Tom Lawton: Co-Creating the Music
Tom Lawton is a highly respected, gifted, and creative jazz pianist who resides in Montgomery County, PA, and teaches and works actively as a free lance musician in the Philadelphia area, New York City, and internationally. He’s had the distinct honor of being the jazz pianist the Philadelphia Orchestra often chooses for its social functions. For about ten years, Tom was the house pianist at the Philadelphia Four Seasons, often with the late, great bassist, Al Stauffer. I originally interviewed Tom for All About Jazz in 1998.
On May 1, 2004, a major Philadelphia recording event occurred: Tom released a long-awaited CD of his original compositions, entitled Retrospective/Debut , on Dreambox Media, with musicians John Swana, Ben Schachter, Norman David, Lee Smith, and Jim Miller. The recording has received praiseworthy reviews by Karl Stark of the Philadelphia Inquirer and John Van Deusen of the Philadelphia Metro, as well here on All About Jazz. It is an innovative album, which, as Karl Stark noted, “skirts the edge of mainstream.” At the same time, it is highly listenable. On April 24th, I interviewed Tom by phone at his home in Montgomery County, where he resides with his wife, Fran, and several cats. On some days, his living room acts as a rehearsal studio, composition space, and/or the site of a host of other projects which he or Fran may be doing at any point in time. With the same alert and turned-on energy he seems to possess for virtually any situation, Tom was ready bright and early to take on my questions.
At Tom’s request, the interview is also meant to serve as additional “liner notes” for the CD, and is so noted on the CD itself. This is only one of many ways that All About Jazz is proud to support jazz musicians, many of whom are an integral part of its on-line community.
Tom is also an excellent jazz educator. I deliberately queried him on aspects of modern jazz which I have found puzzling. His thoughts cleared up some of the confusion. Now let’s hear from Tom himself.
AAJ: Your previous interview with All About Jazz was just about six years ago. What have you been doing since then? Could you give a quick rundown?
TL: I did a few years of a steady gig at Sullivan’s in King of Prussia, PA. I’ve also worked with Norman David’s Quartet, Group Four, an avant-garde group. We worked for three years at Saint Jack’s club in Old City. I’ve also been very busy with vocalists such as Miss Justine, Mary Ellen Desmond, and Joanna Pascal. Joanna’s a newcomer, only 24 years old, recently graduated from Temple University, and is a real pro already.
Of course, I’ve been teaching at Temple and at Bucks County Community College. For the past few months, the writing and preparation for the CD has taken up a good deal of time as well.
AAJ: Sounds like a tight schedule. Yet somehow you found time during the last couple of decades to put together a variety of new jazz compositions, some of which, I recall, you performed with a group at Montgomery County Community College to a packed house a few years ago, as well as other concert and festival venues, and some of which are the basis of your new CD, Retrospective/Debut. Also included in that CD are a Charlie Parker composition, “Donna Lee,” and a Wayne Shorter number, “JuJu.”
By the way, in my opinion Retrospective/Debut is one of the most interesting and enjoyable jazz CD’s I’ve heard in quite a while, so congratulations on your achievement. Let’s talk about the album. What’s the meaning of the title? Retrospective suggests past work; Debut indicates something new. Why the paradox?
THE CD: RETROSPECTIVE/DEBUT
TL: Usually, the slash (/) is used to denote opposites like happy/sad, rainy/sunny. So the “Retrospective” is from the standpoint that I’ve been composing for a long time...
AAJ: Some of the compositions go back as far as 1975.
TL: There’s one from that time, and then we skip to 1984. The larger quantity is more recent. So, the “Retrospective” refers to my playing and writing for a long time. But, it’s a “Debut,” in that it’s my first CD as a leader.
AAJ: So, why did you decide to come out with your “leader” debut with your own compositions—why not just do standards? Why debut in two ways at the same time? You’ve worked numerous live gigs with these guys- Ben Schachter (sax), John Swana (trumpet), Lee Smith (bass), Jim Miller (drums) as your quartet- and also with guest artist Norman David (clarinet). This is your first CD with them, I take it. Why bring in your own compositions at this point?
TL: Well, for this CD, I didn’t want to be concerned with the commercial end of things- playing for the sake of playing. I do that all the time anyway. Not that I don’t love and enjoy it, but when the time and effort of making a CD is so all-consuming, and it’s time to put your own expression out there, I wanted to do what’s most personal to me and make it distinct. I mean I love standards. The “great American songbook” has some of the most amazing things ever written, but again, so does Schoenberg, or for that matter, Dave Douglas.