Take Five With Lee Tomboulian

Lee Tomboulian BY

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Meet Lee Tomboulian:

Composer/improviser Lee Tomboulian plays keyboards, accordion and sings. He leads Whatevs, the Weekly Reeders and Circo. He has played with Maria Schneider, Kenny Wheeler, Jimmy Witherspoon, Benny Golson, Terell Stafford, Horacio Hernandez, Greg Bissonette, Steve Houghton, Eddie Harris and many more. He was the Instructor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation at Lawrence University Conservatory of Music for six years and before that at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth and other universities.


Piano, accordion, voice.

Teachers and/or influences?

My parents met in Music Appreciation class in college so I was fed a lot of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven (but very few late Romantics!), Fiddler of the Roof, Camelot, and Spike Jones. The Beatles invaded, then Zappa, then Coltrane. The usual. I had a second grade teacher in White Plains named Mrs. Poor who played us John Coltrane's Om and African tribal music, and asked us how it made us feel. Wow! Exposure. Then in high school in upstate NY, Mr. Mac played us A Love Supreme and Monk, and showed me a II-V-I on piano. Jazz seemed to be following me around. I always improvised/made up stuff on piano, but this required more discipline.

Gigged on piano from age 13 on, at first in a tent revival, in a tent, on an out-of-tune upright. $75 a week! What am I going to do with all that money? Buy records!

Dick Hyman's Moog album, Switched-On Bach. The Bill Evans Album on Columbia. Not a critic's fave, and the piano is out of tune, but I love it still, and bought it in three formats at least.

At 21, read a review of Airto's Fingers by Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, went out and bought it, and it changed my musical direction for life. I have had a Latin jazz band called Circo everywhere I've lived except Wisconsin. The Dallas-Fort Worth version has two albums available on Amazon, CDBaby and the website.

Also, Gary Gazaway (an Arkansas native and trumpeter I met on a $5 gig in Fayetteville) sat me down and played me Hermeto Pascoal's Vivo ao Montreaux. Sounded as mad and tinker-toy-ish as Zappa, but much groovier and folkloric.

Was a piano major, but didn't have the sitzfleish (extra padding on the seat) to sit there for four plus hours a day, so became a harpsichord major, then a vocal major, then settled on a BA in Composition. Became a first-call pianist in Little Rock AR, married, then was accosted by agent Benny Turner, who said, you're fixing to became the next generation's [beloved Arkansas jazz pianist] Art Porter. So, gathered the family and got a Master's Degree in Jazz Studies at the University of North Texas in Denton, and became a first-call pianist in DFW, taught at Texas Wesleyan University and other colleges, was Director of Dance Accompaniment at UNT, and cobbled together a living. Landed a job at Lawrence University Conservatory of Music and taught jazz piano, improvisation, jazz vocals, small groups, accompanied classical recitals and held seminars on the blues and accordion (not at the same time).

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I never wanted to be a musician, but never really wanted to do anything else, except act or write.

Your sound and approach to music:

Come from the heart at all times, unless more brain is required. Even if the people don't understand the theory, they will get your vibe. Tone is crucial for that reason.

Hear a note, then play it, hear another note, play it, repeat.

Tell a story when you play. That doesn't mean you don't occasionally switch stories in mid-solo; that's going to happen. But have one in mind.

Give something unique. Tony Hakim, a great singer I worked with DFW, said, "allow people to feel your brokenness, because we're all broken."

Your teaching approach:

Students are not you and your experiences, and they can't have yours, and you can't have theirs, and they need patience and support. Learning this music is not easy. It's like learning Armenian. Few speak Armenian. The student's potential girlfriends/boyfriends don't speak it, probably. But some do and to them, it matters a lot.

Your dream band:

I'd like to work with Ari Hoenig again (played with him a little at UNT;he played snare drum with the Jazz Piano Master Class and swung like a big dog!), and I want to work more with Ratzo Harris and Tommy Campbell; We did some gigs and it was pretty cool. So many great players here, and everywhere; Wisconsin has some shockingly good players like saxophonist-vocalist Woody Mankowski.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

I have had plenty of weird experiences on the road, but the most bizarre was the time I played with Valeri Glava in Idaho Falls when, just before the encore, someone collapsed in the front row and was revived after a few minutes. The crowd went from shouting and clapping to absolute silence, punctuated by the sobs of his hysterical wife. After he was slowly led away, his wife still unglued, Tony Hakim our singer said, "we promised you an encore, and we're going to give it to you." We started to play and my hands wouldn't work right at first. Eventually they did. We went to a reception after, and no one I talked to mentioned what happened.

Favorite venue:

In NYC, Smalls always has a great vibe. Kitano Hotel is a nice room, though the vibe was better upstairs with the round tables. Played in a lot of great places all over the US, and it's hard to pick a fave. Anywhere people are listening intently, it's a treat.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

Imaginarium, my just-released solo piano album, is probably truest to my heart. It features a wide assortment of music I love (tweaked jazz standards, Brazilian, Bach, Queen, Victor Borge) and puts it together. I have been fortunate, having this art to work with for a long time, as it is a meditation, a journal, a blank canvas, and a homage to Art Tatum, Hank Jones, Art Lande and other greats.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

The Bill Evans Album on Columbia. Not a critic's fave, and the piano is out of tune, but I love it still; bought it in three formats at least. So emotional and intellectual at the same time. Listen to the "Two Lonely People," every chord has a different dynamic level. Total mastery and intent.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I like to think that I am enlivening the heart and mind of the ideal listener, who is always there, even when I'm by myself.

Did you know...

I would just as soon read or write as anything else.

CDs you are listening to now:

Keith Jarrett, The Sun Bear Concerts (ECM);

Stanley Cowell, Live at Maybeck Recital Hall (Concord);

John Bunch (forget the title, label) Guillermo Klein, Domador de Huellas (Limbo Music);

Desert Island picks:

Bill Evans, The Bill Evans Album (Columbia Keith Jarrett, My Song (ECM Art Tatum, The Complete Solo Sessions (Pablo Bud Powell, The Genius of Bud Powell (Verve Ella Fitzgerald, Five Nights in Hollywood .

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Hydra-headed. Bebop is the new Dixieland, in terms of moldy figs. Love bop, but it can turn into a cul-de-sac. The Metric Modulation crew, on the other hand, has taken a facet of the second great Miles Davis Quintet and made careers out of it, and good for them! I like to make reference to danceabiility, probably from years of playing for dancers in ballrooms and in dance classes.

What is in the near future?

More gigs with the Weekly Reeders (my female voice, melodica, accordion, vibes and acoustic bass group) and Whatevs (the trumpet-alto-tenor-piano-bass-drums spang-a-lot-amus band). Recording albums with both groups, shopping them around.

What's your greatest fear when you perform?

That I'll suck, bad enough that the leader will notice.

To hell with fear. Fear is the enemy of music.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

"Goodbye," by Gordon Jenkins

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?

Usually some pop song like a "Take on Me" or theater classic like Oklahoma!

By Day:

So far, none outside of my teaching and gigging.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Writer, or ocelot.

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