Tom McDermott is that rare musician who is not about technique or virtuosity but ideas. McDermott’s crowd-pleasing manner and the extraordinary empathy that makes him such a good accompanist occlude his multifarious musical identities. Van Dyke Parks, a master conceptualist himself whose imaginative arrangements and Cabinet of Curiosity approach to curating has decorated some of the most interesting corners of popular music over the last half century, listened to McDermott and heard a completely different version of him than most are familiar with. Parks has always had an ear for magnificent unconventialisms, including a startling collaboration with Brian Wilson that produced the ill-fated Smile album and nearly broke up the Beach Boys in the process; and the masterpiece LP Song Cycle, a work so madly creative his record company, Warner Brothers, refused to release it until a rival company asked for the rights to it.
In this fascinating exchange, Parks and McDermott discuss the musical contours that make the recently released Bamboula a collection of McDermott’s work as an important anecdote in the history of ideas.
It’s really interesting to hear what you’ve come up with Van Dyke. It’s not an overview. It’s taking a very specific aspect of Tom’s music and emphasizing that. I think a lot of people who are familiar with Tom’s work will have their eyes opened by this.
Van Dyke: Tom’s recordings reveal an embarrassment of riches. It’s very hard for that to be curated, which is the word that’s being used because I love all of what Tom does. He goes so many places that cannot easily be reconciled in one album. This album is an attempt to create a persona that carves some of Tom’s work away and presents it as an introduction to an entirely new audience. I hope I haven’t been too opinionated in the process.
Did you discuss it before you began the compilation?
Tom: Yes we did. I sent Van Dyke all my CDs. He made it pretty clear what he wanted. There were a couple of things I argued for a little bit but ultimately I had to agree with the producer. It’s a beautiful album, not a funky or bluesy or New Orleans-y or raggy album, which are also parts of my playing, but that’s fine.
Van Dyke: I’m all ears. I thought with my ears. My ear is my best instrument as it probably is yours, John, from the great writing you do. The fact is that I am an observer.
I wanted the record to be of pragmatic value. I wanted it to serve a function. What it does immediately is invite a listener in, or even a non-listener, a casual observer. This record can be played at a dinner party. It is something that could be played in a conversation pit. It’s something that could be talked over as well as talked about. But at the same time its seduction is that it has such magnetic design. All the pieces are so full of anecdote that they invite attention. So I didn’t think that the job on this album was to be too subjective; that’s why there’s an absence of the techno wizardry he did on his piece “Satchmo.” There is not that real in-the-face profile on this record. It invites listenership and I thought that was the best way I could pay tribute to Tom.
Tom: There was the thought that Van Dyke would help to get my music heard by television and film production people because he has ties to that world. I tend to not make much money on my CDs; generally it’s more that they lead to other things. For instance, when Treme came knocking on my door I had 75 originals I was able to hand them. This is an extension of that, I guess.
Van Dyke: I don’t know how contrarian an idea this might be but I think there is an audience that wants a tangible object. If there was ever a record and I’ve heard many over the years—I was listening only yesterday to Mellow Guitar by George Van Epps. His father played three-string banjo and this family made enduring work. It’s funny to me how a record can come into possession and become such an interactive part of one’s life. I look at this record, Bamboula, with its heady title and I think it shows the proprietary nature that Tom has in New Orleans, his adopted home. I think that this record has something that people will want to possess. And want to keep. This is not static, this is signal and it’s concentrated and beautiful. Tom has a gift for bringing the street into the parlor and he does it with his elegant playing and his understanding of the community. This works on so many levels, let’s just say I hope Tom sells a lot of this record.
Not exactly. Of course I’m flattered to death that someone of Van Dyke’s stature has taken time to do this. I’ve always thought that I could write melody, and that’s not generally a real concern in today’s music-composing world, so this is sort of my answer to that.
Van Dyke, you chose as the title of the record the Gottschalk piece which finished Choro do Norte, the Brazilian music album which seems to be the centerpiece of your presentation. You include seven tracks from that record. How does Tom’s perception of Brazilian music fit into your view of his music?
Van Dyke: There is this tremendous Brazilian connection in the gathering of musicians and the vernacular of South America. But that’s a natural squatter’s right for anybody from the Crescent City who lives there because it is the port of Caribbeana and what is beyond. New Orleans is eclectic by nature. It’s got France and Spain all over its face, and some Indian. You sense all of that convergence in Tom’s work. I thought it was sensible to focus on that sound. The title itself is a unifying element between Tom and I. We met through that word, Bamboula, the thing that came from the dance at Congo Square that Gottschalk witnessed when he was a child, a place where Africans were sold as slaves and also the place where this music, which was brought with them to this continent, was played. To me Bamboula was the title which would tie this all together beautifully. To figure out what it means would be like chasing the word “jazz.” This is the stuff of legend, Bamboula, and it’s what brought Tom and me together. He sent me an email once that said he noticed that I had attempted some Gottschalk. He congratulated me for that and I thought of that, knowing his work as a validation of some sort and something I chose to do something about. What it is I chose to do at age 70 was make damn sure that I had the ability to compliment a great pianist’s work. So many people think of the music recording industry as a competitive field and that quite frankly disgusts me. Music is here to empower. I wanted to do whatever I could to broaden Tom’s audience. It’s funny because Tom’s audience is broader than any audience I may enjoy through his recent successes and exposure. This has been a great pleasure for me on a personal level. There’s a lot that goes on between the head and the hand. The distance gets farther every day. I can tell you that as I enter my eighth decade and played and loved the piano all my life.
Tom: I want to thank Van Dyke for that and I also want to bring up one point. Choro do Norte, which as you said has seven tracks on here, is infused with masterful musicians, one of whom is Evan Christopher, who is also on three other tracks, so Evan is on 10 of the 16 tracks on this album and I don’t think that’s an accident. Evan is an extremely tuneful player, extremely melodic in his improvising. His improvisations are as good as a lot of people’s melodies, I think.
Tom, your experiments with choro inevitably drew comparisons with New Orleans music and ragtime.
Tom: There’s the same situation in Brazil as there was in New Orleans—Africans meeting Europeans and creating new music. Elements that were taken from both musics were the same. In New Orleans and Rio they took the forms, the European forms, which we call multi-thematic forms. You play a tune, you repeat it; play a second tune, you repeat it; then go back to the first tune, or a third tune, maybe even a fourth tune: AABB, ACCB, this is taken from Europe, this is taken from marches, this is taken from polkas. It’s what choro and ragtime have in common and it makes for fun music playing. For one thing it cuts down on the monotony of having one tune playing over and over again for 15 or 20 minutes. The Brazilians especially with their choros will go back and forth between different sections just to liven things us. Americans are a little tighter about that and we tend not to improvise on our rags, but I do, I loosen up the rags when I feel like it. The early jazz in New Orleans had this form as well. Once again, those who wanted to could move back and forth between the sections. So the form is borrowed from Europe along with some melodic and harmonic concepts. The Africans brought the rhythm and different melodic content that derived from their own harmonic/melodic systems, which created blue notes.
Can we assume then that the ragtime composers, as well as the composers of choro in Brazil and jazz in New Orleans, were really well aware of Gottschalk?
Van Dyke: Why sure. Absolutely. Several things apply to that transmission. One is that Gottschalk was literate. Literacy is a pivotal consideration. Tom, by the way, is literate, and he sent me transcriptions of his work, piano literature, so that his pieces are written down. I cannot name on one thumb any other musicians of note who have taken pains to do that. So Tom is very interested in piano music’s legacy. Tom was talking recently about the glory of finding a premeditated form of music, which Tom is capable of producing, and deviate from it with contemporaneous phrasing. And I think that it’s the composite of the premeditated, literate value of the work and the infusion of extemporaneous processes which is Tom’s 101 to this record. That was a component of my decision about what to include.
Tom: Just for the record, I don’t consider myself a great improviser. There are some nice improvisations on the Choro do Norte tracks for sure but I consider myself a much better composer than improviser. But I’m always working on both. Hopefully I’ll improve.
Van Dyke: A lot of what is composed is a product of an epiphany, which is an improvisational moment. And I think that’s, as Mozart once said, worth repeating.