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Art Farmer Reaps His Musical Harvest

November 12, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

Art Farmer deserted the trumpet for the fluegelhorn in 1961, and quit the United States for Vienna in 1968. He has no reason to regret either decision.

An equable man, with an easygoing personality and a gentle voice that seems to match the mellow sound of his horn, Farmer is playing at Catalina's through Sunday, heading a quintet that includes Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, John Heard on bass, Tom Garvin on piano and Ralph Penland on drums. He feels sure that this group, assembled for him by Heard, will live up to his audience's expectations.

"When you travel around all the time free-lancing, picking up local musicians in every city and country, it's always a gamble--you have to go with what you get. But this time I know it'll work out."

Like many expatriates, Farmer returns to the States fairly regularly. At present, he is on a three-month visit. "I seem to be spending a little more time here now," he says, "because there's more activity than there used to be. I'm playing the New York Blue Note in December and the Village Vanguard in February."

One of Farmer's best-known associations is his partnership with Benny Golson. Together they formed a group known as the Jazztet, which stayed together from 1959 to 1962 (with McCoy Tyner as their original pianist). The combo has been reunited with slightly varying personnels in recent years.

"I have a contract with Sweet Basil in New York," Farmer says, "to play there twice a year with the Jazztet. We try to work in some other jobs around those dates, but Benny has been busy with assignments of his own. He just came home from a birthday celebration for the king of Thailand--the king is a saxophonist, and he hired Benny to write arrangements on some of his tunes."

Farmer, who earned his wings in the 1950s as a trumpeter with Lionel Hampton, Horace Silver and Gerry Mulligan, has encountered no problems using Vienna as a home base. For a while he played in the house band with the Austrian Broadcasting System.

Since then, the rare lyricism of his style has been heard at most of the jazz world's principal festivals and frequently on records. Now under contract to Fantasy Records, he is particularly proud of his current album of Billy Strayhorn compositions, "Something to Live For," released on that company's Contemporary label.

He can work at home whenever he feels the urge. "I have an exclusive agreement with a club in Vienna--all I need to do is call and tell them when I'm ready to open. But I just don't want to work there too often and wear out my welcome.

"Vienna is a wonderful place for jazz--the only city I know where you can go to a club one night and hear boogie woogie, the next night hear an 'outside' group, the night after that a big band, the following night a blues band--and every night have a good crowd, with different people."

Though he sees less of it than he might wish, his home life has achieved a rewarding level of comfort. He and his Viennese wife, Mechtilda, recently acquired a large house. "It has about 12 rooms, I guess, with a real nice studio where I can work anytime I want, and a sauna where I can go and sweat off all the extra fat that I pick up on the road."

Would he ever consider moving back permanently to this country?

"Well, it isn't exactly out of the question, but my wife is very comfortable over there. Maybe we could come after she has retired--she's in banking--and after the kid is out of school." Their son, George, now 15, has begun studying the upright bass. "He's practicing day and night; it's hard to even get him to do his schoolwork. At least we're happy for him to be playing upright bass rather than the electric bass in pop music."

If mature talent and soulful performance were the only yardsticks, Farmer today might be in the rich-and-famous bracket alongside Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. Still, he has achieved goals he finds just as meaningful: the respect of his peers and professional security. As long as he has no strong objection to living out of a suitcase--and a fluegelhorn case--his international acceptance and continued success would seem to be assured.

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