Recently I had the opportunity to have a skype call with the great American piano player Tom Grant. During his long career, Tom has played with many great artists such as Joe Henderson and presently runs his own label where he promotes up and coming artists such as the talented Toni Lincoln.
I wanted to chat to Tom about his time with Tony Williams in the late 1970s and early 1980s; in particular an album they recorded called “Play or Die” which was released years later on P.S. Productions out of Switzerland. It was an album that was cut in Germany and was a trio date comprising Tony on drums, Tom on keyboards / synthesizer, and Patrick O’Hearn on bass and synthesizer. Unlike other Tony Williams’ records, this album had a more new wave feel to it plus there was no trademark electric guitar associated with the Tony Williams rock sound of that era.
You will hear a few of tracks from Play or Die on jazzlondonradio over the coming weeks.
- We corresponded earlier this year about the great Drummer Tony Williams and the not so well known album called “Play or Die” which you appeared on with Patrick O’Hearn. Can you tell us how this record came about?
“We were touring in Munich in May 1980. We were travelling in a car one day, and the guys we were travelling with kept referring to this guy and in the end we had to ask, who is this Peter Schnyder? Who we thought was pronounced Schneedle. It turned out Peter Schnyder was helping with some of the dates and he wanted to do a record. We went on to record it in Stuttgart but we never considered it a finished record, we wanted to do overdubs and stuff but when I listen to it now it sounds pretty complete to me. We had a whole agenda for the record but for whatever reason, maybe due to disputes it didn’t come out for over 10 years, first appearing in Japan in the 1990s.
They were also not very diligent with some of the song titles and got Patrick O’Hearn’s name wrong (printed as Patrick O’Hara) but in the final analysis it is great to have that memory on record because it was a great time.”
- It’s an interesting album because it was recorded around 1980 and to me a couple of tracks have a more “new wave” feel than classic jazz rock; particularly tracks like Spencer Tracy and The Big Man. The track Spencer Tracy has a new wave feel to it, like a B52s tune if they were going to play jazz.
Was that a theme of music Tony was looking to explore more, or was it just a one off situation? For instance unlike many of his other records from that period there was no guitarist.
“That was Patrick’s influence, and Tony loved that and went with it. As for a lack of guitarist, hardcore Tony Williams fans would ask why no guitarist? Beachball Tango was written by Patrick O’Hearn. I played some synths on that record but I kind of hate my synth playing! My heart has always been with the piano first and foremost.”
- How did your association with Tony Williams come about?
“I was in a band in Portland, with guitarist Todd Carver. Tony ran into Jeff Lorber in the Bay area and told him he was getting a new band together and asked for a recommendation for a guitarist. Jeff recommended Todd and when Todd joined the band Tony asked about recommending a keyboard player. Todd recommended me and one afternoon Tony left a message on my answerphone. At that time, my phone message was done with a vocoder in the form of a cyborg singing Fly me to the Moon! Based on the phone message Tony told me later that he decided he wanted me in the band even before hearing me play!”
- How did you get into jazz? And which musicians inspired you to take up the piano / keyboards?
“My father was a vaudeville tap dancer who toured all over the U.S. When he came back he opened up a record store in Portland called Madrona records selling mostly jazz albums. My father also played piano and so did my brother for a while. I was a big fan of Coltrane and Miles Davis, especially when Tony joined. First record I heard was Seven Steps to Heaven by Miles Davis, Tony was my favourite drummer followed by Elvin Jones so when I joined Tony’s band it was a bit of a realisation of a dream. That’s how I got into jazz, listening and interpreting records by piano players like Errol Garner, Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver. I also loved Chic Corea’s Return to Forever.”
- Where do you think the future of jazz is headed? I ask this because over the decades jazz has incorporated a variety of musical genres from rock to soul to latin, Brazilian and other world music. Can jazz change again? Or will it become a classic music which younger musicians interpret?
“In the last 20 years I haven’t really kept up too much with what’s going on in jazz so not really sure what the new thing is. It’s harder to be innovative now because everything has been done and there are jazz schools everywhere. I had a piano teacher who gave me good grounding but I grew up the old school way of interpreting records and learning that way, studying the innovators like Chic Corea who helped to totally change the sound. I love Brazilian music, that exploded in the 1950s and 1960s and captivated everyone’s imagination. I think there are good players around today and people are writing good tunes but I believe it still comes back to playing standards”