Look at the cover of Simon Spillett’s Square One and within the ‘N’ of the ‘One’, behind saxophonist Simon Spillett is a bridge, Barnes railway bridge no less, not far from Spillett’s spiritual home in terms of London jazz clubs, the venerable mainstream redoubt the Bull’s Head. It’s the most doctrinaire of jazz clubs to its detractors; the most ‘proper’, or, ‘purist’, to its supporters, as the pub jazz club is a popular spot for mainly mainstream, straightahead and 1950s hard bop in terms of most of the bands it puts on. Spillett is a self confessed purist and recently this comment was attributed to him: “Jazz will only survive if people are exposed to the music in its purest form.” This actually isn’t particularly helpful as it requires someone to step forward and presumably spell out what jazz purism is. Of course, Spillett is the one to fill that gap, and lets the music do the talking on this question, remarkable for someone who seems much older than his years (he was born after all only in 1974). Why do we need jazz in its purest form, anyway? Surely its hybrid nature from the very start, and broad appeal across continents and stylistic boundaries, makes such an attitude almost impossible to substantiate leaving the very notion just a pliable mantra that means one thing to one person, and a completely different thing to another.
When you hear Square One, instinctively, you can see why the art director of this Gearbox vinyl release, and presumably Spillett himself signing it off, would make this link (the image also appears on Spillett’s website). You can draw a line back via pianist John Critchinson here to Ronnie Scott’s regular band, which Critch for many years was a member of, and long before that back to the Scott and Tubby Hayes co-led Jazz Couriers. Spillett is an expert on Tubby Hayes and here with Spillett’s quartet are drummer Clark Tracey and bassist Alec Dankworth joining Critchinson, all four of them keeping the Hayes spirit well and truly alive. Gearbox makes great play of its all-analogue ethos, and at a time when vinyl is selling more than it has done in years there’s clearly an appetite out there, refreshing in a big way, as we have all become so inured to the terrible audio quality of MP3s. How could we satisfy ourselves that listening to the audio equivalent of a photocopy is good enough for regular use? It’s a mystery that the upsurge in vinyl partly solves: as if enough is enough!
Like the label Spillett is keen to stress the purist approach he takes, and this is bound to raise a few hackles. There is a certain deliberately retro sense of déjà vu on the run-of-the-mill, though spirited, version of ‘A Night in Tunisia’, the stock in the pot. The other choices are better with Jimmy Deuchar’s ‘Bass House’, and Dizzy Reece’s ‘Shepherd’s Serenade’ the main meat, sure to appeal to fans of 1950s and 1960s bop. (‘Serenade’ appeared on the Tony Hall-produced Blues in Trinity, with Hayes taking a wondrous solo on the original 1958 session.) The other tracks, ‘Square One’, Spillett’s own; Mexican songwriter Armando Manzanero’s ‘Yesterday I Heard The Rain’, taken at a formidable clip; and Cole Porter’s ‘In The Still of the Night’ all slip down nicely, and you’d swear if you closed your eyes you were sat at Ronnie Scott’s about half- past-nine in the days before the set times were moved to an earlier point in the evening, listening to the house band, who would often or not have sounded just like this. Critchinson himself (Spillett wasn’t on the scene then) might have been playing the old club piano. I’m not though totally convinced by Spillett’s approach, afraid in a way that the purism is a barrier to more eclectic tastes, but the playing is of a very high standard and it is enjoyable, with great unfettered drive from Clark Tracey who sounds as if he’s in his element. I’ve only heard a digital version of the album so far but I’m sure on vinyl it’s even better, and the track I heard in the Gearbox mastering studio on the in-house deck towards the end of last year certainly had presence. And that’s the whole point: it’s additive free, non glossy, hoary hard bop that values core qualities. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this even if somehow you feel it’s that ultimate romantic gesture, an obsession by Spillett to capture a moment and sound in time and stick to it regardless.
This record will stir debate for sure in terms of “progress” in jazz, to do with repertory, and old styles, although they’re still a musical lingua franca, and above all, 1950s jazz nostalgia. Beyond that and on its own terms the music is beautifully played, with a speed and energy just right for what it intends, and an undimmed passion for a music that now seems so much more of a historical style than most. Playing hard bop so close to some of the first British-based interpreters of the style, as captured on Square One, makes that resemblance all the more striking. Stephen Graham
Released on 25 February. Simon Spillett, top and the cover of Square One, above