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Simon Spillett

Simon Spillett Quintet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, Corn Exchange Room, Town Hall, Kidderminster, Worcs. 07/07/2022.

by Ian Mann

July 12, 2022


A highly successful event that saw one of the largest crowds of the season visiting Kidderminster Jazz Club for this performance by saxophonist Simon Spillett in the company of the ‘house band'.

Simon Spillett Quintet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, Corn Exchange Room, Town Hall, Kidderminster,
Worcs. 07/07/2022

Simon Spillett – tenor saxophone, John McDonald – piano, John McKinley – guitar, Tom Moore – double bass, Isaac Cortvriend – drums

Kidderminster Jazz Club’s final gig of the 2021/22 season was a highly successful event that saw one of the largest crowds of the season visiting the Corn Exchange Room at Kidderminster Town Hall for this performance by visiting saxophonist Simon Spillett in the company of the ‘house band’, led by pianist John McDonald.

Spillett is a musician with a considerable following and is considered by many to be the natural heir to the late, great Tubby Hayes (1935-73).

He is a technically accomplished and highly fluent saxophone soloist who cites Hayes as his primary source of inspiration. Spillett is also an established authority on Hayes and his music having authored a book about his musical hero in addition to providing the liner notes for numerous archive releases of Hayes material.

Spillett also brings something of himself to the Hayes legacy and to date has released three recordings under his own name, “Introducing Simon Spillett” (2007), “Sienna Red” (2008) and the vinyl only “Square One” (2013). All these have now sold out and are currently only available on the second hand market. My 2008 review of “Sienna Red” can be found here;

Spillett’s regular working band is his quartet, which currently features pianist Rob Barron, bassist Alec Dankworth and drummer Pete Cater. Others who have passed through the band’s ranks include the late pianist John Critchinson, bassist Andrew Cleyndert and drummers Clark Tracey, Spike Wells and the late Martin Drew.

He also runs the Simon Spillett Big Band, which focusses on Hayes’ writing for larger ensembles and also plays arrangements of tunes by Jimmy Deuchar, Harry South and Ian Hamer. The line up features an impressive array of British jazz talent and when at full strength comprises;
Nathan Bray, Mark Armstrong, George Hogg, Freddie Gavita (trumpets), Mark Nightingale, Ian Bateman, Andy Flaxman, Richard Henry (trombones),Simon Spillett, Sammy Mayne, Pete Long, Alex Garnett, Simon Allen, Alan Barnes (saxes), Rob Barron (piano) Alec Dankworth (bass) Pete Cater (drums).

Tonight’s show saw Spillett working with KJC’s excellent ‘house band’, a quartet originally formed to accompany KJC organiser and jazz vocalist Annette Gregory. They have also backed visiting musicians Tina May (vocals) and Alan Barnes (reeds). Tonight’s line up saw a change in the bass and drum chairs with the introduction Tom Moore, best known for his appearances with guitarist Remi Harris, on double bass and Isaac Cortvriend on drums.

There was a poignancy about tonight’s event. In August 2021 Tina May visited Kidderminster and gave a brilliant performance in the company of McDonald and the ‘house band’, then featuring bassist Matheus Prado and drummer Dan Newby. Just seven months later the jazz world was shocked when Tina passed away far too soon in March 2022.

My review of that August 2021 show is here;

A later appreciation of Tina and her music is here;

Tonight the McDonald quartet supported Spillett, May’s partner, again doing an excellent job on what was always bound to be an emotional occasion.

With Spillett specialising exclusively on tenor saxophone the programme concentrated on jazz and bebop standards, with particular emphasis on the music of Hayes and of Sonny Rollins.

Things kicked off with the Hayes tune “Off The Wagon”, the title a knowing self reference to Tubby’s addictive personality and his fondness for alcohol. Spillett set the scene with an opening theme statement and fluent tenor sax solo, this subsequently followed by features for piano, guitar and double bass. The leader subsequently returned with a highly impressive solo tenor sax cadenza towards the close.

Spillett has always been an entertaining and informative communicator between tunes. He informed us that he had been introduced to jazz via his parents’ record collection, which included albums by Nat King Cole. It was a Cole recording that introduced him to the Victor Young song “You’re A Weaver of Dreams”, which was delivered here at a fast clip with Spillett again stating the theme and taking the opening solo, followed by McKinley on guitar and McDonald at the piano. Spillett then engaged in a lively series of exchanges with young drummer Cortvriend before steering things home on tenor.

Spillett is also a drily witty presenter with a penchant for Ronnie Scott style humour. On what had been an eventful day in terms of news he dedicated a tune called “I Never Know When To Say When” to Boris Johnson. The piece was written by Leroy Anderson, best known as a composer of orchestral ‘light music’, some of whose tunes have proved suitable for adaptation by jazz musicians. This was one such example and was a lyrical ballad introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from McDonald. With Cortviend deploying brushes throughout the scene was set for Spillett to demonstrate his considerable abilities as a ballad player, his tone now soft and tender. McDonald subsequently reprised his earlier lyricism at the piano, followed by a melodic double bass solo from Moore. Spillett subsequently took over once more on tenor, including another solo sax cadenza at the close.

Spillett and his colleagues then picked up the pace again as they closed the first set with a romp through the Sonny Rollins composition “Oleo”, an old favourite of Spillett’s that was included on the “Sienna Red” album. This is the kind of bebop inspired ‘tear up’ that Hayes also liked to play and I think I’m correct in stating that it also formed part of his repertoire. Introduced by Cortvriend at the drums this was a high energy way to conclude the fast half with Spillett soloing powerfully above a rapid bass and drum groove. His muscular playing was eventually followed by solos from McDonald at the piano and McKinley on guitar. I’ve also found the latter to be a particularly imaginative and engaging soloist, and tonight was to prove no exception. But Spillett was not about to be upstaged and the latter stages of the performance included another dazzling passage of solo tenor saxophone, this time in an extended feature that was impressive in terms of both stamina and technique.

The second half kicked off with the Tubby Hayes composition “Take Your Partners For The Blues”, which was ushered in by the band, led by McKinley on guitar. Spillett bided his time before making his entrance to deliver the first solo, followed by McKinley on guitar, McDonald on piano and Moore on double bass. The performance also included a further series of exchanges between Spillett and drummer Cortvriend.

Spillett informed us that the Argentinian pianist Lalo Schifrin used to play with Dizzy Gillespie’s band before becoming a celebrated Hollywood soundtrack composer and arranger. The saxophonist included a version of Schifrin’s ballad “The Right To Love” on the “Sienna Red” album but the song has acquired an additional meaning for him following the sad loss of Tina May. Spillett was first introduced to the song by Tony Bennett’s vocal version, but Gene Lees’ lyrics have now gained an additional significance. The song was also recorded instrumentally by saxophonist Stan Getz, this forming the blueprint for tonight’s performance, which Spillett dedicated to Tina May. His sublime ballad playing represented a suitably beautiful tribute and sounded positively ‘Getzian’. Spillett shared the solos with guitarist McKinley and the performance was subtly paced by Cortvriend’s delicate and sensitive brush work. The audience hung on every phrase and during Spillett’s solo sax cadenza at the end one could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

The Getz connection provided a suitable link into “Ricardo”, a bossa style tune written by Hayes in response to Stan’s success and the bossa craze of the 1960s and named for Hayes’ son, Richard. A version of the piece appears on Spillett’s “Sienna Red” album. With Moore and Cortviend laying down a convincing bossa rhythm the solos were shared by Spillett on tenor and McDonald at the piano.

The second set concluded with a tune written by the British born composer Ray Noble, originally from Hove, Sussex, but who made his name in the USA. For jazz fans Noble’s most famous composition is “Cherokee”, the best known of the five movements of the composer’s “Indian Suite”. Written in 1938 it later became a bebop standard and was regarded as something of a ‘test piece’ for saxophonists with both Sonny Rollins and Tubby Hayes recording the tune, as did Charlie Parker and Don Byas. It was also recorded by trumpeters such as Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. Introduced by Cortvriend at the drums, who combined with Moore to provide a driving rhythm throughout, tonight’s performance included a marathon tenor solo from Spillett, which demonstrated his ‘chops’ to the full. McDonald and McKinley eventually followed before Spillett entered into a series of dynamic exchanges with Cortvriend. It was then left to the leader to take things storming out.

The Kidderminster crowd were delighted by this buccaneering performance and the inevitable encore was a lively blues style arrangement of Rollins’ “Sonnymoon For Two” which included features for the whole band, with Spillett followed by McDonald, McKinley and Moore plus a further series of energetic drum breaks from Cortvriend.

This was an excellent way to conclude a season that has managed to run continuously since July 2021, despite the winter Covid restrictions. It was warmly appreciated by the crowd, although for me the head-solos-head format became a little too predictable at times. But this is what Spillett does, and his audience love him for it.

The saxophonist was well supported by the always accomplished house band, who all performed admirably, but there was no doubting that this was primarily Spillett’s show. Without wishing to court controversy it’s probably fair to say that the instrumentalists responded better to the enthusiasm and vivaciousness of the highly interactive Tina May than they did to the drier approach of Spillett and Alan Barnes. Tina’s gig was something special – and seems even more so now, but I’m sure McDonald and McKinley have relished the opportunity to support both halves of that particular jazz partnership.

Kidderminster Jazz Club will be taking a break in August but will return in September 2021 with the Autumn programme as follows;

8th September 2022 – Bruce Adams & House Band

6th October 2022 – Daniel Karlsson Trio

10th November 2022 – Remi Harris Trio

1st December 2022 – Aydenne Simone Trio


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