Sunday, November 29, 2009

Music feature: Tom Scott, saxman of legend

Saxophonist Tom Scott plays, composes and arranges.

By Bill Meredith

Most musical artists have lists of their recording credits. Saxophonist Tom Scott, on the other hand, requires a scroll.

Over the course of 45 years and more than 500 credits, the multi-reed player has worked with musical icons ranging from Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan to Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin to Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. When asked who else he wishes he'd worked with, even Scott has to pause and think.

"Well," he said, "who wouldn't have wanted to play with Miles Davis?"

With such a recording scroll, it's surprising that Scott never did make an appearance with Miles. The 61-year-old also has 13 Grammy nominations and three Grammy Awards, suitably with artists as different as pop chameleon Mitchell, R&B star Chaka Khan, and big band jazz ensemble the GRP All-Stars.

If you still think you've never heard Scott's work, then you somehow never heard hits by Steely Dan, Carole King, Paul McCartney, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart and Blondie; the film soundtracks to Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Heaven Can Wait, or the TV themes to Starsky & Hutch, Family Ties, Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco.

The Los Angeles native, who now lives in Ventura, Calif., made a few recent South Florida appearances. He performed at the University of Miami on Nov. 5 (with UM's Frost School of Music dean Shelly Berg on piano, plus the South Florida Jazz Orchestra and violinist Mark O'Connor), and at the Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm Beach on Nov. 16 (in a quartet with Berg, bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer Clayton Cameron). In between, he played the 9th annual Jazz Cruise to the Bahamas on Nov. 8-15, adding vocalist Paulette McWilliams to form a quintet.

Scott now sports a shaved head that makes recognizing him more difficult, even from recent photos online (and especially from his hairy days of the early 1970s, when he started leading his iconic fusion band, the L.A. Express). His playing, however, was instantly recognizable.

Not bad for a guy who never got the music degree he started pursuing at the University of Southern California.

"I started working, and got too busy to finish school," says Scott, who appeared on his first album (by Don Ellis) in 1966, and started his solo career a year later while still in his teens. "I graduated high school right at the peak of the Vietnam war. But just before graduation, I was approached by a friend from the same school who'd become a member of the 562nd Air Force Band from Van Nuys, and they were recruiting. Because there was such pressure not to get drafted, they had their pick of all the best musicians! People were clamoring to get in as an alternative, so I joined."

Scott had already received a musical education at home, anyway. His father, Nathan Scott, is a trombonist, pianist and bandleader who composed themes to several different television series.

"As I was growing up, there were always the sounds of these wonderful, dramatic chords my father played on the piano," Scott says. "Those became the music for TV shows like Dragnet, Lassie and The Twilight Zone. I learned a great deal through osmosis, but if I had a question about chords or something else that I didn't understand, he was always there with the answer."

Tom Scott recently played a gig in West Palm Beach.

Some of Scott's early credits included not only Monk and Mulligan, but also pop groups the Fifth Dimension and the Partridge Family.

"The L.A. scene was great for studio musicians in that era," he says. "There was a group of producers cranking out records with lots of musicians, even if some of them may have been overproduced and had too many people on them. But it was a lot of fun, and there was great camaraderie between the musicians."

One of Scott's most notable associations started with Joni Mitchell's 1972 album For the Roses.

"The first time I was called to work with her, I was still thinking she was a folk singer," he says. "And I suppose her roots were in that genre at the time. But this record was where she started to break out into whatever style you want to call her music, since she's so hard to categorize. She played me a tune she'd written about Beethoven [Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)], and it was just a jaw-dropping experience! It was about what might have been his inner feelings about certain things. It was just so deep, and way beyond any kind of folk music I'd ever heard. She's a supreme artist."

Next came Court and Spark in 1974, which pushed Mitchell to stardom and earned Scott his first Grammy, for vocal arranging.

"We started what was supposed to be a six-week college tour to promote that record," Scott says. "But the album did so well that the tour got extended into March and April. Then we were doing a summer tour. By September, we were on stage at Wembley Stadium in England with 100,000 spectators, on a bill with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Bob Dylan with The Band. And none if it was expected. Based on that tour, we then did the live album Miles of Aisles."

Scott also played on another Mitchell gem, the 1976 release Hejira. And she's certainly not the only standout artist Scott remembers fondly among his miles of tour stops and recording sessions.

"Meeting some of my idols, let along playing on their records, was most impressive in my youth," he says. "Getting to play with Thelonious Monk was a thrill. Just to be in the same studio and watch him. I was fascinated. Gerry Mulligan was another, since the first sax I played was the baritone. My father had handed me some of his records, which I wore out. Playing with George Harrison, who became a dear friend, was also a great experience."

At this point in his career, Scott hardly plays any sessions, but that's by choice.

"My career these days is mostly a mix of live gigs and arranging," he says. "I've been doing lots of arranging. I recently did a project of '70s Herbie Hancock tunes written for the NDR Big Band from Germany. I also did arrangements for a new George Benson album, and I'm currently working on a library of big band Latin jazz music for Quincy Jones. I've written 12 original compositions, to be recorded by a big band, which will hopefully be licensed for films and television."

As such a veteran of the recording industry, Scott sees irony in the current state of the music biz.

"I've gone headlong into building a new Website," he says. "I'm trying to collate things like the film music that's in the libraries of Fox, MGM and Universal into a catalog that's accessible through the site. Clearly, Websites have become the best ways of promoting yourself. I never thought I'd see the day where record companies would make me an offer and I could say, 'I think I can do better on my own, guys.'"

"It's amazing what recording artists accepted for so many years," Scott continues. "The record company would say, 'We will pay you money to make a record. You make that record, then you give it to us, and we'll give you a royalty of 10 to 15 percent. And out of that money, you will pay us back what it cost to make the record, and we will own it, lock, stock and barrel.'

"And we all naively said, 'Yeah, great, sign me up.' That kind of deal doesn't sound so attractive anymore. They took advantage of countless young, up-and-coming artists. George Harrison even told me stories about how badly the Beatles became victims of that system."

Scott's latest of 29 solo releases, last year's Cannon Re-Loaded -- A Tribute To Cannonball Adderley (Concord), is a nod to one of his saxophone heroes.

"As a young sax player coming up, I was particularly struck by the records by the Miles Davis Sextet," he says. "There was Cannonball, John Coltrane and Miles, and the three of them represented three unique styles of playing. On paper, you couldn't imagine how it would work stylistically. Miles was sparse and classy; Coltrane was always searching for something deep, and Cannonball was always so jovial. And I was always drawn to him, and not only because of his stunning originality and technique."

Scott's final summation of Adderley could actually describe his own playing as well.

"Cannonball just always sounded happy to me," he says, "as if he was always reveling in the joy of making music."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer in South Florida who has written extensively on popular music and jazz, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times.

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