There's a very, very good chance that you, or someone you know, has at least one album with Tom Scott on it.
The composer, arranger, saxophone and reed master, the special guest (Sept. 28) at this year's Savannah Jazz Festival, was a ubiquitous presence in L.A. studios back in the 1970s. "I didn't set out to rock the world in any way, shape or form," he says. "I wanted to be a real good craftsman."
Let's talk craft, Tom Scott style. Steely Dan's Aja and Gaucho. Joni Mitchell's For the Roses, Court and Spark and Miles of Aisles. Carole King's "Jazzman." Barbra Streisand's Butterfly. "Listen to What the Man Said" by Wings, "Dark Horse" by George Harrison, the Ringo album. Briefcase Full of Blues by the Blues Brothers. Tom Waits' The Heart of Saturday Night. He's all over them.
Hits by Hall & Oates. Tina Turner. Pink Floyd. Neil Diamond. Boz Scaggs. Diana Ross. Eddie Money. The Grateful Dead. Rickie Lee Jones. Minnie Riperton. Barry Manilow. The Beach Boys. The Whitney Houston album. Shall we go on?
Scott's father was Nathan Scott, who composed years and years of music for film and for television, notably the series Dragnet and Lassie. Tom studied music at UCLA. "I got to go to sessions with my dad, and I remember thinking wow, if I could do this for a living, I'd be the happiest guy on the planet," he says.
Indeed, after his '70s studio heyday, Tom Scott — the recipient of three Grammy Awards — made a second name for himself, composing and performing music for the screen. He wrote the theme songs for Starsky and Hutch, The Streets of San Francisco and Family Ties, and to date has played on dozens of soundtracks.
At 65, he's now a veteran, and he's OK with that.
"This business I was in is just not the same any more," Scott says. "My career has morphed into doing college and high school clinics and concerts. Well, there were a couple of things: I played and was the musical director for a couple of Quincy Jones' benefit events. He's 80 this year. I played recently with Paul Shaffer at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards in Los Angeles."
Still, the creative gears are ever-turning. Scott is currently working on what will be the first-ever "solo" recording from superstar bassist Nathan East. "I'm writing an arrangement of 'Moondance' for Michael McDonald to sing," Scott reveals. "And he's covering Stevie Wonder's 'Sir Duke,' among other things, which I'm arranging for him."
East is a member of the jazz quartet Fourplay, which also includes sometime Savannah resident Bob James (yet another legendary jazz musician and composer) on keyboards. One of James' frequent local collaborators is guitarist Howard Paul, who is an old friend of Tom Scott's ...
Six degrees of separation later, Scott comes to the Hostess City to play with the Savannah Jazz Orchestra in Forsyth Park.
And so it goes with jazz.
Joni & George
In 1972, Scott did a session for Joni Mitchell, playing sax and flute on a couple of songs. She was thrilled with the jazzy inflections he gave her music.
"I had done that one record with her, and she said 'Listen, will your band record on my next album?'" he recalls. "She had never, up until that point, recorded with a band. She would overdub a bass player, then send him home, overdub a horn player, then send him home."
Scott and his crackerjack club band, the L.A. Express, joined Mitchell for what would turn out to be her commercial breakthrough, Court and Spark. With Scott's propulsive jazz arrangements, songs like "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris" got the cerebral singer/songwriter on mainstream radio for the first time.
A worldwide concert tour followed, resulting in the live album Miles of Aisles, credited to Joni Mitchell with Tom Scott & the L.A. Express.
The acceptance of her foray into jazz was a major turning point for one of the 20th century's most compelling musical artists. "I can only speculate as to her motives, but I guess she just wanted to move into another area," says Scott. "When you consider where she went on to — some very esoteric jazz exploration — I guess I was kind of the beginning of that.
"It turned into a real good thing for us, in terms of getting the exposure of being her backup band."
After all was said and done, the original L.A. Express disbanded, acrimoniously, and Scott never played another note with Joni Mitchell. But historically, he's regarded as a key player in her musical evolution.
In school, Scott had studied Indian music, with its complex time signatures and difficult nuances, under saxophonist Don Ellis and the Indian ethnomusicologist Harihar Rao.
Rao got Scott, then just 19, session work with his friend Ravi Shankar, on the soundtrack for the film Charly. When he met the legendary sitar player, Scott recalls, "I thought 'I'm the hippest guy on the planet right now.'" They got to work and recorded the East-Meets-West soundtrack.
That was in 1967. Six years later, the Shankar connection landed Scott in a room with George Harrison, who was making a new album and planning his first (and, as it turned out, only) tour of America.
"I became his sidekick, I guess you could say," Scott says, "and I worked on all his records for three or four years."
Harrison's fall 1974 tour, with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, was a disaster. The famously ornery ex-Fab insisted on giving Shankar and a full Indian orchestra equal billing and stage time — a real turn-off for rock audiences — and refused to play more than a handful of songs from his Beatle days.
Worst of all, during the hasty recording of the accompanying Dark Horse album, and tour rehearsals, he lost his voice. Harrison ended up croaking his way from coast to coast. The reviews were scathing.
It was, Scott reports, hard work and prodigious amounts of cocaine that turned Harrison into "Dark Hoarse."
"He was not the strongest, most macho guy I've ever met, you know?" chuckles the saxman. "He was more sensitive — I don't mean gay, he just didn't have a football player's physique. He was a skinny British guy.
"It was a brutal schedule. We had several back-to-back arena concerts. In his other band, George was one of four. He wasn't the only star. So he wasn't prepared to sing every tune for two and a half hours. He hadn't trained properly for it. So that, combined with naughty drugs, all of that contributed to it."
Harrison's career, of course, recovered, and afterwards Scott spend many happy months in England, writing and playing horn charts in his superstar buddy's home studio.
Aja and all that jazz
During this period of high-profile pop work, Scott also found time to work with many of the country's finest jazz artists, including Stanley Clarke, David Sanborn, Ben Sidran, Lee Ritenour, Gabor Szabo, Paul Horn, Richard Tee and Bob James.
His intuitive sense of how jazz and pop should (and could) intersect was used, to great result, on Steely Dan's milestone Aja album. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen recruited Scott to write all the intricate horn and reed arrangements for the album; he played every solo (except for the title track, which was stylishly handled by Wayne Shorter).
"Deacon Blues," "Peg," "Josie," all those great tunes that so many of us know by heart —that's Tom Scott.
He is, he says, more proud of Aja than any other. "That's one of those records that's very unique. It belies the time in which it was made. In other words, you put it on, it could have been made yesterday. It doesn't have 1975 stamped on it, you know?"
These days, with pension money from the musicians' union coming in alongside a steady stream of recording and publishing royalties, Scott says he's got no complaints. "Any penny that comes out of the sky, that I don't have to do anything for, is a plus," he laughs.
There is, however, one thing he would do differently. "Today, musicians are forced out of necessity to be better businessmen," Scott offers. "I wish I had been a better businessman, because I wasted thousands of dollars on bad investments. Eating in expensive restaurants every night, you forget what a tremendous bill that mounts up to over time. How many thousands of dollars you spend doing that. And if I'd lived a little — just a little — more frugally, I'd be a lot better off ... I'm doing fine, don't get me wrong, but it's not like I feel that even at 65 I can just stop working."
Scott thinks for a second. "I could ..." he says, then adds mischievously, "but I'd really have to pare down my lifestyle!"