Tom McClung

“Tiger, tiger… burning bright”

Excellent jazz pianist and Vin Jaune ambassador, Tom McClung, talks about music, Archie Shepp and Chuck D and, of course, wine!

Words: Erminia Yardley
Photos: Carl Hyde

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EY: Growing up in a family where music was played a lot, would you say this has had a direct impression on your creative self?

TMcC: Most importantly I had kind and loving parents. They enjoyed making and sharing music every day. Dad played piano and mom sang and played the ukulele. Every evening before dinner they would play popular songs and show-tunes from the 20s, 30s and 40s. They both played by ear, though dad could read a little as he had studied classical piano in his youth. They would often lead sing-alongs at their church or the senior centre.

EY: How did your love for the piano start and why the piano?

TMcC: I heard the piano everyday, and of course I wanted to try. I started messing around on the piano when I was about five, picking out tunes and making things up. I began lessons at six. Later I also studied trumpet and baritone horn, which I played in the high school concert band. It was the piano that spoke to me the most: it was a self-contained orchestra – and all the different styles it could handle! Bach, Bartok, the Beatles!

EY: You have worked with a lot of artists, amongst which we can quote: Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef (whom I also admire a lot). How did these collaborations start and, most importantly, what do they mean for you?

TMcC: I first met Archie when I was about seventeen, his son Pavel played drums in our high-school jazz combo. Saxophonist Fred Ho was also a classmate, and he would go sit in on Archie’s classes at the University of Massachusetts and then bring back to us what he’d picked up. I had the chance to hear Archie play quite often, as well as Max Roach, who was also a professor there.

Archie’s music, while associated with the “avant-garde” always keeps a strong link with the tradition of Afro-American music, especially the blues. I was struck by how his music touched me so viscerally (still does!) and I try to bring that urgency and emotion into my own playing.

Yusef first heard me around 1990 in the recording studio where I was mixing my first CD. He called me to record with him for the “Tenors” album with Archie, along with drummer Steve McCraven and bassist Avery Sharpe, both whom I knew quite well. We were all living in western Massachusetts. Yusef’s music is always an adventure: he ventures into unexplored territory every moment. I listen to some of those records now, and I can’t tell where the written part ends and the improvisation starts. He continues to inspire.

Playing with Archie,Yusef, and Marion Brown have been very important in forming my musical identity. They taught me the importance having a unique, personal voice. They all share a connection with John Coltrane, and the past and the future of Afro-American music. Archie often says “music is not just notes” and similarly Yusef would say “a note is 20% note and 80% attitude”.

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EY: Another insightful detail we have to mention here is that on the “Gemini” album with the Archie Shepp Quartet, Chuck D (Public Enemy) makes a guest appearance. Tell me more about this: how did this come about?

TMcC: Archie sat in with Public Enemy at a concert in Paris, after which he brought Chuck D into the studio to record an improvised rap on one of his songs. A year or so later, we did a concert together, joining Chuck D’s and Archie’s musicians and repertoire. Chuck was very open and friendly, clearly thrilled to collaborate with Archie, as was Archie to work with Chuck.

EY: Looking at your discography, you teamed up with various musicians, do you prefer making music like this or is your solo career as important?

TMcC: In meeting and playing with a variety of different musicians, we learn something new each time and we play differently to fit the context. When I was growing up, it was important for me to be a free-lancer and accept all the gigs that came along. Along with forming my own groups to play my own music, I played in rock, blues, country, salsa, and trad jazz bands, accompanied singers of all styles, in clubs and for weddings and bar-mitzvahs. I considered this like an apprenticeship. I learned about functional music, for dancing and merry-making, and I always try to keep some of this spirit in my music. I’m happy when someone says “I don’t know anything about jazz, but I like what you play”!

I still enjoy playing as a side-man with other musicians, but I’ve become more selective. I’m less interested in playing for someone who needs “a piano player” than playing for someone who wants Tom McClung!
My solo career is not just important but essential. I get to choose the repertoire and the musicians. As a composer, I need to hear my tunes and let them grow.

EY: With music being such a pivotal aspect in your life, what other genres do you listen to and why?

TMcC: I enjoy all kinds of music, if it’s well-played and heartfelt. At home I still listen mostly to the great American jazz of the 20th century, from Pops to Ornette. I listen to (and sometimes try to play) some classical music, Bach and Debussy are two favourites. I’ve listened to and studied traditional folk musics from various cultures, such as Shona Mbira (thumb piano) music from Zimbabwe and Andalusian flamenco. I love blues guitarists like Mississippi John Hurt and the Bahaman Joseph Spence, blues pianists Otis Spann and James Booker. And of course I like that rock’n’roll music, any old way you choose it.

EY: Your new album “Burning Bright” which came out in February this year: a fantastic piece of work. What is the inspiration behind the album and who chose the title for it?

TMcC: The title “Burning Bright” comes from the William Blake poem “The Tiger”. It was a favourite poem of my dad’s, who knew tigers well from when he was curator of mammals at the Bronx zoo in New York. The title works well, because musicians often refer to someone who’s playing their ass off as “burning” and “bright” refers to a rapid tempo.

This recording was important to me, to finally get out these compositions, some of which were composed over 30 years ago! And presenting them in this trio formation allowed for lots of interplay and freedom of expression. I love how this record is melodic and rhythmic and full of surprises!

EY: You now live in Paris, France. What brought about this radical change of location?

TMcC: After a couple of tours in France with Archie in the late ’90s, and with the encouragement of my friend Steve McCraven, I left western Massachusetts to settle in Paris. The move helped me examine what it means to be an American, and especially an American jazz musician. This music has roots in slave songs, blues, gospel, marches, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley popular songs. So-called “jazz” has always allowed (and continues to allow) influences from all directions, but I’m a firm believer in “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”!

Three years ago my wife and I moved to Normandy where we have more space and a more direct connection to nature, which is important to both of us. She has her artist’s atelier and I have my old American Steinway and we have a garden and stars and we’re cool!

EY: Your business card or carte de visite, as you say in France, says: “Pianiste, Compositor, Arrangeur, Ambassadeur de vins jaunes – will you tell us more about your love of wine. Does this go hand in glove with being a jazz artist perhaps?

TMcC: After having been chosen to be the parrain (godfather) of the Frontenay Jazz Festival in the Jura region of France, they invited me to be the parrain of the Percée du Vin Jaune festival in 2009. Vin Jaune is a very special wine particular to this region. You must try it! With help from my wife Anne, I wrote a song to Vin Jaune (to the melody of “My Bonnie”) which has become the hymn of this yearly winter wine festival.

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EY: We recently saw you at Ronnie Scott’s, London, playing with the Archie Shepp Quartet. How was the experience of playing at Ronnie Scott’s for you? Can we hope to see you in London again soon?

TMcC: It was my first time to play at Ronnie’s, though of course I’ve been hearing about it for years! It’s a beautiful, comfortable, well-run organization. I hope to be back soon!
Mr. Watt hinted that this might be possible.

EY: Are you working on anything specific right now?

TMcC: I’m working on a follow up to “Burning Bright”, with the same;fabulous;trio featuring the rhythm team of Hungarian contrabassist Matyas Szandai and French-Algerian drummer Mourad Benhammou. Along with several originals, this album will feature compositions of some of my favorite pianist/composers deserving wider recognition, such as Hugh Lawson, Ronnie Matthews, Hampton Hawes and Elmo Hope.

I have plenty ideas for future recordings, including an Ellington/Strayhorn project and a Herbie Nichols project which are now in the works. Herbie Nichols has become like the new Monk! I’ve been working on some Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman music as well. I have two solo projects in mind: one of piano improvisations and one of standard tunes. Oh yeah, and I keep writing new music! I’d like to do a project with a horn section.

EY: And finally, how does Monsieur McClung relax?

TMcC: I like to take walks, enjoy nature, listen to the birds.

You can also read our review of Tom McClung’s latest album here

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travelling the spaceways since 1993