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Tom Lawton: Co-Creating the Music

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: In your CD, I am struck that, while the pieces are very coherent- organic is perhaps the term you use- each of the musicians is able to express their uniqueness very powerfully. You can really pick up the distinct style of each- Swana, Schachter, etc., each in his own element. It's not a blending of styles so much as a creative combination of each person's unique idiom. How do you facilitate this individuality?

TL: Basically, that's why I chose these guys. For this kind of gig, you have to get people whose sound you want, yet their bending to what you want them to do can happen while they can still be themselves. Sometimes if you get someone on a project, you might like their playing, but some projects may not be the right match, because it may be too much of a departure from what they normally do to work.

AAJ: How do you want the folks who get this CD to listen to it? Do you want them to put it on for dinner by candlelight, or sit down quietly as if in a concert hall and really focus in? How do you want them to listen to your music to get the most out of it?

TL: I'm not picky about that. It's different for each person.

AAJ: So you can listen in a relaxed way, as well as in a very serious way. It's not necessarily "jazz chamber music," so to speak. It has a very nice sound to it that you can really enjoy as a background to whatever you might be doing.

TL: There are definitely some cuts that would lend themselves to that. There are others that you wouldn't want to put on when you're getting up in the morning or whatever.

AAJ: (Laughter): OK I can see that! JuJu in particular. That's a Wayne Shorter tune?

TL: It's a Wayne Shorter classic.

AAJ: I personally hear your rendition as if it consisted of interesting sound effects- I don't quite hear the motifs. Am I missing something?

TL: You probably have to know the tune. I've got the melody happening throughout. I do a couple of minutes of rubato treatment of the melody, appearing through a murky "soundscape." But when I set the bass vamp, I state the melody twice on top fairly clearly. Probably the best thing to do is listen to the original so you know the melody. It's on Shorter's JuJu album on Blue Note.


AAJ: Got it! To change the subject, you mention that your lovely wife, Fran, serves as a muse for you. How does she do that for you?

TL: Not "officially."

AAJ: More subtly? She doesn't actually intervene in your work?

TL: Oh, no. Not at all. For me, "muse" means inspiration. It's much easier to be inspired when someone you're close to is very supportive. Fran is also very inspiring as a person, because she's her own person. She's my wife, but she's her own person, and she has her own musical inspiration. Since the last interview when I may have mentioned she was doing vocals, she has since earned a degree in composition, and also plays alto saxophone now.

AAJ: She versatile and gifted, like Jim Ridl's wife, Kathy.

TL: Fran, like Kathy, has an art degree. She's one of those people who is creative in every move she makes. So I find her very inspiring, and we have a positive relationship. No, we don't collaborate officially on writing music. If she's writing a tune, it's completely apart from me and vice-versa.


AAJ: Something I'm intrigued about in jazz is that each musician has his own sense of what jazz does for him and does for an audience. What is it for you? What does jazz convey for you? What does it mean to you on a personal and musical level.

TL: That's a double edged thing. I like to think of jazz in the most general sense of the word, which probably doesn't have anything to do with what musicologists would call jazz. I like what Abbey Lincoln says. She says "Jazz is a spirit." And I think of it as a spirit of creativity and improvisation. I think there is something about checking out all kinds of music. When someone experienced in jazz does that, I think jazz becomes an interesting lens through which to filter everything else. For instance, I grew up playing classical and rock for years before I ever got to jazz. Ever since I've been involved with jazz, the whole way I hear classical music is very different.

AAJ: That's a fascinating idea: jazz as a filter for other influences.

TL: As I was saying, John Zorn, Dave Douglas- one of his first groups was called the "Tiny Bell Trio" and that started a whole movement in jazz that was checking out Eastern European and Balkan dance forms. And there are still people doing it today, like Chris Speed. To me, most of the interesting things in jazz in recent years have come from the fringes, not from Lincoln Center. The Kinitting Factory, Tonic, hip-hop, klezmer, and so on have all fed the fire.

AAJ: Meaning that it comes from the whole world.

TL: No- what I mean is that Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center vibe- for a while there was a traditionalist movement in jazz where the history was a big thing. I never really wanted to go there. I've always respected the history, but I never wanted to stay there. I'm much more interested in what's happening right now and at noon tomorrow. As great as the masters are, I'm not into constantly revisiting them, especially as regards conscious imitation.


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