During his six-year tenure with Santana during the ‘70s, Tom Coster established himself as a player and writer of remarkable versatility and sophistication.
Coster’s second solo album, Ivory Expedition, just released on Fantasy, is a richly-textured, cohesive work by a master of modern keyboard technique and vocabulary.
“One thing I tried to achieve on this album was to create the feeling of a voyage, from beginning to end,” says Coster, who produced the LP with engineer Phil Kaffel. The music indeed covers a lot of emotional territory, from the sensual rhythms of “Zulu Queen” and “Ivory Expedition” to the lush, soulful ballads “I Give You My Love” (performed on acoustic piano) and “Till We Meet Again.”
The Moog Liberation strap-on synthesizer, which appears with Tom on the cover of Ivory Expedition, is a key part of his current direction. “The instrument has really given me a new energy,” Tom declares, “and has affected my playing to a noticeable extent. I play it in a more rock-oriented way, and it’s really opened me up to some new music.
“This instrument is capable of producing many sounds, but the sound I’ve developed is mine and immediately identifiable as such. That’s worth everything in the world to me.”
There are only two guitar solos on the entire album; the rest of the “guitar” leads are by Tom on the Moog Liberation.
The band remains the same as on his T.C. album debut: bassist Randy Jackson, whom Tom met while both were working with Billy Cobham; guitarist Joaquin Lievano, who spent several years with Jean-Luc Ponty; and Journey’s Steve Smith on drums. For the new LP, Tom also utilized two percussionists: Santana conga player Raul Rekow and former Fania All-Star Orestes Vilato, another current member of Santana.
Tom Coster was born in Detroit (8/21/41) and raised in San Francisco, the oldest of three boys. His parents encouraged his early interest in music and he took piano lessons for a few years. But it wasn’t till he discovered the accordion, of all things, that he became truly infatuated with music—he studied the instrument for ten years.
After high school, Tom attended the College of San Mateo for two years, then joined the Air Force for a very productive five-year stint. Stationed in Marin County, California (“The country club of the Air Force”) and then in Alaska, Tom did his military service as a musician. “I was very lucky,” says Coster. “In fact, I attribute most of my education to the Air Force. I studied music eight hours a day, then after-hours there was more studying, playing, jamming, learning.”
By the time Coster got out of the service, rock had changed considerably, and Tom made the transition. He started working the local club scene, and soon acquired a reputation as one of the better keyboard players in town.
In 1969, he joined a jazz-oriented rock group called the Loading Zone, which frequently played the Fillmore West and similar venues. Then in ‘71, Tom took a very enjoyable gig with guitarist Gabor Szabo, and did a lot of writing for the band. But when recording plans failed to materialized after a year and a half, Coster began to look for other work.
There was plenty to choose from: “I was offered a gig in New York with Elvis Presley, Malo had been calling me for months, and on the same day I planned to meet with them, I got a call from Santana. Also, I was about to go to L.A. to see Frank Zappa, because George Duke had gone with Cannonball [Adderley] and recommended me as his replacement. When it rains, it pours!
“The obvious thing, though, was Santana. I kept hearing from everyone I knew that he was into some very hip music. So I took the gig with him [in late ’72] and ended up spending six years of my life with the band.”
Tom first recorded with Santana on Caravanserai, then served as co-producer on Welcome, The Lotus, Borboletta, Amigos, and Moonflower. He also performed on three Devadip Carlos Santana solo albums, including Illuminations with Alice Coltrane.
Coster wrote or co-wrote much of the band’s material as well, notably “Europa” (with Carlos Santana) and “Dance Sister Dance” (with Leon Ndugu Chancler). With Santana, he toured the world on a regular basis and the States “unbelievable amounts of times.”
“Before I joined the band, there had been nothing like ‘Europa’ or ‘Moonflower.’ The orchestration and production of those tunes was a side of me that I brought into Santana.
“The band was a great vehicle for me,” Tom continues, ‘because I was able to stretch out to some degree in live performances. I looked forward to each and every engagement, and there were very, very few where I felt I didn’t contribute 100%—that’s how much I was into it. I also had the opportunity to be up on the latest keyboards; I was always learning.
“Of course there was the writing, too, but very few songs I wrote for Santana were totally mine. They were written in conjunction with Carlos for a specific goal, so I was using my tools more than my soul and my heart. The reasons for my leaving the band [in ‘78] boiled down to expression: it was no longer the kind of thing I wanted to do.”
Coster looked forward to spending some time with his family, puttering around the house, fishing. Almost immediately after leaving Santana, however, he got a call from Billy Cobham, urging Tom to join his band. Coster did play the Montreux Jazz Festival and several other gigs with Cobham, but declined the drummer’s offer for additional work, and went home to lay low as originally planned.
After a couple of years, though, Tom was ready to get back to playing, and set about assembling a band. He did some local club dates, lined up a recording contract, and completed his first solo album T.C.
Probably the last thing Coster expected to be doing this year was touring with Santana, but in fact he’s presently in the middle of a two-month European tour with his former band. “I agreed to do it as a sideman only,” he explains. “In the years since I’ve been with them, I’ve grown stronger as a player and as a human being—it’s quite a different experience this time around. I really did miss Carlos, and I’ve been enjoying the music a great deal.”
Coster’s personal priority for 1983, however, is his own band—“the best cats I’ve every played with in my entire life!”