It is startling how many knowledgeable jazz listeners do not know about Tom Talbert. Let’s do something about that.
Tom died on Saturday, a month short of his eighty-first birthday. An elegant, soft-spoken man, he was an early and drastically overlooked composer, arranger and band leader on the west coast before West Coast Jazz was a category. His mid-to-late-1940s Los Angeles bands included Lucky Thompson, Dodo Marmarosa, Hal McKusick, Al Killian, Art Pepper, Claude Williamson and other musicians who were or went on to become leading soloists. Talbert’s writing for large ensembles was ingenious and subtle. The best of it, “Is Is Not Is,” as an example, rivaled George Handy’s iconoclastic work for the Boyd Raeburn band. The recordings Talbert made shortly after World War Two sound fresh today. Art Pepper fell in love with Tom’s treatment of “Over the Rainbow” and adopted the song as his signature tune.
During his New York period, the first half of the fifties, he made combo arrangements for Marian McPartland, Kai Winding, Don Elliott, Johnny Smith and Oscar Pettiford. They were on a smaller scale only in terms of ensemble size. His capacious imagination ranged through classical music as well as jazz. He was a gifted composer whose formal chamber pieces received acclaimed New York performances. His setting for Pettiford of Billy Taylor’s “Titoro,” as an example, is quiet and layered with complexity, like Talbert himself.
The masterpieces of his New York years are Wednesday’s Child, an album of settings for the singing of the underappreciated Patty McGovern, and Bix Duke Fats. Despite critical acclaim, Atlantic Records let the brilliant Wednesday’s Child LP die on the vine and has never reissued it on CD. Bix Duke Fats is another matter. It got five stars in Down Beat, but Atlantic also ignored this jewel in its discography. The Discover Jazz label has rescued it and kept it available on CD. Bix Duke Fats has some of Talbert’s most imaginative writing and features great musicians, among them Pettiford, Herb Geller, Joe Wilder, Eddie Bert, Barry Galbraith and Aaron Sachs. As Bruce Talbot points out in his biography of Talbert, Tom’s arrangements of pieces by Beiderbecke, Ellington and Waller preceded by more than a year Gil Evans’ celebrated New Bottles, Old Wine. Both evoke past days by setting familiar works in contemporary harmonic language. Stylistically, Talbert and Evans had much in common. Maria Schneider commented on that in an interview with Talbot after she had listened to Talbert’s arrangement of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss.”
To me what’s amazing about that, what Tom has in common with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Gil Evans, is that the harmony is driven by the line. Hearing this reminds me of the Ellngton recording of “Variations on Mood Indigo.” That interweaving of lines that brings you to harmonic places that you would never come up with if you were thinking of reharmonitzation in a passing-from-chord-to-chord kind of way; thinking of vertical chords. It’s truly a weaving of the horizontal that creates very interesting vertical structures…Tom is clearly a master of that, and “Prelude to a Kiss” is an incredible example of that.
When rock and roll drove out the good, Talbert was one of the victims. He left New York in 1960, returned to his parents’ home in Minnesota and went into his father’s business, barges on the Mississippi. He had success with a band in Minneapolis, tried cattle ranching in Wisconsin for a while, but ultimately listened to friends who said things were getting better for music in Los Angeles. In 1975, he moved back to California.
By 1977, he was recording again, an album called Louisiana Suite, inspired in New Orleans when he was in the barge business. Then, he started writing for television shows, the Serpico series and the Carol Burnett Show among them. In the early eighties, producers’ eagerness to cut costs made it easy for electronics to chase live musicians out of the studios. It was the period when Conte Candoli told a friend, “I played a fantastic studio gig today. We had ten brass, six saxophones, five percussion, thirty strings, a harp, an organ and a piano. It put two synthesizer players out of work.”
Talbert took some time off, and accepted a job as a cocktail pianist for a time, but it wasn’t long before his arranger-composer genes reactivated. He found a marvelous women named Betty who helped him organize sextet concerts in his house on a hill