Fred Tompkins’ release, St. Louis Music, is creative to say the least. It combines aspects of third-stream and free music. It has notated lines, classical influences, Emily Dickinson poetry set to an operatic soloist, and synthesizer. All combined it makes for interesting effects and challenging music.
One of the most challenging aspects of Tompkins’ music is the juxtaposition presented immediately on the album. "Talk Not To Me" begins with a basic straight-ahead drums, piano and saxophone. It has a nice feel and good melody. However, Tompkins has written a soprano voice part over the jazz tune. It is the melody of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. But the vocalist does not have the same feel as the band. It is operatic, and opposed to the feel of the rest of the tune. It struggles against the rhythm and the swing instead of enhancing it. Furthermore, she does not sing the poem all the way through (top to bottom), but skips around, repeats some phrases and omits others. This is rather confusing considering the part is planned out ahead of time.
This presents a thoroughly perplexing aspect of Tompkins’ music. Although it draws freely from both classical and jazz, it seems to have taken the worst traits of each of the respective genres, instead of the best. For instance, much of the music is composed as opposed to being improvised. But, instead of providing form and coordination to improvisation, it takes away spontaneity from the heart of the music. Tompkins’ pieces are mostly through-composed, rather than conforming to either classical or jazz forms. Also, some instrumental parts are composed entirely while others are completely improvised. This causes some confusion for the listener, as the written parts seem to generally be the "soloist" while the improvised parts provide accompaniment. Exactly the opposite of what the experienced jazz listener is used to.
Another difficult trait of St. Louis Music is Tompkins’ use of an amateurish-sounding synthesizer in many of his pieces. This is another example of the combination of the worst characteristics of both genres of music. Although jazz uses many electronic instruments, the goal of most of them is to provide as authentic a sound while still providing electronic effects and options that an acoustic instrument cannot. However, Tompkins’ keyboard does not sound authentic at all; neither does he use any effects that would justify his use of an electronic instrument.
There are positive aspects to St. Louis Music. Tompkins does know how to swing. "On This Wondrous Sea" is a piece that combines swing and vocal melody to excellent effect. Similarly, Tompkins has many good ideas for licks, harmonies, and over-arching melodies. However, combining them all to form a cohesive piece seems not quite to have happened yet.
This album is full of good ideas that seem to have not quite panned out. Tompkins is a talented and creative musician to be sure. However, his purposes seem at many times quite ambiguous. Similarly, his title St. Louis Music provides an expectation for the listener that does not match up at all with what is presented. Tompkins music shows great promise, but little more. I look forward to hearing more of his music in the future, though, in hopes that, fully-formed, he will be a strong and innovative voice in jazz music.