Primary Instrument: Piano
Tom Lawton grew up in Arcola, PA and attended Methacton High School (remarkable only in that I attended the same school at that time), where he was a brilliant, but chronically truant student. He displayed great promise as a classical pianist, dabbled in British Rock and Roll, and eventually fell into Jazz. He was abbetted in his early education by Philly legend Gerald Price, who gave Tom his early pointers in the art.
He later began studies in Philadelphia with renowned pianist Bernard Peiffer, who had emigrated here from France. After Bernard's death, Tom began a long association with the late bassist Al Stauffer, who had accompanied M. Peiffer for several years.
Tom and Al were once among Philly's most visible proponents of free improvisation and were often seen at the Painted Bride and Khyber Pass back when those venues still supported the style. In ensuing years, they were seen playing more subdued (but no less creative) jazz styles at the Fountain Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel. Tom now just subs at the Four Seasons, but can be seen frequently at Chris' Jazz Cafe. He teaches at Bucks Community College, and is considered by many to be one of Philadelphia's brightest undiscovered talents. His playing is awe-inspiring. Tom defines two handed piano playing. In his younger years he destroyed a number of pianos at our high school. His power is now slightly more well-controlled.
But it’s Lawton himself who consistently grabs the attention across both discs, even when he’s just comping. Often he sounds merely like an admirable but conventional lyrical pianist in an Evans/Hancock vein, or a proficient Hard Bopper, but even on these occasions he smuggles in more adventurous stuff: listen, for instance, to his borrowings from Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor on 'Waxing Schachterian.' But my favorite pieces here are those where he’s at his most mercurial, inside and outside all at once: above all, the two solo pieces, a whirlwind reading of 'Donna Lee' and an extraordinary ten-minute meditation on Wayne Shorter’s 'JuJu:' the pair as different yet complementary as lightning-bolt and thunder. (An all-solo disc by Lawton would be a real treat.) Three pieces include sections of free improvising, which offer some of the most dramatic and surprising music on the album. The piano/drums duet 'Celestial Prism' is delicacy itself; the other two pieces, 'The Norman D Invasion' (with guest clarinettist Norman David) and 'Archetypal Archives' are quintet performances that gradually let go of written material and take off into anything-can-happen open space. Lawton speaks in the liner notes of 'spontaneous orchestration,' and he likes to set the music spinning off in a new direction with his every gesture; this is perhaps his most significant debt to Taylor. Despite its polished surface and its general adherence to mainstream Jazz idioms, 'Retrospective/ Debut' is as exploratory as any of the other discs under review. In some ways it’s the most demanding of these albums, requiring a listener who’s willing to work with it a bit; it also richly repays the effort. —Cadence
Lawton's works are puckish and Monklike, and often skirt the boundaries of mainstream. These takes are surprisingly free, often coasting without the usual chordal forms and featuring choice horn work from trumpeter John Swana, saxophonist Ben Schachter, and clarinetist Norman David. Drummer Jim Miller...and bassist Lee Smith, father of bass virtuoso Christian McBride, provide the locomotion for this challenging, questing session, which huffs, splatters and confounds expectations. —Philadelphia Inquirer
When people talk about jazz meccas in the US..., rarely does Philadelphia come up, which is surprising as there have been a number of great artists to emerge from that city including Pat Martino, Uri Caine and Mickey Roker. With a vibrant scene that includes such outstanding players as pianist Jim Ridl, trumpeter John Swana..., the Dreambox Media label has been devoted to bringing news from the Philadelphia front to a larger audience. With 'retrospective/debut' pianist Tom Lawton, educator and fixture on that scene, finally comes forward with a recording that combines the angularity of Thelonious Monk with a modern compositional edge that avoids the standard 'head-solo-head' format, instead aiming for loftier territory.
With over two hours of compositions dating as early as '74 and as recent as '03, Lawton runs the gamut from straightforward ballad ('Titled') to edgy, irregular-metered intensity ('Placebo Effect'). Breaking the programme up by interspersing solo, duo, trio, quartet and quintet tracks, Lawton writes often-intriguing compositions that can be deceptive. 'Dig the Chartreuse' moves along with a tenor/trumpet frontline that recalls Blakey's Jazz Messengers with a hard-swinging, but ultimately less in-your-face approach; 'FCA' alternates between a straight-time, medium-tempo lope and more ambitious double-time passages. 'The Norman D Invasion' uses a boppish head to trigger freer improvisations; The free improvisations he refers to are not totally out of the ether; they are rooted in established melodic, rhythmic or even textural motifs...The result is free music with a sense of purpose.
This would all be academic stuff if Lawton weren't the pianist that he is. Quirky at times, but with the sense of abstraction that Hancock made so attractive during his time with Miles; he is an inventive soloist with a vivid imagination. On 'Celestial Prism,' in duet with drummer Jim Miller, who is as much about colour and texture as he is about rhythm, Lawton reveals his roots in contemporary classical music as he creates a tone poem that may be essentially spontaneous, but ultimately tells a compelling story.
The rest of the album is filled with clever themes that are developed by the rich playing of everyone involved. Trumpeter John Swana is a standout with a smoky tone and penchant for extended phrasing. Saxophonist Ben Schachter leans towards alternating blustery long tones with oblique phrases that build into flurries of notes.
'retrospective/debut' is an appropriate title as it represents a look back on Lawton's twenty-five year career. A diverse affair that mixes post bop with free jazz that leans to the expressionistic, it is also an overdue introduction to Lawton, and highlights a group of fine Philadelphia players who are every bit as vital and independent-thinking as their counterparts in more considered jazz centres. — All About Jazz
...an arresting, artful piece with classical overtones... —The Metro