballad, what I do has to be very loose—easy—flowing, like a harp. Now, when he does "A Foggy Day" with guitar only, the strings that I use are a light gauge, and it works with the instrument; then I'm playing it like a classical guitar, playing classical–style. The advantage there is: if you use the pick, and he's holding the note, you can't tremolo it; it won't come off. Classical–style, you've got something like a harp—you can sustain by an even arpeggio while he's holding the note. It is said that Sinatra's demanding—well, the material he's doing is demanding. I would have to carry a rhythm guitar, an electric guitar and a gut–string guitar. But I've got this particular instrument adjusted so that it does the three things. And then, for laughs, I'll throw in a wah pedal! When I think about a wah pedal with Sinatra . . . but it's a contemporary thing he's doing, and it fits that.
It's great, and it's fun. It's work, but it's good, creative work. Good music—it's tops. Then, when you look at the packed audience—whether we're playing tempos, or doing a ballad, those people are holding on to every note, every word he sings. The band are acknowledging that, too. And by the way, the London orchestra is just great. They're super guys, too. I can't say too much about certain orchestras in the States, but, as Sinatra says, this one is just the greatest. That's why, when he tours Europe, or goes to places like Jerusalem and Iran, he takes the whole band with him.
The biggest treat with Sinatra is that he doesn't do anything the same way every night. If he did "Foggy Day" the same always, I'd yawn; but he doesn't, and I'm on my toes. One time he'll hold a certain note; another time a different one.
"Clowns" is the same way; Bill Miller's subjected to the same thing. He improvises, according to how he feels. If you've moved on to the next chord while he's holding on, you're trapped. It's the same with the full orchestra on "Embraceable You"— the ad lib part he changes every night. So that's a challenge right there.
Copyright © 1977 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved