A Conversation With ... Lorne Lofsky
The Toronto jazz guitar ace has just released This Song Is New, his first album in 25 years. In this extensive interview, he reflects upon a long and storied career that has included work with Oscar Peterson.
By Bill King
Most young players long for that participatory dream moment when opportunity permits and the confidence is there to approach a peer and ask to sit in. The bones rattle, the knees wobble, the hands turn blue/white, fingers drain of blood and muscles weaken. Showtime!
Guitarist Lorne Lofsky had one of those career-altering moments at an open jam several decades back at George’s Spaghetti House while sitting in with a long-time Oscar Peterson childhood friend from Montreal and sideman for the Lionel Hampton band and the Boss Brass, trombonist Butch Watanabe.
What if Oscar shows? What if, during the session, he catches you soloing on Hogtown Blues, a composition scripted by the eminent jazz pianist?
“Oscar showed up and heard me, and he was very gracious. He stayed for most of the night. A month or two went by. I was at home practising and the phone rings. I pick up and say hello – the voice on the other end says, “Lorne - this is Oscar Peterson.” I said, “Hi.” He then says, “I was just wondering if you are signed to any record company?” I said, “No.” He goes on to say,” Well, hang on, I've got Norman Granz right here.”
At one time, Norman Granz was considered the most successful jazz impresario in the world and noted for producing a travelling roadshow of the day's jazz giants (Oscar, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich) Jazz At The Philharmonic beginning in 1944.
Presumably, Granz came up to visit Oscar in Mississauga.
"Norman got on the blower and said, Well, Oscar tells me you're a really good player.' I don't know what I said exactly. I was in shock. He then inquires, Would you like to do a record?' I’m in disbelief yet say 'sure.' 'Then I'll be in touch,' echoes Granz.
"Later we went into Manta Sound to record, which is long gone - April 1980. I think we were there for about five or six hours. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have been there longer, but back in Oscar’s time they would have recorded a couple of takes - take one from each tune and that would be it.
They mixed my album and put it out on vinyl, released as It Could Happen to You on the Pablo label.”
With the glory years in the rear-view mirror and a solid teaching career under his belt, I caught up with the socially conscious and politically mindful Lofsky for a conversation about his new recording, This Song Is New, and the 25-year absence between Lofsky recordings.
Lorne Lofsky: It was simply great to read your story and to be able to relate to a lot of it musically and culturally. Obviously, not the same way you did it because you were down there, but it brought me back to a time that I remember.
Bill King: We were all once kids. When I was writing the book I thought, let's get back to what it was like being 15 and at that point of discovery. I had the opportunity to hear Miles Davis, the occasion to hear Cannonball. Sitting there watching them play, I wanted to revisit and see the world as then and write it down.
L.L: Really, really magical times in many ways.
B.K: (Bill plays opening passage of Miles Davis – Seven Steps to Heaven on piano) When I saw the song on your new recording, I thought, I’ve got to tell Lorne I saw the quintet with Miles in ‘62 or '63 open with that piece.
L.L: Oh, man, I would have killed to see it.
B.K: The first in-person concert with Miles had Wynton Kelly and Cannonball Adderley and Hank Mobley on tenor sax. A year later he introduced the new quintet with Herbie Hancock in New York Cit,y then had a short tour across the US and a stopover in my home area. Was it pianist Victor Feldman and Miles who wrote Seven Steps?
L.L: Victor Feldman and Miles. I heard a story, I don’t know if true or not, but I heard that Victor Feldman was offered the gig to be in the band before Herbie and I think Victor opted for a more kind of lucrative life in the Hollywood Studios. Either way, Victor was ridiculous and as you know on that album you get to hear both. You have two rhythm sections. Frank Butler and Victor Feldman. And then you hear Tony and George Coleman and Ron Carter, and Herbie.
B.K: Victor Feldman's first albums, the trio things, were crazy good.
L.L: Oh, he was. I heard him a couple of times. He came to Bourbon Street in Toronto and he sounded amazing. A great musician.
B.K: You've had a year just to be you and adapt to Covid. We keep up with each other on Facebook and follow most everything newsworthy. I guess your days have been mostly consumed with teaching.
L.L: Well, at first, I found it strange. It was the new abnormal at that point. It has been for a long time. At the very beginning, I never used Zoom; I didn't know anything about it. I didn't even know how to set up a meeting. I mean, this was like, I've got a computer, and I've got music programmes and all that stuff, but to host a meeting and set it up and then react to people and demonstrate, I was like most everybody and not used to it.
What we do is an interactive art form. You want to be in the same place as other people. And if you've got something to say, you can demonstrate it right there in front of them. They play back at you, and you can play back with them. It was just so unfamiliar. I guess the word is that maybe by September, things might get back to normal. I'm hoping.
What I like to do is play with my students. I would play with them the way I would play with a Kirk MacDonald or whoever. Let’s play; let's have fun. Let's learn. Let's experiment within whatever parameters we're currently comfortable with. That's how I learned how to play. I learned how to play by playing with people that were like lightyears ahead of me, right? It's sink or swim and if you catch some shit, you go back and work on it. And on it goes. That aspect of it obviously can't happen. There’s no substitute for live for that art form.
B.K: I was thinking how a young Herbie Hancock at 22. Bang, he writes a song that becomes a hit for Mongo Santamaria – Watermelon Man. From student to professional overnight.
L.L: I've read his book Possibilities. And a great book. “I grew up hearing the clackety-clack, clackety-clack of his horse-drawn wagon,” remembered Hancock in his 2014 autobiography, Possibilities. “I’d heard the rhythmic clacking so many times; it was easy to turn it into a song patter. I wrote out a funky arrangement, with the melody lilting over a rhythmic pattern that represented the wagon wheels going over the cobblestones in the alley.”
Hancock hooked up with trumpeter Donald Byrd who was like his mentor and surrogate father who looked out for him. He was the guy that told Herbie not to give up his publishing rights. Watermelon Man? I can't imagine the royalties he’s made from that one tune—all at the front end of an impressive career.
B.K: And at the beginning of your career, was it a slow, gradual climb up the music chain?
L.L: This is a true story. I was trying to get a gig at George's Spaghetti House at Dundas and Sherbourne. I used to go down there and hear Ed Bickert, and he was unbelievable. I asked Moe Koffman for a gig. He said he hadn’t heard of me but told me to keep in touch. One day I’m walking down Mount Pleasant at Eglington and I run into this great alto player named Jerry Toth, who played in the Boss Brass and who was doing all kinds of studio work – a great writer and arranger who played with everybody. I think he might have heard me play at Ted Moses’ club Mother Necessity’s Jazz Workshop, which was around Yonge and Victoria or Queen and Victoria. We just crossed paths on the street. He said to me, “Are you a guitar player?” I said, “Yes,” He then says, “Oh, I heard you recently. Would you like to do a week with me at George's Spaghetti House?” Wow. Jerry Toth gave me my first big break. I wound up meeting the next person, and another and people began to hear about me. I started working with all kinds of musicians there and a bit at Bourbon Street. It was one thing that led to the next thing, but that was like a major moment in my career.
B.K: I respect the fact you have an appreciation for all music and are not a narrowly focused player. You grew up in an era when the rock demons ruled the earth.
L.L: I'll never forget. I had this tiny little Sony three-inch reel to reel tape recorder, and I recorded Crossroads on it by Cream. I spent hours and hours trying to lift a couple of Eric Clapton licks. When I was about 15, I wanted to be Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or Johnny Winter, or Jimmy Page. Then some friends played me some jazz stuff, and I started going to George's. When I was 16, I asked Ed Bickert for guitar lessons. He flatly refused me because he did not teach. So, I went to this guy that he went to for a minute named Tony Braden, one of the forerunners. He was a generation before Ed. One thing led to another, and I got into jazz and then heard Ed play with Paul Desmond and got some of those records. I would sit there and listen and try to figure out what Ed was doing, which was a hell of a lot harder, I’ll tell you.
B.K: I remember late 1969, not long after arriving in Canada, I auditioned players for a new band. One young face played Clapton and blues with great authority, Kieran Overs, who relocated to the music scene as a jazz bassist and composer.
L.L: I first met Kieran, I guess, in the mid-‘70s. He lived in Roncesvalles Village in an apartment behind a store, and we used to hang out and play. This was when he was still playing a bit of guitar while switching over to bass. As a matter of fact, the very first gig I ever did with Ed Bickert, the very first one, Kieran was playing bass. I think it wasn't long after he switched over. It was Jerry Fuller and me, rest his soul, and Ed and we played at this place called Harper's on Lombard Street. Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer had this little jazz series and booked Jimmy Knepper with PJ Perry and quite a few other people. Larry Cramer phoned me up, and he said, “Would you like to play a quartet gig with Ed Bickert?” I said something like, “Is the Pope Catholic?" For me, that was like dying and going to heaven playing with one of my idols. It was unbelievable. That was the very first time that I got a chance to play with Ed.
I remember Kieran saying, “I just had a guitar lesson with Lenny Breau. I want to show you the stuff he showed me.” He shows me some diatonic, like the fourth kind of voicing McCoy Tynerish kind of stuff. At the time, I thought this is the coolest shit.
B.K: On hearing both Breau and Bickert, I was taken with their ability to plays chords along with the melody and those overlapping open intervals creating the illusion of perfect harmonies.
L.L: They were able to figure that out on the guitar using open strings and combinations. You can get that to sound more pianistic with a much wider range than if you had a finger on every note. They were pioneers in making the guitar sound almost like an electric piano.
B.K: The Song is New. 25 years between albums. I see you’re an active guy when it comes to your music.
L.L: Occasionally, I write a few tunes and to try and learn something. I get together with the usual suspects I love to play with; Kieran, Kirk (MacDonald) and Barry (Romberg).
Roberto Occhipinti’s studio was open for people to jam. As people are jamming, Roberto has the tape or the digital thing running. It was mostly a read-through for some of these tunes. A couple were jazz standards. It was the only place that we could all get together and play all day. Roberto says, “Well, I'm here; I'll just record it.” I thought, okay, record it and we'll listen to it, and maybe I'll try and get some funding and do it again after we've had a chance to work through the material a bit. It was late 2019, a couple of days before New Year's.
I sat on it for a while and thought, well, I don't know. You know what it's like when you do a recording, and you listen to it. We are our own worst critics. I didn’t know if I wanted to do anything with this or not. I wasn’t completely satisfied. I guess because I was too close to it. Time passed, and then Covid hit. I listened to it again and thought there's some merit to some of this stuff. Plus, there are some original tunes, and the fact that it's a little bit amiss in spots is because it was essentially much like a recorded run down. With jazz music, you take it warts and all. I also thought I hadn’t done anything, obviously, in a very long time and because some of the tunes are original, and who knows when I'll get another chance to do some recording with the Covid thing hanging on. So, I thought, you know what, I'm gonna put it out and see what happens.
B.K: I don’t have your ears to hear what you hear.
L.L: That's a really good thing in a way. If you hear something that you play, your perspective would be different than my perspective.
B.K: What the hell did you do to Seven Steps to Heaven?
L.L: It's all in five. The melody in the A sections is just a bunch of dotted quarter notes. We played in 5/4, but 1234, bee, bee, bee bee bee bee. Sort of like String of Pearls. It's got a different sound when you superimpose over 4.
The last few years, I've been messing around playing some standard tunes I'm already quite comfortable with and trying and playing them in different metres mainly so that I can get out of my box.
B.K: The best way to do that is to write something that is out of the box.
L.L: Exactly. I learned a lot, just in the process of playing through the stuff a little bit at home. And then we found common ground when we played together, and it happened to be recorded. We were living on the edge in a few spots here and there. But it's, you know, it's the nature of the music.
B.K: A final thought on working with Oscar.
I remember years before, bassist Al Henderson and I were talking about this the other day. We were at Ontario Place back when they had the Forum. I remember sitting on the hill, looking down, and Oscar was there with Niels Pedersen, Joe Pass, and Jerry Fuller, who was playing in the group just for that one gig, I guess. I turned to Al, and I said, "Wouldn't it be amazing to play with these guys? It would be like dying and going to heaven." And then to think that years later, I was touring, and I played a little bit with Oscar in Edmonton and a bit in the early '80s.
We would meet again at York University, and I hadn't seen him in years and years, and he says, "Oh, nice to see you, and what are you doing this summer? "This is like in the mid-'90s. I said, "nothing." He says, "You want to come to Europe with me?" I went, "Sure." The second thing he asked," Do you have a tuxedo?" And to think back to when I was up on the hill imagining, boy, that would be so amazing.