Trombonist Tom Walsh trips out with Noma
Journey to the centre of the’bone zone
Taking the scenic route through the mind of Noma’s Tom Walsh
Point A: Distractions, diatractions
It was apparent to me, well before the tape ran out, that piecing together my conversation with Tom Walsh in a presentable fashion would be a Herculean task. Interviews, you see, are “supposed" to unfold in an almost preordained fashion, following a flowchart that nails the five Ws on a rigid, horizontal timeline.
This one didn’t, but then this is Tom Walsh, trombonist, composer and leader of Noma. Currently a septet, the unit features some leading lights of the local avant-garde, high-end pop technicians, actuellistas and even a guy named Rainer. You know this is some heavy-duty shit.
Granted, there were distracting factors. Tom’s toddler son Nathaniel was clearly not down with the “temps d’faire dodo" thing. Sporadic phonecalls forced Tom (who came to Montréal ffom Newfoundland, by way of T.O.) to shift into French-as-a-gross-motor-skill mode. Tom’s Bulgarian girifnend was due to anrive the night of Noma’s first of three concerts at Theatre la Chapelle, and this writer can attest to the bacheloritis informing their Mile-End atudio/apartment’s upkeep.
There were other factors as well, but they need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say, one second Tom’s working his nubbery facial features and gurgling foolishness for Nat’s benefit, the next second he’s spouting stufl like this: “The pieces are far clearer now, in their personas. But it’s taken all six rehearsals to start getting the hall-of-mirrors effect with the player’s personas."
• If you want to know just what the hell that meant, proceed to Point B
• If the goo-goo stuff with the kid pushed your “Awww!" button, leap ahead to point C
Point B: The hall of mirror
Since Noma’s turf is improv jazz (and its tangents), ambiguity is an understandable tool for Tom.
“By using certain symbols etc, I reduce the number of mirrors in the hall for my band. On the one hand, you have to write something down that communicates something fast, because you have to convince other musicians, or trick them, into seeing music in a certain way. On the other hand, you have to leave room for ambiguities, where the mistakes are just as fun as the hook itself.
“So, you can have a hallway of mirrors that are angled a certain way, where all you see is a straight hall, but actually as you’re walking you have mirrors that are reflecting each other… in terms of… the end of the hall…"
Tom stares into space and rubs his jaw before cracking into a wide, mischievous grin. “How’s that for an ambiguous answer?!"
• If Tom makes sense, in a paisley-and-patchouli kinda way, you should “tum on" to Point F* If this all seems rather childish, stay tuned for Point C
Point C: Greasy kid stuff
“Did you read that book," Tom asks me, “by one of Picasso’s exgirifriends, where she said that one time she noticed that he was really jealous of this one kid’s drawings? He was obviously, visibly jealous!"
Tom’s not cracking on ol’ Pablo. He totally sympathizes, especially a year and change into fatherhood. In children there’s a purity of intellect, in temms of our instincts. Kids are bom geniuses, as far as I’m concemed, just for being in hammony with their instincts. We underestimate children and overestimate our own evolutionary patterns that we imprint on ourselves."
Tom beams as Nathaniel chirps a little melody. “I’m always jamming with him and he responds to the tones around him. He imitates and finds the notes--mostly without realizing it."
Not far from Tom’s own initial exposure to music, a classical aflair that began before preschool. Choice, apparently, was a factor in music that only became evident to him later on. “In a way I had very sterile roots. Was it to my advantage or disadvantage? I don’t think I’ll ever know. If I’d grown up with a fiddle in my hand, playing with the neighbours all the time… but I didn’t, it was almost the opposite, like a laboratory experiment."
• If you want a peak at the Noma laboratory, tiptoe on to Point D ’ If you want more biographical data, skip over to Point E ’ If you’re wondering about Tom’s other youthful experiments, dig Point F
Point D: Cubist notation In an effort to explain just how the Noma machine functions, Tom figures he’ll “show" me the music. He grabs a handful of paper off the floor. “There’s a lot of ambiguities that I’ve drawn in here, in tenms of options of playing," he begins. “Do you read music?"
Sort of, I answer, but it never looked like that. Rows of little Xs, erratic abstract lines and angles, something that looks like a happy face.
“It’s not written classically conrect," he apologizes. “It’s more shorthand-cubist, in a way. These are just different options that I’ve got for different sections. I don’t know if this all sounds too metaphysical, but each person’s shopping list becomes apparent, and I start supplying it with certain forms. They’re told, though, that the forms are temporary, ways of travelling from point A to point B to point C-and I say ’point’, not section, knowhatlmean? Knowing that we’ve been in this space, and it was fuckin’ grooving like hell, how do we get back there from this point, painting this other thing before or aner? It’s like tuning a shapeshifter!"
• If ambiguity seems the operative word here, head back to Point B
• If you’re curious who in their right mind would try and work within this structure, take a look at Point E
Polnt E: Energy wrangler “In’88, 1 decided to start Noma, based entirely on the energy of the musicians. I didn’t want to choose people, I wanted to choose energies and build the band from that. It ended up being two guitarists, two drummers, keyboards and myself. This was in Toronto, but then we started to believe in Montréal (laughs), so there was a small exodus there."
Since’88, Noma has seen a kaleidoscope of members come and go, including renowned jazz renegades and moonlighters ffom Blue Rodeo and the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band. Author/poet Michael Ondaatje is in there somewhere, too. The Headcount has fluctuated between six and 11. The current lineup includes Pienre Tanguay, François Chauvette, Al Baculis, Normand Guilbeault,Guy Kaye and Rainer Wiens.
“I generalize that there have been four incarnations, but really there’s been over a dozen. See, there’s no such thing as substitutes in Noma-a new person comes in and the charts change. It’s a shared harvest. Perhaps I sound a Iittle too selfless, because I’m a dictator at the same time. Someone’s gota call the shots."
And someone’s gotta take the bil when ths shots misfire. Vvhich they do. “Oh, sometimes the band falls marvelously flat on its ass, in a great explosion of sparks! There have been some great traff c acddents with the band! But it’s really fun, like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!"
• And then there’s Mr. Toadstool’s Weird Trip, at Point F
• Tom Walsh: pretentious twit or man of the people? Answer: Point G
• If jazz is starting to sound, like, fun or somdhing, hop over to Point H
Point F: Fungal rhythms “I read this book “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross", about the possible High Times roots of Christianity. It reinterprets the Old Testament through ancient Sumerian. All the names--Banrabas, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat-all these stories, when they’re explained by this guy who’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on Sumerian, you discover all these injokes about politicians of the day, sexual innuendo--and stories about the mushroom. Soma was one of the names for magic mushrooms, so I figured Noma-northern soma."
There it is: the stoner Newfie schoolboy rears his head. “I really wanted to make psychedelic music,"Tom says without shame. “Somdhing that gds you thpping on some other plane of reality. The synapses click and something happens."
• To know what makes a synapse-clicker click, click on Point D
• Can muzak be psychedelic? Next floor, Point G
Point G: Dukin’ It out As fimmly entrenched in the avant-garde as he is, Tom’s no elitist. Take note that Tom has dallied in the company of the Cowboy Junkies, Bran Van 3000--and even the Kingpins!
“Westem culture has ghettoized the arts. If you’re trying to do anything original, you’re not supposed to be popular. You’re expected to be a poor musician; a starving artist. If you’re going to get a grant, that’s one of the things that’s written into the Canada Council’s mandate, in so many words. What is that, man?! Duke Ellington worked in popular music for 50 years, was made an ambassador for the United States! That man made muzak records! would kill to own!"
Tom notes how much of Duke’s influence was after-the-fact. “I picked up the plunger years before I heard that stuff," he says of his use of that cartoonish toilet-maintenance device so often clutched by guys on the brass line. “I was playing blindly, and found all these little thdks with the plunger, and then I heard the records and said, ’Holy shit! I do that!’ That’s how we get called Ellingtonian so much, ’cause I play trombone, and most of those sounds, those dassic Ellington sounds, that’s the trombone and the mutes."
• To know what tricks Tom has up his sleeve today, peek up Point D
• For more bon mots on the highbrow/lowbrow dichoTom, continue on to Point H
Point H: Jazz dissident I confess to Tom that I’m a cautious, late-blooming jazz fan. For the longest time I’d found it… not threatening, not compidely inaccessible…
“You mean intimidating?" he asks. “Me too. Its like pulling your pants down and being inspected. You know, people usually have a preposition when they start talking about jazz. They say, ’Now, I’m no expert on jazz, but…’Where did this come from?!"
He mumbles something mean-spinted about “the jazz police," takes a swig and tears right in.
“You see footage of people dancing to jazz in the’30s and ’40s, this was highly charged, sexual music. It’s a popular music, and records are being sold, and drinks are being served, and everyone’s getting work, the whole world’s going to hell at the same time and nobody’s going to church and… uh, what was the question again?"