Tal Farlow by Garry Corbett
Tal Farlow was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was brought up in a musical atmosphere. His father played several musical instruments, including some of the fretted ones, while the piano in the house was played by his mother and his sister, who became a fine classical pianist.
Tal Farlow's hands by Garry Corbett
"My dad had a guitar for as long as I can remember, real small; he strung up a mandolin for me, tuned in the same intervals as the top four strings of the guitar, and I played on that for a while. Then, when I grew a little bit, I started to play on the guitar. By then my hands were so large that I could negotiate the extra two strings with my thumb. So I got into playing with two different experiences: first with the four strings and then with the six.
I wasn't fascinated by the music of the area that I lived in; it was called hill-billy then, and I guess it was the forerunner of country and western music. Tunes that are standards now: some of them were written during that time, tunes by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Gershwin, etc. I didn't have any instruction at all; though I guess my father must have shown me the basic first position chords. But he played a different kind of music on the guitar, mostly reels and jigs. I always got a good feeling from discovering chord progressions and being able to work them out. I think I must have heard Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, but I don't remember their names from then. A lot of musicians used to use different names but kept the same initials, they did this so that they could make records but still safeguard their contract with their main label.
Tal Farlow (guitar) Tom Hill (bass) & Tony Richards(drums) upstairs at 'The Bear' in Bearwood Birmingham. Photo Garry Corbett
At that time, playing was a sort of hobby with me - I was an apprentice in the sign writing business, learning to do lettering. My father was an engineer in the textile industry, and spent some time in a sanatorium with suspected T.B. - there was a lot of dust and dirt where he worked, from the cotton. He didn't think I would survive that sort of existence - I was in real delicate health myself. When I was a kid, I almost died with pneumonia; also an infection in the pleura that had to be drained. So, as soon as I left school, I started at the sign shop for about two dollars a week. After working there for a few years, when I was competent enough to sell my work, my boss let me work at night.
This allowed me to listen to the radio and hear what they called remotes - outside broadcasts of the big bands of the day. I heard bands like Artie Shaw, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. It was then that I first heard Charlie Christian playing. I bought all the records he made with Benny Goodman and had a standing order for any new ones that came out. Listening to them, I started to copy the solos by relating what he was playing to the chords that I knew - he seemed to play pretty firmly in chord positions. My interpretation of what he did was that he spelt out certain chords: 9th and 6ths that I was playing in chord style. From these I was able to work out his choruses note for note; and in that way I got a little insight into why he played certain things in some places and how they related to the harmonic flow.
Sometime later I heard the piano playing of Art Tatum - he would make little harmonic changes to a song in order to get his jazz phrases to fit better. This fired my interest in restructuring harmony to get the feeling of the jazz concept. I also discovered Lester Young, who was playing with the Count Basie Band. Listening to him, I heard similar phrases to those played by Charlie Christian and came to the conclusion - I don't know if it's correct but I believe that it is - that Charlie was listening pretty sharply to Lester's solos. So I did the same, and learnt quite a few of them. His style was really effective, but also not too complicated. Then I heard Coleman Hawkins. He explored the changes a little more thoroughly than Lester did - Lester sort of floated on top of the chord changes and stuck nearer to the tunes. Of course, all that sort of thing fascinated me a lo.
When the war came - it was just beginning as far as we were concerned, about then - they started drafting a lot of musicians, and I think that sort of lowered the standard. I was able to get some jobs that I probably wouldn't have got otherwise. Well, there wasn't really that much work in the area - not for that kind of music - except maybe in some of the women's clubs there. An awful lot of soldiers were stationed in Greensboro. The army had built a large base there, which later changed over to the air corps. I worked there with a lot of musicians who had come from up north - some of them were well known names from the big bands. One that I met, and got very friendly with, was the pianist Jimmy Lyons, who came from New Jersey. We liked each other's way of playing and planned to get a trio together when Jimmy got out of the services."
It was sometime after this, while Tal was working for the vibraphonist Dardanelle, that he worked the Copacabana Lounge in New York. While he was there he regularly visited 52nd Street to soak up the sounds of some more of his favourite musicians, namely Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and some of the other members of the bop era. When Jimmy (Lyons) returned, Tal and bassist Lennie de Franco (Buddy's brother) all set off to New York to get their local 802 union cards.
"To get them, you had to establish residence and maintain it for six months, during which time you couldn't work. You could as a travelling member, but that didn't help you get your card and you had to pay a further ten per cent of dues into the union. So we were pretty much convinced that you had to have one to get any place. I went back to the sign business and did all the display work for a large department store. I did do some playing, when a guitarist was required and the musicians could get permission to use me, but they all had to be 802 members.
Because of this rule, the trio never did get to play together professionally while we were there. For a while I worked out at a holiday resort in Southampton, Long Island. It was a trio without drums, so I was mainly playing rhythm. They mostly played show tunes and, because it was for dancing, they wanted a very audible beat. It was a valuable experience, as I got to respect the original changes. I had been doing some things that for me seemed far out at the time and sometimes had missed the logic behind what the composer had written. Later on, I did some film work, at which times the trio was hired and added to the studio orchestra. And we had to play what was written - those conductors don't stand for any fooling around with the harmonies."
Shortly afterwards Tal worked with the Marjorie Hyams trio. Again it was with vibes. For a while they worked at the Three Duces opposite Charlie Parker's group, which featured Miles Davis and AI Haig. Tal seems to have an affinity with vibraphone players - he worked with Milt Jackson when he joined Buddy de Franco's group and then, at the end of I949, he finally joined Red Norvo's trio when he took Mundell Lowe's place. While in New York,
Tal lived in an apartment house on West 93rd Street. It seems to have acted like a honey-pot on the jazz musicians in town. Guitarists Jimmy Raney and Sal Salvador lived there and others like Johnny Smith and John Collins would call by to join the frequent jam sessions held there. Various other musicians lived there from time to time, including Phil Woods, Joe Morello and Chuck Andrews. Tal probably never envisaged the success he was about to have, when he joined Red Norvo's trio. Within a year they were recording and soon became one of the most popular groups of the fifties, and the ideas Tal used brought him to the forefront among jazz musicians. He won the Down Beat New Star Award in I954 and the Critics Poll in I956.
"Then Red came through New York with his group and when Mundell (Lowe) left, he called me up and asked me if I wanted to go to the West Coast with him - his home was in Santa Monica. We played some dates and made our way out to California where, every afternoon, we would go over to Red's house and rehearse. He had some arrangements - things like The Man I Love and I Surrender Dear - that he had done when he was featured with Woody's (Herman) band. We would play them as a ballad or maybe out of tempo for the first chorus and then go into a: bounce, or swing tempo, and he would take it up so fast that I couldn't keep with it; I would be playing half and quarter notes - it was really frustrating.
I had to devise a way to keep up with him. There were certain phrases I could play sort of fast and I had to rely on those, even though I would repeat myself - I just had to play something. As I expanded them, I gradually got to keeping up with him. Nothing was written down - it wouldn't have helped me anyway as I can't sight-read. I can decipher it. Give me a part and I can work it out by a combination of looking at it and memorising. I've done that sometimes when I have been called to do a record date - by arranging to get the part a couple of days in advance.
(The arrangements) were a product of what each of us could do. Mingus used to do something unique he'd bounce the bow on the strings to get a special effect and Red played chords on the vibes using four mallets. We were into the Shearing thing for a while; it was very popular then - except we were doing it with three men instead of five. The vibes have a treble sound, so I would play the melody towards the bottom of the chord to fill it out. Some of the tunes we did, apart from having a first and out chorus, would have a bop interlude or a few bars of a chorus to send a guy off on his solo. Parts varied in every performance, but we would cue each other for various sections so that we would know when to come back in. After a spell in California, we went to Hawaii to play for two months before coming to the Haig club in Los Angeles."
Bassist Charles Mingus joined the group when Red Kelly left to rejoin the Charlie Barnet band in I950. Tal left Red in I953, to join Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five for six months, but returned to work with him for a further year straight afterwards. When Tal left Red for the second time, he formed his own group with Eddie Costa on vibes and the bassist Vinnie Burke. They played regularly at the Composers Club in Manhattan until Tal married in I958, and moved out to Seabright, New Jersey. It has often been said that, at this point, Tal retired. This was not so. Apart from going back to sign painting, he carried on playing with various musicians.
"I just didn't go back to New York too often and the work I did locally wasn't covered by the press."
Tal appeared on the first colour television programme, and was featured in a documentary TV programme.
"The crew from the New Jersey Public Television came down to my place, and the club that I work at. They flew Lenny Breau in to play with me, too. They also set up a recording session with Red Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan and filmed a concert with us in the New York Public Theatre. And there's an interview with Red Norvo."
Talking about the tour (1971):
"It started last year at St Michael's Pub in New York. They had been after each of us. I don't know who started the idea, but Red and I talked about it and we decided we would do it. So Steve Novosel came down to New Jersey a week early and we started to rehearse in the club where I was playing and, on the last night, we played to a large crowd there. We started at Michael's Pub on June 9th and got some very encouraging notices from the press.
After that they kept offering us work, which we accepted. We had three days off and then came over here. When I go back I'll be working at Fat Tuesday's with Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. I guess I'll be sitting in Charlie Byrd's seat, but I won't be sounding like him, that's for sure. We'll have to work round that. Charlie has a whole different presentation, classics and things like that. When I worked with Charlie, Herb and Remo Palmieri last February, they had well-rehearsed arrangements but, of course, when I sat in they played tunes, so that when they passed around the choruses they would give me one or two."
Over the years, Tal Farlow's name has become associated with a number of experimental ideas and innovations, both in instrumental technique and design. In the early days with Red Norvo, he had the fingerboard on his guitar shortened by the distance of the first fret.
"The result was the same as tuning down the strings by a semitone and using a capo at the first fret. With less tension in the strings, the sound was more mellow and softer; it also allowed me to cover a larger span of the fingerboard. I used this for quite a few years, but eventually I went back to the standard fingerboard."
One of his earliest ventures involved the use of a pair of old headphones.
"That was when I first started playing with a group in North Carolina. My father had built a radio when I was a kid we used to listen to it over the earphones, that was before we had enough power to drive a loud-speaker. They were collecting dust someplace, so I took them and removed the crescent shaped magnets. Around one end of them I wound a coil of wire and taped it, mounting them in a hole that I had cut out, under the strings of an f-hole style guitar. The poles were all even at the top but it wasn't shielded and would pick up all kinds of noise. By then I was getting a little work, doing some playing and getting paid for it, not very much, but enough for me to feel justified in buying a real instrument. I bought a Gretsch with a De-Armond pickup on it and a second-hand Gibson amplifier; it looked like the one Charlie Christian used. I guess it was the same, although there were several models coming out at that time - this would be in I939."
The famous Tal Farlow Gibson guitar first appeared on the market round about I962. Its proportions were fairly standard, with two well spaced pickups and controls, a twenty fret fingerboard and chrome hardware. But it was easily identified from the other Gibsons by the purfling, which continued on round from the cutaway into a distinctive white scroll on the bodywork. It also had a pick-guard and tailpiece that were of a completely new design.
"The first effort was in the sixties, when I sent them a sketch and specifications. My idea was to have only one pickup and set of controls, so as to simplify all that harness inside. My experience had been that all that circuitry inside could give you problems, however they've done an awful lot about shielding since I first had that complaint. My first design had the pickup on a track, so that you could move it up or down to wherever you needed it. I reasoned that it would serve the purpose of both pickups, though it wouldn't be quite the same as you wouldn't be able to mix both signals. But I don't do that anyway, I keep the switch in one position. I only flip it over to the other one when I'm playing harmonics and want to put the node in a different place.
A pal of mine, Phil Petillo, eventually built a hand carved one like that for me, it included an extra pickup to drive the octave divider. The reason Gibson didn't make it was that they thought sooner or later it might get loose and start rattling. Then they would be getting them back at the factory to repair, and they don't like doing that. They sent me one that wasn't too much like the sketch, so I sent them a letter with my comments, and the next one that came included the modifications. I guess that was the one that they produced a couple of hundred of, using my name. The original one I had got lost, it went missing on an airline, someone must have taken a fancy to it. Again I had added another pickup to it for the frequency divider.
If I don't have to fly, and I'm working within driving distance from home, I use a stool that I've built that has the electronics inside. It's just like a box, narrow at the top and covered with plywood all the way round. My right foot fits into an indentation and rests on a rubber covered pedal that controls the volume. Near the floor there is a little trigger for flicking the divider on and off. What I've been doing when working as a trio with bass and drums, is to get the bassist to play up high on the neck of the instrument during his solos, while I play a bass line in single notes behind him using the divider, which drops me down an octave.
It can also play the bass note and the original one in parallel. For the purpose of producing a bass line, I cut out the upper note, though you can effectively raise the volume by adding some of the original note from the other pickup. It still sounds real low, as it's the second harmonic of the fundamental note that you have moved down.
I really burned a lot of holes in the rug with the soldering iron, putting the divider together, eventually they became available. I had heard a recording of Eddie Harris using one and had wondered if it would be possible to make one for the guitar. The thing was, especially at that time that the guitar note when you sounded it was as loud as it was going to be. You couldn't sustain it because it would start to decay straight away. Unless you pre-amplified it first, it was going to drop too low to trigger the divider. So I built a preamplifier that went ahead of the divider, and used a circuit that clipped off the top of the transient. It clips it off when you first hit the note and it has got its widest swing. It acts like a compressor, which will limit the loud notes and automatically turn up the volume as the note dies away. It works this way, there's a light dependent resistor that conducts current when you shine a light on it, you put that between your signal and ground.
The l.d.r. opens up when a light shines on it and causes the resistance to drop and part of the signal to be shunted to ground. You use a one or two transistor amplifier to light up a light emitting diode, so that when you play real loud it lights up and shines on the l.d.r. This cuts down the volume and, as it returns, allows the pre-amp to send in more of the signal as the note dies away. In that way it sustains long enough to play whole notes at a moderate tempo. It's very seldom that you get into a phrase where it won't follow you all the way. But of course you can buy them now, this was sixteen or seventeen years ago. The frequency divider is really the basis of computers, it divides by two and you make it divide by other numbers by linking it with other dividers. It's really simple, once you reduce the fundamental, you have to get the harmonics out of it as much as possible, or else it will start triggering off on the harmonics, then it would give you a different note."
On working with Dardanelle:
"She used to make us play standing up; I used to angle the guitar more then. I didn't do it for long, the weight of it hanging from a strap used to pull the neck of the Gretsch I had out of tune. I don't know if it had much bracing inside, it would pull the higher strings sharp and the lower ones flat, I had to tune it while it was hanging from me."
Most of the time Tal uses a pick but sometimes comps with his thumb.
"I don't use all my fingers, I can play chords that way but to me it sounds sloppy, I don't like the sound that I get. Joe Pass does it very well, but he uses more of a classical technique. Sometimes I use a finger and the pick for pairs of notes, together or alternately. Lenny Breau plays a harmonic under the chord, he showed me how to do it but I don't do it too well. By making the harmonic on the fourth or fifth string, the bottom voice moves up an octave in between the other notes, where it wouldn't be possible to finger them. He gets a very good close harmony sound that way. He uses a thumb pick all the time, so that makes it easier for him and he plays fast with it. Most of the harmonies I use in my solos are stopped, dividing the string distance in half to go up an octave, in thirds to go up another fifth, and quarters to go up two octaves. You have to be very accurate on the strings, as you have no frets to guide you up there, they don't seem so clean if you go down the opposite way. I hold the pick with the thumb and middle finger, extending the index finger down the string, as far away as possible from the pick.
In the beginning, most of the trios I worked with had no drums, so I added the bongo effect for variety. I hit the strings at the top end of the neck, using both hands with amp on, none of it is done on the bodywork, as it probably wouldn't work without a contact mike".
Another interesting sound that Tal gets, is by holding down a note on the first string with his outstretched index finger, bringing his thumb across from behind to sweep all six strings. This produces a melody or upper pedal note that is separated from the chord. He sometimes adds a lower note in a similar way by hitting an extra bass note on the sixth string with his right hand index finger just behind the fret.
"I've been doing that for as long as I can remember. Bucky Pizzarelli can take it down further with his seven string guitar. I can understand his reasoning for using the extra string there if you are doing a lot of the barre thing. I tried playing on his guitar when we were down in Texas, but I couldn't do it. My approach was that I had learnt to do chords on four strings for most of the time or by bringing my thumb round."
At this point the conversation moved on to the allied subjects of practising, studying and teaching, but first I enquired about the long awaited tutor.
"At present it's at home. I've worked on it for a long time and there have been two or three collaborators. They took it away from the first one. But they were all trying to take what I was doing and make it half meaning to more people, by putting it in their terms. The publishers were always coming back to me and saying, you can't do this and you can't do that. They didn't want that, because they wanted it the way I did it. It just went on like that for a long time. When I got it back, to me it looked like something that you could go blindfolded into a music store and pick up from the rack. I shall go through it again and weed out what I think doesn't need to be in there. I guess it won't be very big by then.
I was trying to present how I determine all the intervals from the chord position I play in".
Tal refers to these as boxes - the first finger being in the root position, while the others cover the next four frets. This is very logical, as it gives you a complete chromatic scale to work from with only one note duplicated.
"I have relative, not perfect, pitch. Given one note, tell me what interval you want and I know right away where to put my finger. I think that is really important to improvising. I always think in intervals and not specific notes, although they may work out to be the same thing. As far as possible, I try to keep the chords of a progression in one position, while I think ahead. If I have to move, I get into the new position as quick as possible, even before the chord actually gets there, and all the time I'm thinking in the intervals of the key, instead of the chord.
Of course, if it's a tune with a lot of chords and it is moving fast, you can't always stay in one position, then you have to shift about. An awful lot of progressions end in II-V-I or VI-II-V-I, so I'm using a related group in one position that saves a lot of awkward moving around. If you are familiar with where the notes of that sequence are, they will fall under the fingers in that position. I know I think of it, more or less, not just as one chord but as a moving thing that logically goes in that direction. That reduces it, instead of thinking bar by bar, or chord by chord, you think more in phrases. You're not thinking vertically all the time, but of the directions that the different lines are moving in. I think I sort of make a mental picture of it and, of course, you have to know the fingerboard thoroughly. When I move up to the high notes I try not to move across the string till I get to the first one and then have to go up the neck, but to move up in stages as I go along".
Nearly all the students who go to Tal have studied with someone or have been to colleges, such as Berklee.
"They can play all the scales and modes and everything, they are really accomplished players who want to know how to apply their knowledge. About the only thing I can tell them is how I started. That I chose players that appealed to me and that I copied not for performance purposes but to get a little insight on how to approach and fit an improvised line to the harmonies that go on. It's awful hard to teach that, because it's not like when you are doing something else, when you can say, 'do it like I'm doing it.' That defeats the whole purpose of it, it has to be how the student would do it and how it occurs to him to play. They learn a lot at these colleges, but the problem seems to be how to apply it."
Tal practises every day, but doesn't do scales or technical exercises.
"Sure, I'm playing scales - parts of scales and arpeggios are in just about everything if you break it down and analyse it; but you can approach them in many different ways. I have a lot of tunes and progressions on loop tapes that I work with a lot. I've recorded a friend of mine on drums playing different rhythms, very straight with no embellishments. I use a reel to reel machine that can play back and record at the same time. What I do is to put down on eight or sixteen bar drum track, then by tapping a microphone with a pencil, I make a click at the first beat and again at the beginning of the ninth or seventeenth bar; then I make a mark exactly where the two clicks are and slice them together in a continuous loop, so that you can't hear where the join is. I run it on my machine and then make a bass line the same way. I put the bass and drums together for a couple of choruses and work against that. The player can be tuned so I can adjust it if I need to. Because we started with a small bit the tempo remains constant throughout.
Three years ago I went down to Dallas. There was a promoter there who was trying to get some recognition for the pedal steel players like Curly Chalker and Buddy Emmons who play jazz on them. They can get the wildest chords on those things - some of them have about ten strings - on which they can change the tuning with those pedals, just like a harp. He got five of them and five regular guitar players. Besides myself, there was Herb Ellis, Howard Roberts, Bucky Pizzarelli and I think Lenny Breau. We played together, lined up alternately across the stage in a big concert called Cavalcade of Guitars. But what brought me to that was, they had Les Paul down there. He has taped a real elaborate background to his whole stage presentation that even includes conversations with some of the stars. The cassette is real high quality; it's been made up in the studio at his home. The playback is controlled through what he calls his little black box, he also has a gooseneck mike on his guitar through which he can talk or sing, so he has a complete one man show."
Next Tal spoke about how he approached any new material and how he set about improvising. Enthusiastically, he made the following observations:
"What I think I do is to relate any new material to how similar it is to something else. The closest that I can come up with something that's already in my experience, the easier it becomes. All I have to do then is remember where it differs, like relating a chord sequence that comes from some other tune, or several different tunes, or maybe parts of them and then work it from there. It doesn't give the melody but sets up the harmonies. Certain sequences will work with a particular chord progression, even though it might be in a different key, the relationship will remain the same and then you build the melody on that.
With improvising, when I'm with the trio, I often get a lead from Red (Norvo). I follow him, listening carefully to what he plays. Possibly towards the end of his solo, I'll say I'm going to start there with that phrase. Maybe by then, when I come in, the chords or key will have changed and the phrase will come out quite different. Other times, I will pick almost any note and go from there. Of course, there are a lot of pet phrases that every jazz-man has, I don't think you can avoid them even if you wanted to. But then I think that is the one way you identify a player, by the phrases that they play. I know that the ones that have really interested me enough to go into, that I have tried to listen and learn something from what has been played, are often what turn out to be their pet phrases. Which incidentally, right away become my pet phrases, the influences show at times.
There are a bunch of tunes that everybody knows, that you end up getting into for safety's sake, especially if you are on tour, going from town to town and working with different rhythm sections. Some of the young bass players haven't heard all the old tunes and don't always fit in. That is the nice part of having an organised group - you don't get these problems. But it's not practical, you can't move a group of any size around and make money, be cause the airlines and hotels cost too much now. When you work without drums, every aspect of the bass player's offering is magnified. For Red and me it should be a player who has a good attack, so that you can hear transient, that establishes right where the time is. Some of these players have a big sound; they sustain a note but it doesn't have a definite starting point, it's somewhere in there but you don't get the impact at the right spot."
Thinking of the recording made with Anita O'Day, how did Tal feel about working with singers, and did he go along with the idea that the lyrics can affect the way you think about a tune?
"Yes, I enjoyed that session and have worked with some other singers since then. Accompanying is an art in itself. My friend Jimmy Lyon was good at that, he did really interesting things with nice harmonies without intruding on the singer - it's not supposed to be a contest between them. Tommy Flanagan and Joe Pass are both good at it. To my ears, an example that I've noticed that sounds extreme, is that in some of the Broadway shows, the pianist plays the melody along with the singer, the doubling up doesn't seem called for and must give the singer a problem.
I can appreciate someone like Lester Young thinking about the lyrics; with something like a tenor or trumpet it becomes almost vocal, and it's easy to express ideas other than those that are strictly musical - you can almost sing with it. For my kind of playing that's kind of hard to do. Some of the rock guys can get that sort of thing going, they can bend notes and get a long sustain."
In response to enquiries on how he felt about freeform and other kinds of music, Tal replied:
"I'm not too enthusiastic about music when they abandon harmony. Jim Raney explained the free-form thing to me when we used to play together. Sometimes for the fun of it, we would play anything that occurred to us. But for me, anything that I play has got to have some relevance to some form of harmony; even if I'm the only one to hear it, it's got to have shape and form. To me, the big challenge is to play an interesting chorus; and to determine that, you have to measure it against the framework of the background harmony - whether it's presented or not. For instance, you can play a single line with a bassist and, though you are not using chords, if he is a good player the changes will be implied. The product of that playing will tell me whether I approve of it or not - or if I'm moved by what someone else plays against it. If he's playing without reference, just a random line, it's not quite enough for me to get the meaning in the same way. I think Ornette Colman took it about as far as it can go, along with Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and also Miles Davis.
A lot of musicians have got involved with the pop and disco type thing. For something to gain so much popularity and appeal for so many people, it has to be either musically valid or so commercial that you can't ignore it, especially if your living depends on it. Jazz has never really reached that kind of popularity and I don't think it ever will, because you're actually playing for musicians and musicians are not a good crowd to play for. If you are going to try and make some money, you've got to appeal to a wider area than that. But I think that it's the musicians that determine who's good, who goes to the top, and who gets work. I guess the enthusiasts who are not involved in it, just take the musicians word for it.
I'm always analysing any music that I listen to. That's what I enjoy about it. If I hear something done in a different way I'm still curious enough to want to find out about it and how it was done. Maybe the intervals and how they relate to a completely foreign chord, or something that's not part of the triadic spelling, or a superimposition, or something like dual tonality. Back in the fifties I was fascinated by a tape that a friend had of Barry Galbraith playing a thing by Ravel."
Tal picked up his guitar and played a large part of one of the movements from the Tombeau de Couperin, getting all the nuances of the piano version.
"I like Ravel, his treatment of harmony strikes me. He seems to have the ability of setting up the tension of an unresolved sound, and while he moves towards releasing it, he's preparing another suspension or something. So it's always on the move, from place to place, before letting you go and satisfying you with a resolution. I like to hear that piece played on a piano, though I have recordings of both. When it's on the piano all the notes have the same quality - a unity you don't get when one note is played on an oboe and another on the flute. I read that he met Gershwin and was fascinated by jazz, it shows in the piano concertos, particularly the bluesy slow movements."
Finally, had Tal's experience as a commercial artist been of help to his music?
"It's hard to define; there were a couple of fellows in Greensboro that did really good lettering; it was really alive, not like print; we used to say it had snap. The layout is important, balancing areas of space can be likened to phrasing in music, for instance, it's not always the amount of notes that you play, but the spaces that you leave between them that counts. I had worked in the sign shop for a long time before I could admire a good piece of work and I realised that some of the guys didn't have this thing called snap. It's like that in music, some people have a sense of metre and can keep in place, while a tricky passage will throw others out and make them count wrong. So there is a sort of parallel in presenting something for the eye to see and the ear to hear. But the space and time thing related in music is easily the most abstract of the arts."
Published in Guitar Magazine in December '81 and January '82.