An Interview with Lew Tabackin

This interview was conducted by Ed Joffe on Saturday August 19, 2006 at Lew Tabackin’s upper westside townhouse, which he shares with his pianist/composer/arranger wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi. It was originally published in the November, 2006 issue of The New York Flute Club Newsletter.

Lew Tabackin has been a vital part of the New York music scene since 1965. A virtuoso on both the flute and tenor saxophone, he has enjoyed a diverse career as a sideman working with some of the great jazz legends (Elvin Jones, Shelley Manne, Tal Farlow, Donald Byrd, Attila Zoller); a featured soloist in a variety of big bands (Maynard Ferguson, Duke Pearson, Chuck Israels, Cab Calloway, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Clark Terry, Joe Henderson, and Toshiko Akiyoshi); a studio musician (Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band and the Dick Cavett Show Orchestra); and as a leader of his own jazz groups. Beginning in the 1980s, he won both the Down Beat critic’s and reader’s poll awards as top jazz flutist. He continues to tour the world extensively as a soloist, performing in both clubs and jazz festivals. His biography, discography, and upcoming performances can be viewed on his website:

Ed Joffe. When did you start playing flute?

Lew Tabackin. I started when I was about 12. The Philadelphia school system would loan people instruments and since I was in the lower economic strata, it was important. I didn’t know anything about flute and for some reason, I wanted a clarinet—at least I knew what that was. However, the only instrument they had was a flute. They auditioned three people—one girl couldn’t get any sound at all; another guy could get kind of a sound (a lot better than I could) but he didn’t want it. So I got the flute. I had never even seen anyone play flute. Then they gave me a teacher who didn’t know anything about the flute either. It took me years to unlearn all of his stuff. Can you imagine someone playing a flute on a shoulder? It’s hard to do, but that’s what I did! Everything I did was wrong. That’s a lesson—when you start an instrument, make sure you have somebody who knows a little something about it to get you started.

Ed Joffe. Having grown up in a vibrant jazz community like Philadelphia and during the heyday of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1940s–1950s) with William Kincaid, that must have had a great influence on you as you started learning more about music and the flute.

Lew Tabackin. To be honest, I didn’t really learn anything until I got into high school. I had taken some lessons at The Settlement Music School in Philly—a place where you could get inexpensive lessons. In high school I heard people jamming in between Orchestra rehearsal and their next classes, as well as after school. I thought it might be fun to take a crack at it. So I started practicing the flute. I also think Herbie Mann had some kind of a hit around that time where he tried to play Charlie Parker’s “Blue Suede Shoes”—that may have given me the courage to try it. So I began playing and I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea about harmony, form, structure—but it felt good. Then I decided at 15 that I wanted to play the tenor saxophone. When I got the tenor that was it. I knew exactly how I wanted to sound—just like Al Cohn [a famous saxophonist-composer- arranger who gained fame as part of the Woody Herman saxophone section in the late 1940s]. It took me three or four hours to approximate a sound that was representative. All of a sudden music became important. Later, I received a scholarship to the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music [where he graduated as a flute major] and I began to hear things. I had started to check out what William Kincaid was doing. I would stand backstage when the Philadelphia Orchestra was playing and I could hear his low notes throughout the whole orchestra. It was an amazing sound. Hardly anyone has gone beyond that. While at the conservatory, I studied flute with Kenton Terry—that wasn’t very good, my fault. Then James Pellerite came in [to the conservatory] and I couldn’t get along with his approach, at all. Finally, Murray Panitz started to teach there and showed me some basic, fundamental things. He introduced me to the overtone series and the concept of the jaw being very relaxed and in motion. I made a lot of progress—I actually started to get a sound. He must have thought he was a genius teacher because of the amount of progress I made.

Ed Joffe. You, along with Joe Farrell and Hubert Laws, were all classical flute majors in college. How did this type of study influence your development as a jazz flutist?

Lew Tabackin. I eventually decided to move to New York—that’s where the real conservatory is, where you learn to play jazz. I practiced real hard, listened a lot, and I tried to develop a concept on flute where you play French Impressionistic solos on top of the supporting material. That became my style. I’m not a good student—more of a trial-and-error person. I try and find my own way of doing things. That’s how my flute style evolved. In a way, I don’t consider myself a jazz flute player.

Ed Joffe. Who were your role models in developing your flute concept?

Lew Tabackin. The better I got as a flute player, the less it worked for playing jazz. The jazz flute concept at the time was an anti-flute concept—you would play the same licks on the flute that you do on the saxophone and get that “coke bottle” sound. I didn’t like it. I listened to the people I wanted to hear play flute—the classical players like Kincaid, Julius Baker, and [Jean-Pierre] Rampal. I would be inspired by their sounds. The tenor saxophone has an incredibly rich jazz tradition from Coleman Hawkins on, so I always tried to be an extension of that tradition. As far as jazz flute playing, I don’t think we have a real tradition. The closest we come to a tradition is Frank Wess [legendary saxophonist/flutist who gained international acclaim in the 1950s for his saxophone and flute solos as part of the Count Basie saxophone section]. He plays with integrity and elegance. I have also listened to James Moody execute Bebop music—his way of articulating is a special thing. Hubert Laws played some great things from a flute point-of-view and a technical point-of-view. Unfortunately, most of the other guys are pretty sad. I don’t know what they’re trying to do. My desert island recordings would be more “legit” flute players. I know I might disillusion some readers.

Ed Joffe. If there was a principal influence on your jazz flute playing, was it Frank Wess?

Lew Tabackin. Not really. With Frank it was more of an appreciation and admiration that remains until this day. My approach is so different. I don’t really have an influence in a jazz sense. I evolved, for better or worse, in a very personal way.

Ed Joffe. How do you balance practicing and performing on two instruments whose embouchure concepts are very different?

Lew Tabackin. I choose material carefully so that it creates a totally different aura when I switch instruments. I don’t play the flute in performance as much I do the saxophone, but I try to make an important statement on it when I do play. It’s really difficult to maintain both instruments. What I do is to practice the flute first. I’ll never practice the saxophone before flute.

Ed Joffe. What exercises do you employ as part of your practicing?

Lew Tabackin. Basically, I have a routine where I do lip placements that enable me to find where the mouth-hole is located. Then I do some [Marcel] Moyse exercises descending to the bottom of the flute, play the overtone series, and then scales in different positions. I’m a sound-oriented person; it dictates how I play on either of my instruments. When I’m sounding good, I can actually play; when my sound is not happening, no matter how much I practice, I can’t execute and I’m uninspired.

Jimmy Walker [Los Angeles freelance flutist and former principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony] came to one of my gigs at Birdland years ago. I asked him for a quick warm-up exercise that I can use when I’m on the road traveling without much time to practice. He showed me a substitute high F# fingering that can be used when going to an altissimo high D fingering. This interval is to be played legato, softly and repeated three times. That’s supposed to do it! It’s actually helpful.

I also try to make sure my breathing technique is correct. Sometimes, I have to depend on my breathing, especially when playing the saxophone real hard for 20 to 30 minutes and then having to pick up the flute. The sound is not going to be where you want it to be, so the first thing is never to panic. Let your air do the work until the feeling [in the lips] starts to come back. Air is a life force and I try to make it all a part of the music.

Ed Joffe. What are you currently focusing on in your practice?

Lew Tabackin. Pitch factors drive me nuts because I can’t always put it where I want to. In fact, I’m really working hard on it. It’s an ongoing problem.

Ed Joffe. Has your performing on saxophone aided your flute playing?

Lew Tabackin. The flute really helps the saxophone. Everyone always talks about the clarinet helping the saxophone since it’s traditional to go from clarinet to saxophone. To me, the flute is better since the way you use the air on both is very similar, at least to the tenor saxophone. When you get used to pumping air through a flute, it really makes the saxophone much easier. Once in a while you really get it right and it keeps you going.

Ed Joffe. What were the musical influences that led you to make use of extended techniques in your flute playing?

Lew Tabackin. I never practiced any of those techniques in a formal way—like the Robert Dick approach. I let everything happen, let it be a real organic experience. If I want to create some kind of a throat sound or a multiphonic sound, I let everything come out. The shakuhachi thing evolved through Toshiko’s writing. She writes a great deal of programmatic music. Her first big cross-cultural piece, “Kogan,” has a big flute solo in the middle of the piece in which I tried to use the shakuhachi effect. I started listening to some shakuhachi music and was able to relate to it quite easily. I love the sound of the shakuhachi, but every time I try to play it, it ruins my flute embouchure. Anyway, I utilize that effect in my flute playing. At first I was really self-conscious when we’d go to play in Japan, but the people really responded and felt an empathy with what I was trying to accomplish. I even found sometimes that I was accompanying myself with foot stomps.

Ed Joffe. What are the problems you have encountered when playing flute with a rhythm section? What microphones and sound systems do you use?

Lew Tabackin. I don’t know much about microphones. Sometimes I have to use them. Ideally, the mike shouldn’t be that close. My last recording was a live recording and we didn’t use any [individual] microphones other than a stereo mike. I just pumped air. Even if you’re playing with a microphone you don’t have to play like you’re pandering to it. People can really hear if you’re playing with conviction or just utilizing the electronics and moving your fingers. People should think about getting away from being a microphone player. In jazz, the reason people sound so wimpy on the flute is because they don’t put enough into it. Your job is to make the lower notes stronger and control the higher notes so that there’s a balance between them. There’s a lot of great execution today but I miss the intensity and the dynamic. When I play the flute, I want to hear the whole thing vibrating, ready to explode in my hands.

Ed Joffe. Obviously you are aware that most people who do play flute with a rhythm section have to use a microphone.

Lew Tabackin. It’s quite easy for me to project with my trio unless it’s a bad acoustical environment. My drummer [Mark Taylor] plays soft if he has to and the bass player [Boris Kozlov] doesn’t use an amp, or very little amplification when he does. Sometimes piano players tend to become one dimensional as far as volume is concerned.
Playing without a microphone tends to slow you down. When you have to blow a lot of air your fingers don’t move as fast for some reason. I just put it [the microphone] in front of the lip plate, but not too close to it. If you have a monitor system, you tend to play less forceful. A lot of people gear their whole approach to utilization of the microphone. If you play like I do, it’s a little more difficult since I try for a large, natural sound.

Ed Joffe. Your flute playing was a vital part in the success of the Toshiko/Tabackin big band. Aside from Toshiko’s writing, what other composers do you admire who feature flute in a jazz ensemble context?

Lew Tabackin. Chuck Israels [former bass player with the Bill Evans Trio] formed a band around the time I moved to New York and wrote a great deal of music for me to play on flute. I’ve also done some pretty good stuff with the Metropole Orchestra from the Netherlands—they have some pretty good writers there. I think Toshiko was the first one to really expand the woodwind writing in jazz music. I haven’t played in any other situations that were as interesting as what she did. Again, I tend to listen to other types of music such as the flute music by [Krzysztof] Penderecki and [Toru] Takemitsu.

Ed Joffe. Do you think the standards of jazz flute playing have improved in recent decades?

Lew Tabackin. There was a period where flute in general was hot thirty years ago. Rampal was king, Hubert Laws made a lot of records, then Jimmy Galway came on the scene, and there was a flute renaissance that has sort of died out. As far as jazz flute players, I don’t really hear too many of them. I know the doubling thing is kind of fading out. A lot of the jazz guys don’t want to deal with it. They just don’t deal with it. I just did an overdub for a new Jimmy Heath big band album. They had some guys playing some flute stuff in the ensemble and it was pretty sad. I think there are a lot of great classical flute players today—Emmanuel Pahud, Patrick Gallois, etc. I listen to these players and their sound inspires me, so when I play I have a little boost to get into my flute world. I do the same with the tenor saxophone—when I lose my sound I put on a good Don Byas record and it takes me about two minutes to recover my sound.

Ed Joffe. What needs to be done to advance the cause of the flute in jazz?

Lew Tabackin. Basically, I don’t think there’s a need to do anything. When my daughter began playing flute, I bought one of the Moyse volumes. In it, the translation says that the flute is a minor instrument (when compared to the literature for piano, violin, etc.) If he can say that about the flute in the classical world, in jazz it’s a very minor instrument. Therefore, when you play an instrument like the flute in a jazz context, you have a chance to create your own tradition.

Ed Joffe. You will be performing at the New York Flute Club on Sunday November 19, 2006 at 5:30pm in theYamaha Studios performing space. Can you talk a little about the music we can expect to hear that afternoon?

Lew Tabackin. I have an original composition, “Desert Lady”, that we’ll probably do. There’s not much happening harmonically, so it gives me a chance to develop it melodically and there’s a large flute cadenza in the middle. I’m also thinking of doing my adaptation of John Coltrane’s “Wise One” where I can get into a Zen-approach. I’ve been working on a way to do Duke Ellington’s “Sunset of a Mockingbird” so I can do some bird-calls, quasi- Messiaen. Boris, Mark and I are now also developing a way to do Django Reinhardt’s “Nuage”. I’ll try to come up with something not too offensive on the tenor since David [Wechsler] has asked me to also play some saxophone.

Ed Joffe. Can you summarize your feelings about how your career has evolved?

Lew Tabackin. Basically I’m a classic amateur flute player because I just play the instrument on my own terms. Everyday is an adventure with the flute—it’s always different. I’m fortunate in that I can pick it up and play it the way I want to play it. I feel it’s a great luxury to have, although quite difficult to maintain, considering my approach to the tenor saxophone.


You may enjoy other Articles.