Simon Spillett Interview
On what would have been the 80th birthday of British jazz legend Tubby Hayes we talk to saxophonist and writer Simon Spillett about his upcoming gigs celebrating the music of Tubby, as well as his many other activities.
Hi Simon, so you’re performing at The Verdict in Brighton on Friday 20th February, 2015. Tell us a bit about the musicians that you’ve got in the band.
“It’s sort of the veteran British jazz A-team. John Critchenson on piano, who I think everybody knows from his lengthy association with Ronnie Scott. Dave Green on bass, who has worked with everybody. Every time I work with Dave it’s sort of a history lesson because he’ll suddenly let slip that he did a tour with Sonny Rollins and he did two weeks with Ben Webster so it’s like British jazz history. And then it’s Spike Wells on drums who of course everyone knows. He’s Brighton’s jazz son these days.
That’s the quartet. As you know we’re doing gigs to celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of Tubby Hayes. And of course all of those guys worked with and knew Tubby. Spike has probably got the most direct connection because Tubby kind of discovered him in 1968 and that was really the start of Spike’s jazz career. Spike has often said to me that he came in at the very top and the only way was down.”
You’ve played at The Verdict before. What do you think of the venue?
“I have and The Verdict is very, very nice. It’s nice to play somewhere that’s a dedicated jazz venue. The thing about the jazz circuit, particularly the one that I work on (the ‘grassroots’ circuit), you tend to work in a wide variety of places. You might be playing in ‘a jazz club’ when really it’s just the back room of a pub that’s been annexed for that particular evening. The Verdict’s really nice because it feels like a jazz club and it’s got that kind of slightly retro feel to it. It’s just got a vibe to it and of course you feel like you are playing somewhere where there’s some sympathy from the management, which you don’t always get if you’re stuck somewhere in the back room of a pub. Andy’s done a fantastic job and I know that he’s had some issues with that venue and he’s struggled hard with it but I think it’s a great place to play.”
You’ve mentioned Tubby Hayes as an influence. Who are the main influences that you have?
“Apart from Tubby, there’s lots. Tubby was just one part of a wide spectrum of players that I listened to when I first started out. My favourite saxophone player of the lot is John Coltrane but there are so many people that have influenced me as a saxophone player: Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Zoot Simms, Stan Getz. Hank Mobley has been a massive influence. Over here, of the British guys people like Dick Morrissey and Bobby Wellins, who I know very well and who I’m working with at Ronnie’s in February. Alan Skidmore, Peter King. Anybody and any of those classic saxophone voices. But there are some fantastic younger players these days as well like Alex Garnett and Brandon Allen. They’re really flying the flag for what I would call ‘real jazz saxophone’.”
I read somewhere that you weren’t happy about the albums that you’ve recorded. Why not?
“I never set out to make records. I set out to play gigs. But then one things happens after another. You release an album and then you release another album and another. I’ve been very fortunate, I can’t really complain. All of the albums have received very, very good press and I have to say they’ve sold pretty well too. But I haven’t yet made an album that I feel completely comfortable with and when I listen back to them I sometimes, probably like all musicians do, I hear the things that I should have done differently. I’d still like to make another record one day but it’s not a natural thing for me. I find playing gigs very natural and the natural environment of working with an audience and the vibe of a place. But recording I find very sterile and I haven’t managed to find the right balance between spontaneity and suddenly realising there’s a recording microphone there. It’s a difficult one. I think some guys are very, very suited to recording. I tend to be a little bit more self-conscious when I get in a studio.”
How about a live album?
“Funnily enough, people have suggested that and it’s something, I suppose it would get around the self-consciousness of ‘here we are, it’s 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, we’re in a studio and we’ve got to make a jazz record’. I’m perhaps too critical of what I do and I think, until I’ve reached a certain balance in my playing I don’t think I’d really like to record anything at the minute. And then of course these days you’re at the mercy of YouTube where people just turn up and whatever you do ends up somewhere which I’m very strongly opposed to.”
What about all the other stuff, aside from performing, such as composing, arranging and teaching.
“I haven’t composed in years, not since they’ve took the piano. I used to do a lot of composing at one point and very early on in my career, before I’d even put one foot on the ‘rung of recognition’, if you want to call it that, I used to play a lot of my own compositions. The first album that I did I think there were 3 or 4 of my own tunes on there. But funnily enough, as it’s gone on, I’ve generally been using other people’s compositions. Also, a lot of the venues that I played, you’re drawing on the Great American Songbook and the Great Jazz Songbook from the 1950s and 1960s. So that’s enough to keep me busy. I used to do a bit of teaching, I still do the odd bit from time to time, but I’m very fortunate in many ways in that what I do is play the saxophone and, as you know, I write a bit – sleeve notes and I’ve got a book on Tubby coming out in March. So that’s a second string to the bow and it kind of fits in nicely with the playing.”
In terms of your writing, how did you get into it and what do you get out of it?
“I suppose I was always interested in reading about jazz. When I was a teenager and getting into jazz I was a vociferous reader about anything about jazz that I could get hold of. There’s always something appealing about flipping an album over and reading the sleeve notes. A few years ago, it must have been 2000 or 2001, I did a couple of sleeve notes for a couple of albums. There was a Gerry Mulligan album that came out, an Eddie Lockjaw Davis album came out, that I was asked to do the sleeve notes for and it spiralled from there. With sleeve notes there’s a bit of a sniffiness about them, it’s like ‘they’re redundant, all we need is the music, let’s just listen to the music’. Miles famously said that he didn’t want any notes on his records. I think that’s valid in terms of new recordings. I mean the last album that I put out didn’t have any sleeve notes because there’s nothing really to be said about it. But if you’re looking at historic material…to give you an example, I’ve just done a really big booklet note for a forthcoming John Coltrane box set. And when it’s historic stuff, it’s nice to put it in context and that’s really my forte as a writer – writing about the history of jazz. I have done sleeve notes for new jazz albums. The last one of those I did was the notes for Clark Tracey’s new album and it’s really funny, writing about people that you know and work with. It’s very different to writing about people who you are never going to bump into. I could probably write something about a famous American bass player from 50 or 60 years ago and it’s a fait accompli, his work is done, but if you’re writing something about a new star that’s on the scene or a new band then your views tend to be, when they’re on the sleeve, they’re sealed in aspic. People can turn round and say ‘did you really write that about them?’ so it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword.”
How do you go about promoting yourself? Do you have an agent or do you do it all yourself?
“I do it all myself. People often ask me if I have an agent. Probably, if I’m realistic, a musician with my kind of profile, doesn’t need an agent because I’m not working in those kind of circles. If you’re a Claire Martin or a Jamie Cullum, people who are further up the tree of recognition, like Liane Carroll or someone like that. They would be the kind of artists who I would think would have agents. I do it all myself. There’s a traditional view that as a freelance jazz musician you sit around and you wait for the phone to ring. But I’ve never looked at it like that. It’s part of the job, letting people know you are there, building up a network of promoters and fellow musicians and keeping an eye on the scene, to see what new venues are popping up. And again that’s a balance – you have to draw a fine line between one of those people who is emailing every jazz club promoter in the country 24-7 or leaving it as a sort of cyclical thing. I tend to hustle in a much more low key way than that but I generate all my own work.”
Are you ambitious at all? What kind of ambitions do you have for the future?
“Basically, the bottom line is that I’d like to improve as a musician. I’m a great believer in a sort holistic thing with music: if your music improves, it’s like the law of attraction, if it’s getting better then better things will come. So I’d just like to improve technically as a saxophone player. There are a lot of things that I can’t do and a lot of things that I’d like to be able to do. The saxophone is a lifetime’s work. It’s a lifetime’s challenge. It’s never boring in that regard. It can be very frustrating when you reach a brick wall and you just can’t get past it but that’s the general thing – to improve. Some people look at careers in terms of how high is your profile, how many Facebook followers have you got and all this kind of stuff. To me it’s about playing the music and if I’m playing well then I feel that I have the confidence to work more. So basically it all stems from trying to play as well as I can and do as well as I can to improve that.”
Tell us a bit about your practice routine.
“At the moment it’s quite patchy. It’s much more patchy than it’s ever been and to be honest it’s a cause of frustration. But in terms of the actual basic practice routine, it’s the one that I’ve had since I was studying in my teens. People probably think that once you get to the level of a professional musician you abandon all of that but you don’t. All the basic things that you’re taught as a saxophone student: long notes, scalar exercises, running through chords and arpeggios and all the basic technical things are at the heart of everything that, I think, a working jazz musician does. Certainly as far as I am concerned. A lot of the time, practice for me is maintenance. It’s maintaining your game. And if you don’t have enough time to practice and the gigs are further and further apart then you really do notice the impact on your fluency. For example, I’m working five nights this week and that’s wonderful because I know that by the end of the five nights I’m going to feel far more connected to the saxophone than the first night.”
What do you do outside of the jazz world? Do you have any interests that aren’t jazz-related?
“That’s a difficult one. It’s been all-consuming really. I read. I’m an avid reader of what I would describe as modern history. Partly through writing about Tubby and exploring that period, I’m pretty hung up on and fascinated about Britain in the Fifties and Sixties. I read a lot about that and I’ve got a little bit of a retro-head on where those sorts of things are concerned. The culture of Britain at that point: movies, the arts, even the pop scene. It’s a very strong draw for me.
I relax mainly by…a lot of driving! To and from gigs and that is, in a way, my downtime. It sounds like a strange thing to say. I’m always listening to people and checking out records. I don’t really switch off. To be honest with you, I’m not even sure I know how sometimes.”
Your answers are very clear and concise. I’ve done some quite long interviews in the past, often with saxophone players who talk a lot.
“I think I’ve worked with him! That could be any number of people. It’s really weird because one of the things I’ve done a lot of over the years, in the past ten years since I’ve really arrived on the scene, is interviews. I seem to have done a disproportionate amount of interviews and I don’t seem to get flummoxed by it. I know what some guys are like, they’re very sort of inarticulate and slightly monosyllabic or they go the other way.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to say, anything that we haven’t covered?
“I’ve always been strongly associated with the Tubby thing and all of that. And I realise that that has helped enormously in terms of opening doors for me. That’s only part of what I do. It’s not the whole defining thing of what I do. I sometimes think people get a little blinded to that. I love his playing, I like playing his compositions, I like the whole spirit of that era and that British jazz vibe from the Fifties and Sixties. But at the end of the day, I am a musician working in a very different cultural climate to guys from those days. We are living in a world of the internet, Facebook and social networking and all of that. And no, I don’t buy into all of that necessarily, but I realise that jazz can’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t really play like it’s 1960. I’ve heard a lot more things that have come after that and they do seep into your playing.”
“I’ve been doing a bit of free playing recently with a very good percussionist called Trevor Taylor and he came out of the free scene in London in the Sixties and Seventies, working with people like Trevor Watts, Mike Osbourne and those kind of guys. So I do some of that and I like dipping my toe in that water because it’s really different. It gives me a chance to play things on the saxophone that I wouldn’t get away with if I was playing standards in a pub. It’s good and it broadens your scope. I thinks the public sometimes see you or they define you by a) what’s on your records and b) the kind of publicity that you’ve received. And sometimes they don’t scratch any further than the surface. I think that’s quite a shame because all musicians are far more eclectic than sometimes listeners might give them credit for.”
Simon Spillett performs at The Verdict in Brighton on Friday 20th February, 2015.
His book The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes will be published by Equinox on Wednesday 25th March 2015.
Simon also appears in the forthcoming documentary Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry, to be released this summer.
This interview appeared in the February 2015 issue of SJM.
Photograph of Simon Spillett kindly provided by Brian O’Connor of www.imagesofjazz.com.