Fred Tompkins

2 CDs

(1) Fanfare 8

(Early Works) FKT Records, USA- CD

(2) Saint Louis Music

FKT Records, USA-CD  

     Listening to these two CDs made me want to grab every major record company executive by the neck and throttle them unto unconsciousness for their unconscionable (so maybe they already are) tendency to release trash that makes intelligence optional.  Hey, I like garbage as much as the next 48-year-old, but when an unsung genius like St. Louis' Fred Tompkins has to put out his music on his own label, it does not bode well. Hardly a major stumbling block, however, since I now have come across him and am prepared to sing his praises. Mr. Tompkins, now in his early 60s, possesses the musical vocabulary of Virgil Thomson, the humor (if not the post-minimalistic rhythmic sense) of John Adams, and the arranging ability of Gary McFarland. 

On these 2 CDs he shows there's almost nothing he can't do.  One thing he chooses not to do all the time, I should point out right off, is 'swing.'  But that's only indicative of his delightful command of so many different musical styles and approaches.  Mr. Tompkins works with a small group on ST.LOUIS MUSIC and with a large pool of players on FANFARE 8 but in all cases it's pretty obvious that 'swinging' is only one of his concerns.  No prob here; as can be shown in the serpentine "Compound" off FANFARE, what we used to call the 'Third Stream' is easily accessible by him.  A 1969 composition, "Compound" opens with a horn quartet (Pepper Adams, Joe Farrell, Richard Jones, Al Gibbons) doing a sinuous chart that recalls the best late orchestral writing of Mingus and the Duke; Farrell breaks loose for a statement on  tenor and it is here one notes the distant, approaching thunder of the recently and lamentedly departed Elvin Jones.  The Emperor(as Max Roach once called him) is all over FANFARE 8,playing at the top of his powers with cymbal splash and broken tom/snare rolls of the sort that shamed almost every other percussionist out there for over 40 years.  Farrellslips back into the ensemble to make room for Richard Jones' French horn and Adams' baritone saxophone in that order, and after more fine ensemble statements, out.  Dizzying, boys and girls.  Tompkins' idea of the fanfare is similar to Adams' (recall Adams' 1986 composition "Tromba Lontana") in that it can be a statement other than Here Comes Somebody Or Other.  A more open-ended idea of same.  Note "Fanfare III," a piano and flute meditation (both instruments courtesy of the composer) which could herald the opening of a flower.  Or how about "Odile," a larger-ensemble piece with more meditative writing for horns, out of which pops Jimmy Owens for a very 'bop' trumpet break cushioned by The Emperor Jones and Mickey Bass.  Exhilarating.  On occasion here I do think Mr. Tompkins' charts could benefit from a bit of twelve-tone or serialist sauce, but if he ain't a fan of Varese or Schoenberg, I see no reason why he should be.  "Two Sentiments" is more of a classic 'fanfare' but with a somber undertone, very well exhorted by Billy Cobham on the tubs and Ron Carter's elastic, assured bass. 

I also must compliment this man for his address book!  A ghost of Stravinsky (and you'll hear it right off) drifts through "Find A Way," no doubt nodding with approval at some fine composing for the two lead cellos of Gilberto Munguia and Juri Taht.     

Mr. Tompkins exhibits the self-confidence of a Stan Kenton throughout these thorny, complex pieces, and if you pass this CD up you might as well go root around in the Blue Note "way-back machine" catalog and stay there, because you, my friend, are living in the past.     

Now all those bits I just mentioned date from the 1960s through 1980s; for a glimpse of what Mr. Tompkins is up to right now, SAINT LOUIS MUSIC will do the do.  Well, almost right now, as the tunes here date from the mid-1990s.  A smaller ensenble led by Tompkins at his keyboards.  Highly affecting and well-conceived are four ditties set to the poetry of Emily Dickinson; yeah, I know she's been in some critical eclipse since Simon and Garfunkel put her down in "The Dangling Conversation," but allow me to point out my favorite poem of hers, which I hope the Trustees of Amherst College will allow me to quote here: 

"I'm Nobody! 
Who are you?    
Do you mean you're Nobody, too?    
Then there's two of us - don't tell!    
They'd banish us, you know!"     
All mistakes my own. 

What was that about paranoia being coinage of the Sixties Generation?  Huh.  Anyway, Debby Lennon swoops an improbable but arresting vocal line under Carl Pandolfi's McCoy Tyneresque motoric piano during "Talk Not to Me," Gary Sykes' percussion and Paul DeMarinis' tart alto sax. 

On this CD it would appear Mr. Tompkins has gone the Miles Davis or Professor Anthony Braxton route: of finding fantastic young players and letting them shine.  Which they do.  Repeatedly.  Dickinson poetry set to music here, and nicely too, beside "Talk Not to Me of Summer Trees (#1634)," include "What If I Say I Shall Not Wait (#277)," "On This Wondrous Sea (#4)," and "Bind Me -I Still Can Sing (#1005)," vocalized either by Lennon, Ralph Butler or Paul Blecha.  Stunning work all, and I can see Cassandra Wilson covering Tompkins' propulsive setting of "What If."  It wouldn't be a hit, but... 

"Bass Run Finale" opens wih a bravura statement from Tompkins on synthesizer, a sort of slow-moving palimpsest reminiscent of James Tenney but not quite so tonically free-form.  Lance Garger comments on percussion throughout, and if the mention of a synth gives you Chick Corea/Return to Forever hives, do not reach for the witch hazel.  Tompkins sticks to bell-like sonorities that follow one another in a convoluted but stately path that will have the careful auditor wondering how he got from There to Here.  There is still little debt to the avant-garde obvious on SAINT LOUIS MUSIC - if the tonal vocabulary is freer on the later work, and it is, it is more in a cautious direction reminiscent of, say, Ornette Coleman's "Chappaqua Suite" - but as before, much of the music here appears to be drawn from a well of contemplation, a calm, far-reaching intelligence.  Which would have to be Mr. Tompkins'.  SAINT LOUIS is notable for having no bass on it anywhere, and one ain't missed, incidentally.  There's just too much else going on.  Finally, "Alto Melody" powers along on the purposeful wings of Tompkins' synth, Jerry Saracini's drums and CarlKnox' twisting, knotted saxophone.  Again, constantly absorbing, constantly interwoven with the touch of a master. Which is what Mr. Tompkins is.  Visit this man's Web site now.  Now, I say.  You can pay the electric bill in another 20 minutes. 

by Kenneth Egbert

Jazz Now Interactive June 2004 Vol 14 No. 2 - Table of Contents

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