by Ian Mann
August 24, 2023
One of the most remarkable jazz performances ever seen at BMJ with a brilliant quartet playing in front of a highly supportive full house. It will live long in the memory of those that were there.
Simon Spillett Quartet, ‘The Music of Tubby Hayes’ Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 23/08/2023.
Simon Spillett – tenor saxophone, Ross Hicks – piano, Ashley John Long – double bass, Alex Goodyear – drums
BMJ’s August event was scheduled for a Wednesday night, rather than the usual Sunday, to avoid clashing with the Bank Holiday Weekend.
It proved to be an inspired decision as a near full house squeezed into the Melville Theatre for the visit of the buccaneering tenor sax specialist Simon Spillett, one of the most popular musicians on the UK jazz circuit.
There was a palpable air of excitement about this gig, which saw Spillett fronting a trio featuring three of South Wales’ finest musicians, pianist Ross Hicks, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Alex Goodyear, all firm favourites with the BMJ audience and regular presences on the Jazzmann web pages.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Spillett performing live on numerous occasions over the years. The most recent of these was an incendiary performance by his regular quartet, featuring pianist Liam Dunachie, bassist Alec Dankworth and drummer Pete Cater at the Guildhall as part of the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival, a show reviewed elsewhere on this site.
It wasn’t much cooler tonight at a crowded Melville as the trio of Hicks, Long and Goodyear blazed just as brilliantly as Spillett’s regular band had done. This wasn’t quite a one off ‘guest soloist with house trio’ performance, both Long and Goodyear had worked with Spillett before, but it was a baptism of fire for young pianist Ross Hicks, who rose to the challenge magnificently and had presumably been recommended to Spillett by his colleagues.
A recent graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) Hicks is rapidly making a name for himself on the local jazz scene and beyond. For a young musician he exhibits an impressive level of maturity as a soloist and has already accrued a remarkable knowledge of jazz piano styles. A recent BMJ performance in the company of the BMJ Collective (Goodyear, saxophonist Jack MacDougall and bassist Clem Saynor) also revealed him to be a composer of considerable promise. Hicks was part of the All Stars of Brecon Jazz sextet that appeared at the 2023 Brecon Jazz Festival, acquitting himself well in the company of much more experienced musicians at a very well attended event at the Guildhall. Again this show is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Tonight’s show was subtitled ‘The Music of Tubby Hayes’ and the entire programme consisted of material written by, or associated with him. Spillett is the UK’s leading authority on the life and music of the late, great saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Edward Brian ‘Tubby’ Hayes (1935-73) and is the author of the acclaimed Hayes biography “The Long Shadow Of The Little Giant”, which was published in 2015.
Spillett continues to keep Hayes’ music in the public eye and has contributed the liner notes to a number of re-issued Hayes recordings. His own albums also feature his own interpretations of Hayes’ material, notably on 2008’s “Sienna Red”, which is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
I was never lucky enough to hear Hayes during his lifetime. My discovery of his music came via the imaginative re-issue programme undertaken by the now sadly defunct Mole Jazz in the early 1980’s. “Mexican Green” and “Tubb’s Tours” were early favourites and I later acquired a couple of live quintet recordings which saw Hayes joined in the front line by the dynamic Scottish trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar. Hayes also worked alongside the late Ronnie Scott in the twin tenor front line of The Jazz Couriers.
In addition to tenor sax Hayes was also an early exponent of the soprano in the UK and also played flute and vibes, encouraged to take up the latter by Victor Feldman. Spillett specialises on the tenor, Hayes’ main instrument, and very much keeps the spirit of Tubby’s music with his powerful,, passionate, fluent soloing. His love of Hayes’ music is obvious and communicates itself well to audiences through his consistently exciting live performances, the music complemented by Spillett’s sartorial elegance and a dryly witty presentation style that owes something to Hayes and to Ronnie Scott.
As a bandleader Spillett runs a tight ship and demands that at all gigs his bandmates join him in being appropriately ‘suited and booted’. I’ve never seen Long, Hicks and Goodyear looking so dapper.
A fiery opening drum salvo from Goodyear set the tone as the quartet launched into the Hayes composition “For Members Only”, with Spillett hitting the ground running with a marathon tenor sax solo that was fuelled by Long’s rapid bass walk and Goodyear’s crisp drumming. Hicks took over at the piano, urged on by Spillett, who had clearly been impressed by the young man’s talents during an intense rehearsal session during the afternoon. A high energy performance concluded with a series of dazzling sax and drum exchanges as the crowd roared their approval.
A second Hayes composition followed, “Grits, Beans and Greens”, a blues written in the 1960s that revealed the influence upon Tubby of the great American saxophonist and composer Joe Henderson. This was introduced by the trio, with Spillett joining them on tenor to state the theme before handing over to Long for the first solo. The Jazzmann has written many times of Long’s breathtaking virtuosity as a bass soloist and his feature here was typically jaw-dropping, his playing dazzlingly fast and well articulated, with much of the playing situated up around the bridge of the instrument. Spillett then took over with a typically powerful and fluent tenor solo before handing over to Hicks at the piano. Spillett’s exchanges with Goodyear then evolved into a full on drum feature as the energy levels continued unabated.
“There’s more to Tubby than just fire and energy” explained Spillett as he introduced “Dedication To Joy”, a ballad written for the American jazz vocalist Joy Marshall, who relocated to London in 1962 and with whom Hayes had an affair, notwithstanding the fact that Marshall was married to another of the musicians in Tubby’s big band. The famously feisty Marshall died of a drug / alcohol overdose in 1968.
Hayes and Marshall may have had a tempestuous relationship but his dedication to her is a lovely and tender tune and one that here showcased Spillett’s abilities as fluent and sensitive ballad player. At Spillett’s prompting the tune was introduced by an “impressionistic” passage of unaccompanied piano from the resourceful Hicks and also included a melodic bass solo from the excellent Long, who also flourished the bow during Spillett’s solo. The performance was crowned by a stunning solo sax cadenza from the leader.
As Spillett explained Hayes liked to dedicate his compositions to friends and bandmates, one such example being “Supper at Phil’s”, a dedication to the great British drummer Phil Seaman, a larger life character who played in some of Tubby’s groups but, like Marshall and Hayes, died far too early. This saw the quartet ramping up the energy levels again in a high octane performance that was reflective of Seaman’s personality. Hicks took the first solo at the piano, followed by Spillett who ‘dug in’ at length on tenor before handing over to Goodyear for a volcanic drum feature, with the leader then finally ‘bringing it home’.
Following this dynamic performance I was expecting Spillett to call a break but he and the quartet clearly still had plenty of gas in the tank. There was a brief opportunity for the musicians to recharge their batteries as Spillett told us something of Hayes’ first visit to the US in 1961 as the Musicians Union laws in both the US and UK became less restrictive. Ronnie Scott was determined to bring American jazz musicians to London to play in his club and in a kind of musical ‘exchange visit’ US saxophonist Zoot Sims came to play at Ronnie’s with Hayes going to Manhattan to perform at the Half Note. Hayes played in front of a sceptical audience that included Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Desmond and totally blew the American fans away with his performance, helping to put British jazz on the international jazz map.
During his time in the States Hayes recorded the album “Tubbs in New York”, working with a group of American musicians that included the trumpeter Clark Terry. Terry wrote the composition “Opus Ocean” for Hayes, drawing on those two jazz staples, the blues and the chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. The result was a great ‘blowing tune’ played at an accelerating tempo and here including effusive solos from Spillett and Hicks plus a closing series of tenor / drum exchanges. An excellent end to a brilliant, and largely highly charged, first set.
As one might have expected the quartet came roaring out of the blocks again for set two, which commenced with “Dear Johnny B”, Hayes’ dedication to the drummer Johnny Butts. The leader’s solo combined an admirable stamina with astonishing technical ability, throwing down the gauntlet to Hicks and Long, who both responded with virtuoso solos of their own, with Hicks’ offering arguably his best solo of the night thus far. The piano had been a bit too low in the mix early on but became more audible as the evening progressed.
This was followed by an intriguing Hayes arrangement of the jazz standard “By Myself”, a song written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. This was introduced by the trio playing a Latin groove, featuring, as Spillett put it, “the myriad bass patterns of Ashley John Long”. The arrangement demanded a change to a more usual bebop style 4/4 for the individual solos with Hicks again impressing at the piano. He was largely invisible behind the Melville’s trusty upright but his playing was excellent, following a lineage of fine pianists that have accompanied Spillett, among them Liam Dunachie, Craig Milverton and the late, great John Critchinson. Long’s typically brilliant solo incorporated some dramatic flamenco style strumming, before Goodyear rounded things off with a fiery drum feature.
A pause for breath (metaphorically speaking) with this set’s ballad, a Hayes arrangement of the Tommy Wolf / Fran Landesmann song “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”. Hayes was inspired by the Stan Getz recording of the song and tonight’s interpretation began with a passage of unaccompanied piano from Hicks that evolved into a piano / sax dialogue as Spillett entered the proceedings. Double bass and brushed drums were subsequently added with lyrical solos coming from both Spillett and Hicks, followed by Long’s melodicism at the bass. Spillett again included an unaccompanied sax cadenza at the close.
Spillett continued to tell us something of Hayes’ life story, recounting that Tubby “enjoyed a pint or twelve”. Hayes’ dissolute lifestyle saw him hospitalised with thrombosis in the autumn of 1966 with doctors telling him to cut out the booze. It was this experience that inspired a tune that has become one of his most popular compositions, “Off The Wagon”. Incidentally Hayes’ love of beer inspired another of Clark Terry’s compositions for him “Pint of Bitter”.
Tonight’s high energy performance of “Off The Wagon” featured typically exciting solos from Hicks, Spillett and Long, the bassist’s feature evolving into a dialogue with Goodyear’s drums. At the close Spillett introduced the concept of the solo sax cadenza to one of the more uptempo numbers.
I was pleased that Spillett and the quartet decided to sign off with “Don’t Fall Off The Bridge”, one of my favourite Tubby Hayes tunes and a real rabble rouser of a piece that offered the opportunity for the most dynamic playing of the night. Spillett’s barnstorming tenor solo was fuelled by the energy and inventiveness of the trio, with Hicks also excelling as a soloist. Most dramatic of all was Goodyear’s astonishing drum feature, which commenced with a dazzling display of bare hand drumming before reaching boiling point as he finally picked up his sticks. This was a truly volcanic solo, audibly and visually compelling and quite simply mesmerising. I was reminded of keyboard player Dave Stewart’s comment about his late colleague Pip Pyle “playing the drums like an octopus on amphetamines” - but Pyle never played the kit when wearing a suit and tie! The audience roared their approval for Goodyear as Spillett took up his tenor for a final statement of Hayes’ theme.
This was one of the most remarkable jazz performances ever seen at BMJ with a brilliant quartet playing in front of a highly supportive full house with many of the audience members taking to their feet to give Spillett and his colleagues a standing ovation. This was the first time that this combination of musicians had appeared as a quartet but one would never have known it and the BMJ ‘local heroes’ received great encouragement from the highly supportive Spillett, who was later to remark about just how much he had enjoyed this gig. His closing remarks at the end of the performance emphasising the importance of supporting live music also drew a great response from the crowd.
This was one of the great BMJ nights and will live long in the memory of those that were there. All of the musicians ‘played their asses off’ and the gig also served as a reminder of the importance of Tubby Hayes in British jazz history. In addition to being a great player he also wrote some excellent tunes, with Simon Spillett doing more than anyone to keep his legacy alive.
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