SIMON SPILLETT - SO MUCH MORE THAN TUBBY REINCARNATED.........
Playing with Simon over a number of years has enabled me (I hope) to get under the skin of his playing.
His big, strong sound and his amazing technique and stamina at ultra-fast tempos we are all familiar with. But I have heard him turn his hand easily to more styles than even the chameleon Joshua Redman can manage!
I was on the stand with Siomn at the 606 a while back when (for whatever reason – he can be quite enigmatic) he treated the assembled company to a wicked and uncannily lifelike parody of Dexter Gordon.
When doing a pianoless trio gig (preferably with Dave Green on bass), he gives us an amazing dose of authentic Sonny Rollins.
If he feels the mood and the audience are right, he launches into a sustained Coltrane outpouring of which Alan Skidmore would be proud……….
Am I beginning to give the impression that there is no personal centre to Simon’s music? That is not what I mean at all. There is always passion and meaning in whatever he does. And although he is both jack and master of many trades, I sense that, at this stage in his career, he is probably settling instinctively into more of a “Coltrane bag” and seeking beyond the polished hard bop of Tubby and Ronnie Scott which have been his previous inspirations.
But of course Simon found his initial niche on the British jazz scene with a (self)conscious homage to Tubby Hayes. He cut a figure, with his suit and tie and stage-manner (including dry Ronnie-esque humour), deliberately at odds with his scruffier and less communicative contemporaries and harking back to the 50s and 60s.
It filled a gap and met a need.
When Simon started to become known and appreciated by fans old enough to have heard Tubby, Ronnie and the rest in their youth, the simple fact is that there was NO other young tenor player around to whom it had occurred to try to revive classic British hard-bop. And certainly no-one else who would have been even capable of distilling Tubby Hayes.
Simon’s format is the classic quartet. John Critchinson (ex-Ronnie Scott quintet mainstay) was a constant presence, with his driving, busy, New York piano style. On bass there was Andy Cleyndert, followed by Alec Dankworth. The first drummer was another Ronnie Scott alumnus, Martin Drew. After him, I got the call, presumably on the basis of my past association with Tubby Hayes himself, and latterly Simon has also used Clark Tracey.
Because Simon is highly (in my view over-) self-critical, he has recorded very little: to my knowledge, only 3 CDs under his own name with his own group. Introducing Simon Spillett in 2006 with the original line-up; Sienna Red in 2007 with me on drums, being the definitive recorded Tubby Hayes tribute; and, after a long gap, a mini-CD in 2013 for the specialist Gearbox label Square One with Critch, Dankworth and Tracey.
Now why did Simon (wherever he is now going) start with Tubby and co? It was NOT opportunism. He really knows, respects and loves the music of Tubby’s circle and era. And he not only p(l)ays it musical tribute. He also writes about it.
In fact, I’m not sure that he isn’t as good a writer as he is a musician. His magnum opus is a course the long-awaited definitive biography of Tubby Hayes The long shadow of the little giant. It was published to critical acclaim in 2015 and has run to a 2nd edition – an extraordinary feat for an over 350 page book on British jazz!
I believe he is currently planning another book-length biography but meanwhile the number of magazine articles and informative booklet-notes he has written for a wide variety of CD issues is staggering. All of them are meticulously researched, historically accurate and accessible in a friendly, journalistic style. Particularly impressive is his essay on Booker Ervin which accompanies a recent Box Set.
So Simon’s passion for the 1950s and 60s (and it’s not just the jazz but the wider social and cultural scene) comes through not only on the saxophone but on his laptop.
His only peer as a sociological writer on the British jazz scene is Dave Gelly, whose An unholy row – jazz in Britain and its audience 1945-1960 is a near-masterpiece which I would recommend to anybody. But then Dave, unlike Simon, is very much a part-time musician. Simon, in his combination of talents, is unique.
I just bet he wishes he had been born earlier enough to have heard the “Jazz Couriers” live………………..