The course of trombonist Tom Walsh’s career has, in some ways, been shaped by accident. His decision to study jazz came when an opportunity to go to London to pursue further studies in the classical world was cut off by the illness of a teacher. After making his way on the Toronto avant-garde jazz scene in the 1980s, he decided to go to Africa to investigate the sounds he heard coming from there, but on the way stopped in Montréal to study French. Instead of going to Africa, Walsh stayed in Montréal, where he has become a mainstay among the circle of musicians around the Ambiances Magnétiques label.
But Walsh the trombonist is also affected by the accidental sounds that he hears around him, on the radio and in the streets. Influenced by the music of Julius Hemphill and Ornette Coleman, and guitarists Blood Ulmer and Jimmy Page, Walsh experimented with the sounds that could be generated with the trombone. Ironically, it was several years after he’d first picked up a plunger mute before he got turned on to Duke Ellington and discovered that he’d been working in a tradition all along.
Unfortunately, Walsh, who was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1960, is woefully under-recorded, even for an oversized and underpopulated country where lack of opportunity to play is the norm. Sure, you can hear him on recordings by Jean Derome, René Lussier, Paul Cram, and Pierre Tanguay, but his own group, NOMA, has released only two albums Climbing the Waltz (Contextural Music), from 1991 and last year’s NOMA album, Diversion (Ambiances Magnétiques) 12 years apart!
These days, however, Walsh is on a bit of a roll, with yet another album, this a live recording with his group Phat Hed and trombonist Steve Swell, recorded in concert at the 2003 Montréal International jazz Festival, due out in 2004. It was a set that had some American friends of mine thanking me profusely for having recommended that they attend. The Americans had never heard of him, but that night, Tom Walsh lived up to my estimation of him as the best trombonist in Canada.
Walsh is a talkative, friendly sort, forthright with his opinions, and more than eager to expound on musical theory. He’s happy to go on about his kids he has three sons under the age of six-and when I visit his apartment in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montréal, he enthusiastically changes records to illustrate musical examples. But he’s also been accused of laziness by some (non-musicians), that he needs to be pushed to play his hardest, though it may simply be a question of challenges bringing out the best in someone. And to Walsh’s credit, a large number of very good musicians have employed him over the years. René Lussier, with whom Walsh has played and recorded since he first arrived in Montréal, describes Walsh as not only a great trombone player but also a great human being who always gives whatever he’s got to a project: “If he’s only got 60% of his energy, you get the 60%. At least that’s been my experience with him,” Lussier laughs. “I’ve heard other musicians say that Tom doesn’t have it together all the time. But maybe in those cases, Tom does it on purpose! But I’ve found that the more trust you show him, the more he gives. He’s got a very strong ethical code. He’s a force of nature who cuts through whatever’s happening to him. I admire him for keeping his projects together, like NOMA. It’s not easy.”
Old friend Paul Cram, who has known Walsh since the early 80s when they both hit the Toronto avant-garde scene, provides some important insights into his personality: “He’s got a lot of stress in his life, especially these days with starting a family and all. It’s not always been easy for him. Plus, he’s got that black Irish, Newfoundland thing. He’s got a bright side, a dark side, a hyper side, and a laid back side. You get combinations of all those things. It makes him interesting. And he’s intelligent enough to be able to step back and laugh at some of the things that happen.” Walsh has always followed his own sensibilities and instincts. In that sense, his musical development has been organic. He started on piano at 4 and took up the trombone at 9: “I loved music, but I didn’t like to practice the piano. So I picked up the trombone and did it my way. Took lessons in grade school at St. Pius X with a guy named Leo Sandoval. “I remember, the first day, it was a Friday. Because it was Walsh, I was near the end of the list for getting instruments and stuff, and there was no time to teach me. So he said, ‘Take it home, and I’ll see you for your first lesson next week.’ And I came back and I could play tunes and stuff, because I knew how to read because I played the piano.
“I had lessons with him in grade school. Didn’t have a lot of trombone instructors per se. Had a guy named Jim Duff for a while, valve trombonist. And when I went to Humber, I had Al Grey and Jerry Johnson, both straight-ahead bebopper style guys. And that was that.” Walsh spent two years in the classical program at Memorial University in St. John’s. By 1979, he was becoming interested in jazz, and was about to leave the classical world behind. “I had heard some jazz from Oregon, Ralph Towner, Gary Burton, a couple of things like that. I wasn’t playing jazz, but I’d heard some stuff and was really impressed because I couldn’t tell what was improvised and what was written.” Walsh had a bursary to study classical trombone in London, but the trombone teacher in London, Dennis Wick, got very sick and had to drop all of his students: “So I couldn’t go to London. But I still had a bursary to study. I had gotten turned on to jazz, so I made an application to Humber College because I’d asked around about what was a good place to study. I got there in September of 79.” After a year at Humber, Walsh spent two years at York University: “After a while I just sort of got tired of school because school meant the degree. The only good a degree is basically is to teach. So I just dropped out of York after two years. Got involved on the avant-garde scene in Toronto with Bill Grove and Jerry Berg and Victor Bateman, Nick Gotham, Paul Cram, Bill Smith, Jane Bunnett and all these people. I started Hemispheres Orchestra with Nick Gotham, Victor Bateman and Paul Cram. Started Thin Men, then started NOMA in 1989.”
Walsh has always been very open to the whole range of sounds that he hears around him, regardless of genre, and he is always looking for new approaches to incorporate into his music. One could say that life has been an ongoing formative period for Walsh. Speaking of his early days as a jazz player, he explains, “A lot of the music that was really striking me was less chordal-based, less vertically oriented. I was hearing some amazing players playing in styles, like Hemphill and Ornette, where they were playing line-oriented things, where the harmony was more a result, it wasn’t a syndrome. It was an after-effect in a way. So that was basically where I started from. I just figured, ‘OK, learn how to play, learn how to improvise, keep your ears as sharp as possible rather than going outside of your ears and going onto the page,’ all that kind of thing. I made sure that I took care of the sound. The players that affected me the most were controlling the sound. You can play an E and a C chord, and the difference between this person and that person and that person is all about how they use their sound. It’s just an E when played by a standard big band jazz saxophonist, to my ears. When Julius Hemphill plays an E, he’s playing the world of possibilities that go along with that.”
“I started playing the plunger in about 85, but I didn’t discover Duke Ellington until about three years later, so I’d worked out some of my own ideas. And part of the reason I’d picked up the plunger was because my bands were guitar-oriented. I didn’t really want keyboards. I’m not sure why. It’s rare to find a pianist who can really think in terms of fine and mutation that way rather than vertically. And also most of my influences are all electric guitar. A lot of the Nashville sound, that twangy stuff, that bendy stuff, pedal steel, I don’t know half their names. And you get into the art rock, the prog rock, Jimmy Page especially, Hendrix, I love Hendrix.
“I’d started with the plunger because I could adjust the color of the trombone depending on the range of the guitar that it was being played with. Because the trombone is a tenor instrument, it still has a big range. I can get up pretty high now. In fact, then it was an octave lower. I could adjust the color to go along with the color that was being used by the guitar, because they’re the furthest apart in terms of keys. They have the least number of notes in common.”
Walsh is somewhat ambivalent about his time in Toronto, which he eventually left in the late 80s, part of what Paul Cram calls the “Great Migration,” when a lot of people who’d been active on the Toronto scene left, for one reason or another. “It would be too easy to say that there was a scene in Toronto. There wasn’t really a scene, per se. There was a bunch of people who knew each other and were willing to play these types of gigs where you were only going to get paid thirty dollars.” In Walsh’s case, what he found in Montréal, when he stopped to learn French before going on to West Africa to study the music there, was a sense of community that he didn’t find in Toronto: “Also, I found some new things to work on here in terms of the palette. Let’s just say that I was jazz-obsessed when I got here, and now I’m music-obsessed. With Jean and Rene and even [Pierre] Cartier and [Robert Marcel] Lepage and the others, they’re really interested in the momentum of the progress of any project; its integrity comes from this. What I mean by that is, when Jean starts something like Canot-Camping, he’s starting it to see what it’s going to turn out to be like, rather than going for a specific light at the end of the tunnel, while a lot of the groups I’d been working with in Toronto were sort of set pieces in a way, with set instrumentation and so on.”
The move from Toronto to Montréal complicated the logistics of NOMA, which Walsh had started before leaving Toronto. First, it became a bi-city band, which made even rehearsing the material a logistical nightmare. The group released one album, 1999’s Climbing the Waltz, with a guitar-heavy lineup that still included mainly Toronto-based musicians. Walsh kept the group going until the mid-90s. When funding for a 1996 tour of Europe fell apart, the band did too.
Walsh revived NOMA in 1999 as a double trio - a “jazz” trio and a “funk” trio, each composed of guitar, bass, and drums - with him on trombone and sampler, conducting proceedings from the middle of the stage. The group has been playing gigs since 2000. Diversion, the new album, was recorded live in Toronto and Montréal.
“I basically wrote a new repertoire for the new NOMA. For the first NOMA, I wrote a whole bunch of lines to see where it would go, because first of all, it was two drummers, two guitarists, keyboards, and trombone. There was no bass. I was writing from the drums up because I was looking for heavily rhythmic stuff. Now I just start with… it could be anything. The stuff that I’m writing comes from what I’m hearing, which could be any style. That’s why when we’re talking about Nashville, for instance, well, NOMA is a string band. So I’m sort of investigating a little bit of the traditions that go along with the sounds.
“We’re in Dj culture now. We were in producer culture in the ’70s and ’80s, and prior to that, we were in musician culture, where the musicians determined the sound of the song by being in the same room together. But today the room doesn’t determine the sound in the same way now that you have sampling and mixology. So just by hearing on the radio some seriously disparate elements being harmonized, there’s some sort of DNA shift, some sort of mutation going on there.”
Walsh has been experiments with sampling since the ’80s with NOMA. The experiments continued in Montréal in the early 90s with a two-year weekly residency at DiSalvio’s night club on St-Laurent Boulevard. He had the opportunity to apply some of the things he’d already learned with NOMA and try them out on an audience of dancers with his group Royal Jelly. Sampling remains an integral aspect of his work with NOMA, as well as with Phat Hed and Midi Tapant, his duo with drummer Pierre Tanguay. The economics of avant-garde music in Canada requires a certain degree of resourcefulness. Hence, the evolution of Phat Hed, a trio derived from half of NONM. The setup allows Walsh to book two gigs at a festival-one performance by NOMA, one by Phat Hed. The performance with Steve Swell in Montréal last year incorporated an idea that Walsh had been working on for a year or two of using recorded samples or parts of other songs, say a Bob Dylan song, as bridges between songs and then using those songs as reference points in a kind of suite. The effect was breathtaking, with the listener hearing familiar sounds, and then having them recontextualized in a manner that left one wondering where the musicians were going next. Gently, the group kept pulling the rug out from under the Estener’s ears, so to speak. Between them, Swell and Walsh used virtually the full range of sounds available on the trombone. While Walsh is conversant with the barmolodic theory of Ornette Coleman, and indeed the original NOMA had a lineup similar to Coleman’s Prime Time, he rejects being pigeonholed as a Coleman acolyte. “The thing I’m trying to do with NOMA, and generally as a musician (not just a jazzman, but coveting the fiffl range), is broach a process where modern musicians can play and improvise together without worrying about the pedagogy they come from jazz, classical, rock, popular, folk These are radio/record store archival terms that hinder the music from developing freely without bias or prejudice. For NOMA, the toolkit includes different styles; not just different notes. NOMA’s playing envelope is as wide as the musician’s tastes.”