WWBW: Was your early musical education from school or a family musical background?
Mike Tomaro: I'm the first musician in my family. It was definitely school. Connellsville, Pennsylvania. We started in fourth grade in our public school system there. The program in Connellsville in the '60s and '70s was actually heralded as one of the best 4 through 12 programs in Pennsylvania, which is a pretty big thing for a little town like ours is.
WWBW: You're competing with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
MT: Exactly. We had a very connected set of band directors. As a kid I was a hard worker on music. I'm not sure why. It just took. And because of that all the band directors, who were very connected with each other — they really understood the progression of 4 through 12 and so they identified that I was a worker. Consequently the band directors featured me as a soloist on every concert. Every year I had a solo feature in front of the band. And by the time I was in high school I was actually out there playing with them. There was a core group of four of them who had their own group, piano, guitar, bass. They let me sit in with them and I would play the country club and the little Elks Clubs and that kind of stuff and play with them. Plus I was actually playing in a wedding band by the time I was in ninth grade.
WWBW: It really is incumbent on the school system, whether it's a writing ability, a musical ability, or whatever, to encourage these glimmers of interest in major life pursuits.
MT: Absolutely. I think it's very important. Our music profession is one of the few that still encourages that. In the music field there's always been a matter of recognizing those students who go above and beyond what they have to do.
WWBW: Now as far as arranging, do you work strictly with instrumental music? Do you do any choral work as well?
MT: I do a bit. Not as a profession, though. My even working outside the jazz setting is kind of an oddity for me. I've been — I actually started arranging — I arranged a tiny, tiny bit when I was in college, but I have no formal arranging experience. I had one semester of jazz arranging when I was in college, but otherwise I gathered everything by looking at scores and listening really hard.
But I — my first career was in the Army band out of Washington, D.C. For 18 years and so I lived in a big band. I was in the Army blues and I lived in a big band so I was able to have a professional band at my disposal to write for, and so that was the impetus for me doing the arranging that I did. And so it just sort of followed suit once the publishing thing started to continue in that vein. I've written a few things here and there. I've written for our Duquesne student groups and I've written for a few of the really great church groups in town, choral music. So I've dabbled in a little bit of everything. I've written brass quintet music, string quartet music, but certainly my expertise and my comfort space is the big band.
WWBW: You said your training's largely a case of figuring it out. Did you get the Sammy Nestico book and —
MT: That was before Sammy, even. The most influential book for me was called “Inside the Score” by Rayburn Wright. Ray taught at Eastman. He tore apart three scores by Sammy Nestico, three scores by Thad Jones and three scores by Bob Brookmeyer. He really tore them apart. I still recommend that book to students to this day. The book is so out there. The most important section to me is the Thad Jones section. I think Sammy's are important but and so are Bob's, but Thad is really the crux of where we are as far as modern big band arranging goes. That's where I found out how to do that stuff. I had one semester of jazz arranging. The gentleman who taught me was really wonderful. In fact he's the guy I co-wrote the arranging book with. So I know a lot of really basic training, but really, most of it was looking at scores and figuring things out on my own.
WWBW: We could probably talk for an hour on this, but why don't you give me a nugget of what it is about Thad Jones that makes him so special.
MT: Thad took the harmony we use in jazz and really thickened it. He took it to its thickest space, but there's still the element, since Thad was part of Count Basie's band for so many years there's still that heavy element of swing and blues inherent in what he does. So I think if you took a poll, you’d find most of us are still based in the kind of writing that Thad did: very thick harmonically, very colorful, very dissonant, if you will, as far as jazz goes, but swinging still.
WWBW: What you just said kind of encapsulates the way I look at Stan Kenton relative to Glenn Miller and other swing bands of the era, where Stan Kenton went and thickened it up a bit, added some dissonance.
MT: Absolutely. Especially with the writers he had. He had, I think Bill Holman and those guys. I mean they were very important to that band. Absolutely the idea of these very thick, dense harmonies, yeah, that's a hallmark of what we do today, for sure.
WWBW: I was reading a bio of you and it said your material was being used by some pretty top level performers and they named a couple of my favorites: Ernie Watts and Mike Stern. Were they referring to compositions or arrangements or both?
MT: The ones that those guys have used are arrangements. The compositions have been mostly through my own work, but I enjoy doing both. They're two totally different tasks, too. A lot of people don't realize that. They link the two and they are linked, but they are two separate things. My Duquesne students will take composition lessons with me and we'll talk about arranging the music that they wrote and they'll find it's no easy task. One of the interesting things we have as composers is — and this analogy has been made by Bob Brookmeyer before — he refers to them as our children. We’re actually giving birth to a song. And so to mess with it goes against the nurturing that we did as we went along in the compositional process, but to take someone else's music is a very easy thing to play with it and toss it around and mess around with it. So there's a lot of joy on both ends. I enjoy composing just as much as I do arranging because it's fun to play with other people's music, but yet it's really amazing to create your own music and then orchestrate it for a big band or whatever size group I'm writing for.
WWBW: So when you are arranging for an existing work do you hear a pop song and say, that's going to work on a football field, or are most of those kinds of arrangements commissioned at this point?
MT: Well, sort of both. I have such a great working relationship with the folks at Hal Leonard, that's where my published arrangements go, and there's a nice working relationship I have with Mike Sweeney who's my direct boss. He'll call me whenever it's writing season and say, “Okay, we would like to have arrangements on these tunes. Are you interested in any of these?” Some might be interesting to me and some I may just say, “I’m not the man to do this particular thing.” And so we kind of find a middle ground. A lot of it also has to do with copyright permissions. There are only a couple of other companies that actually own copyright permissions for existing songs so I’m in a very good position with Hal Leonard because they own lots of copyright permissions.
So between my wish list and his wish list, we whittle it down to a typical number of things. I do somewhere between four and six pieces of music a year for them. But as I was mentioning yesterday, that published output does not constitute all of the arrangements I write. I write lots more arrangements for the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and other groups that request them. I write things for myself, tunes that I’m interested in and so I do a lot more arranging than the public sees from a published standpoint. It’s just those things see the light of day and I guess they’re responsible for my notoriety as writer.
WWBW: When you’re on one of these assignments, I’d have to imagine that you kind of turn on and off some of your more ambitious harmonization.
MT: There’s sort of a sliding scale of creativity. I try to be as creative as I can at any grade level. Usually, it’s interesting. Harmonically, not necessarily. It’s less of an issue than you think. Harmonically there are lots of things I would do. Now as far as re-harmonization, actually putting different chords, you know substituting different chords, that’s dicey sometimes. That’s a decision that needs to be made according to each piece of music. In other words, pop music for instance, there’s very little of that going on. When we’re talking about a jazz standard or early popular song, there’s a lot of it going on. There’s a lot of room for that sort of thing.
WWBW: So you can disorient somebody who’s really familiar with the way pop tune sounds and all of a sudden you throw in this more broad and spacious harmony.
MT: Pop music is an interesting thing. Part of what you do whenever you write this music is you come up with the skill set and the exact tools. For instance, the chord vocabulary, since we’re talking about harmony. So the chord vocabulary for a pop tune takes away a very large amount of jazz harmony. If you start to try to put jazz harmony with pop tunes, it’s going to sound kind of dumb. You know? So it depends on how far you go. With American popular song or with jazz tunes, there’s a lot more leeway for that sort of thing. So you know from a creative standpoint, from a jazz person’s creative standpoint, I really enjoy those sorts of assignments. However, I enjoy the pop tunes just as much because working within that framework is very interesting to deal with. I just did “Tell Me Something Good.” That Chaka Khan/Rufus tune.
MT: I’ve been a huge fan of that tune ever since it came out. I was a kid whenever that came out and I’ve been listening to it for a long, long time. And all of the sudden, I thought wow, it’d be really fun to write an arrangement of that and so that was a huge amount of fun for me doing that tune. As it turns out, I didn’t realize it was written by Stevie Wonder. Like a lot of people I’ve shown it to have said, “Wow, I didn’t know Stevie Wonder wrote that song.”
WWBW: Where do you put the talk box part?
MT: Yeah, the funny thing is it’s mostly absent from that piece of music.
MT: And I’ll tell you why. Because sometimes you’ll go for reference. There’s so much now on YouTube and as it turns out I was so married to the original Rufus/Chaka Khan version that I heard that, too. And it’s like okay, so that’ll work. So it’s in there a little bit, but I didn’t want to have it go around all the time. I went online at YouTube and I found out that there was an arrangement/performance John Legend and Joss Stone had done and that was barely in there. Sometimes you almost need permission not to do things. And so that was one of those things. It was like well, I had to put in all the time and it’s like no, we don’t have to put it in all the time. Even if you go back to the original music, there are so many places they could have put that same thing in and they didn’t. They save it for a few times here and there. It’s an interesting dance trying to kind of make it seem as hip as you can but not go too far overboard for the genre it is.
WWBW: Okay, here’s a selfish question. This is all I aspire to in my arranging is maybe trombone, tenor, trumpet in an R&B context. What would be some down and dirty advice to getting a handle on the basics of charting three horns in an R&B or pop context?
MT: Well, it’s very triadic. There isn’t a lot of color whenever it comes down to it. You know, James Brown made a living on dominant 9 chords. But if you listen to Tower of Power, the very stock chord we identify Tower of Power with is a dominant 7th chord with an added 13th. Not the 9th because if you have the 9th and the 13th in there, it’s then a little jazz.
MT: If you add the 13th, it’s just a dominant 7th chord with an added 13th. That’s a very big hallmark of what Tower of Power is all about. It’s that chord. You know that very specific voicing.
WWBW: Have you studied Emilio’s work a lot? You pick apart those charts a lot?
MT: Yeah, I’ve done several charts on Tower of Power. Absolutely, having grown up with them. Chicago, all the horn bands. With my Duquesne University band, I did a full concert of a Salute to The Horn Bands and we did full sets of Earth, Wind & Fire, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago and Tower of Power. I transcribed all the guitar, piano, bass and drum parts. I transcribed all the original horn parts and I expanded them for a full big band horn section with vocalists. Like I said, vocalists and background vocals and all that sort of thing so we had a huge amount of fun. That’s probably the best concert I’ve put on while I’ve been here at Duquesne.
MT: So it was lots of fun and the students got a lot out of it too. I feel very lucky to have grown up in the 60’s and the 70’s because that was really some of the best pop music ever during that era. So that music is very near and dear to my heart still and I still like to listen to it and like to play it.
WWBW: You’re a Yamaha endorser. How came to play Yamaha Instruments?
MT: Well, I play Custom Z alto and tenor, so it’s the 875 and I play an 800, I forget what it is. I think it’s an 875 soprano too. Another top of the line and then the baritone is a 62. They don’t make an 82. There’s no 800 series so I play those. I came about playing those horns very honestly. No one paid me for them and frankly I was not a new horn person. The deal was that I was in Canada doing a clinic and the company I was working for, The New Stars, kept me there for the weekend and essentially in order to make the plane flight a little cheaper and they booked me into one of the jazz clubs in that town. Yamaha’s very big up in Canada and Yamaha was footing the bill for my time and for the players’ time on this particular gig and they asked if I wouldn’t mind playing their horns. I was a person who would never ever go to the horn booths at conventions because my feeling was there was no way you could find a horn that you liked or that felt really good just by playing 15 minutes amidst all the other people trying out horns and blasting your ear. I had never tried any of those horns out. But since Yamaha said that they were footing the bill, they said do you mind playing our horns? So I said that would be fine.
So they lent me a soprano and a tenor and I did a three-hour rehearsal with the trio I was working with and then did the gig later the next day and I was so impressed by the way those horns felt. I forget to mention, prior to this, I had my primary horns that I had were a 1960 Selmer Mark VI alto, 1960 King Super 20 tenor. Two very classic horns that most people still kill to have. I had the weekend to play those two, the soprano and the tenor, and I was so knocked out by them I literally came home the next week and purchased the tenor and then sold my King Super 20, much to the chagrin of the Army Blues Band. They couldn’t believe I was selling a classic horn like that, and I said I just can’t afford to have two horns and so I followed up by purchasing the alto and then purchasing the soprano and then I purchased clarinets. I spoke to my good friend, Dennis DiBlasio, who’s been hooked up with Yamaha for years and asked him if he could put me in touch with the artist rep person, John Whitman, and that began a relationship that has been easily over 25 years. I’m not sure exactly sure how many but the horns that I was most impressed about is the workmanship, the consistency of workmanship. Every time I went to try a new horn to buy, I would get three or four to try out and the consistency between each horn was so amazing. The differences were minute and I was very impressed with that.
WWBW: And you’re also a Vandoren guy?
MT: Vandoren was a slightly different manner. I had been using Vandoren reeds since I was a kid. Those are still a standard reed even though there are lots of other reeds out there these days. That’s still a very standard reed for people to use. However, a lot of people aren’t aware as to how big their mouthpieces and ligatures are and so I had the great fortune of trying out a couple of Vandoren mouthpieces and was very knocked out by everything and specifically the Optimum ligature that they offer. I had been playing around with lots of different ligatures and I put this Optimum ligature on and I was absolutely knocked out by how much it changed the feeling. Really when it comes down to it, that’s what we’re looking for. There’s a sort of pre-thought of sound quality that’s in your head whenever you play. It comes down to whenever we’re talking ligatures, a lot of time it comes down to ease of playing and how it makes you feel and the optimum ligature freed that reed up so much and I was really knocked out by that. So I play Vandoren mouthpieces with ligatures and reeds down the line and I still use the green box, the Java, which is the original single cut jazz reed. Been using those for years. They have lots of other kinds of reeds now, but I still keep going back to the Javas. And the mouthpieces are fantastic. The thing about the mouthpieces is they put so many mouthpieces out, I would think it would be very wise for any person, student or pro, to seek out someone who had a pretty good handle on what and/or those mouthpieces about because there are so many. Just to pick one or even two or three to try and to try to get something that is workable for you is a difficult matter. I would suggest finding someone who has the knowledge on those mouthpieces.
WWBW: To narrow the field.
MT: Absolutely, absolutely because they make lots of them and they’re all great and they’re very specific. They are for very specific things. So you know, I was very lucky. I had a pro with Vandoren who was speaking of me and he told me — I said, “Here’s what I play now.” And he said, “Okay, this is our equivalent.” So the reality is I really didn’t change what I was playing. I changed brand of what I was playing but whenever I got these in the mail, oh my goodness, they felt exactly like the instruments on the mouthpieces I was currently playing.
WWBW: Still in gear mode, but a different direction. What do you use for software in your arranging?
MT: I’ve been a Finale user year. I’ve been a Finale user since 2.0. I’ve been a user and I’m a self-described geek on that program. And I have lots of friends who I’ve turned onto to the program, that have used it, and I kind of have this unofficial 24-hour help line. They can call me if they’re in a bind and I can usually help them out. So I’ve used that. I used to do, you know ages ago, I used to Sequencing way back in the days of Cakewalk which I think is Sonar now. And I used to love, you know in the days of really trying to demo out my tunes, a couple of albums that I had done, one in particular, I had the demo out. The entire album for the producer so he could hear it and I just played songs for him. He wanted to hear, you know, he knew what the album was going to sound like before I started putting humans to it and I used to love doing that. Course I had a lot of time in those days too. But I haven’t had a need to go to things like Reason or Logic or anything like that because it’s kind of all in my head and the types of projects I do now don’t require that large a level, that high a level of production.
WWBW: Now when you’re putting together an arrangement, do you assign the voices appropriately? Do you assign the strings to strings and horns to horns?
MT: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I spend a lot of time — the interesting thing is I don’t use high technology for that though. The great sounds that come with Finale, I actually don’t use those believe it or not. I still use the general MIDI sounds, only because it’s faster to process those. We don’t need high end samples of saxophones and trumpets to let us know what it’s going to sound like. So I always laugh at my students because most of what we do in my arranging class with my students does not involve real horns. It’s playing Finale files.
MT: But I give them my Finale templates and that’s how they learn to write and I think they probably laugh at me sometimes because I’ll play a file for them and just say that sounds really great and I think they’ll be going like wow; this sounds awful because —
WWBW: They’re listening to the tone.
MT: They’re listening to the quality of the sound. Yeah, they don’t understand what it’s really sounding like in my head. I know what it’s truly sounding like.
WWBW: You know Jay Bocook?
MT: Yes. I know of him. I’ve never met him before. I know who he is though. Absolutely.
WWBW: I figured you’d know his work. He’s terrific.
MT: Oh yeah.
WWBW: I interviewed him. He doesn’t even do what you do. He uses the piano patch. That’s it.
MT: Wow, for the whole thing? Oh my goodness.
MT: Wow. And you can do that certainly.
WWBW: You can totally do that.
MT: Yeah, but it’s nice to have a bit of a luxury to hear different timbres. And they’re not the greatest. That’s kind of all I’ve done. Like I said, I haven’t had a reason to go Logic and programs like that or ProTools. But I work in the studios a lot with friends who have ProTools and it’s really amazing. I really learn a lot from them and I’m really intrigued by that program. I wish the time and true desire to want to learn that because I think that’s really fantastic to be able to manipulate sound like they can.
WWBW: Yeah, it’s a very deep well. Well, I thank you for sharing your time with us today. You’ve been gracious and I thank you for that.
MT: Oh, no problem. For a guy like me who does the stuff I do like whenever they approach me about doing an interview, it’s like man, this is big for me. So I’m thrilled. I’m just thrilled. I’m glad to talk to you again.
WWBW: Well thank you very much.
MT: All right. Thanks. Take care.