Simon Spillett tenor saxophonist and author of the book ‘The Long Shadow of the Little Giant’ (The Life Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes) talks to Jack Kenny about the new album ‘Dear Tubby H’ dedicated to the big band music of Tubby Hayes.
What was the most difficult part of putting the band together?
To my surprise, when I formed the big band in late 2019 there were no real headaches at all. Everyone who I asked to be part of it said yes straight away. Without doubt the pull of playing Tubby’s music was key to this. People often think a band like this is an organisational nightmare, or that its ‘all star’ nature presents all sorts of issues (I think there are a dozen bandleaders in their own right in the band). In fact, it’s a very happy band full of spirit and camaraderie and everyone pulls out all the stops to make the gigs happen.
What was your reasoning for the choice of charts for the album?
I wanted to record material from the repertoire of the original Tubby Hayes Big Band that never made it on to the band’s commercially issued albums, Tubbs’ Tours and 100% Proof. The arrangements we’ve focused upon were used on Tubby’s live, TV and radio appearances. It would have been pointless to re-record things people already know, although we do play some of that classic album material on our own gig.
Did you have to make any changes to the charts?
Mark Nightingale digitized all the material, in the process correcting a few copying errors, adding missing parts where they’d gone astray and generally tidied things up. Some of the original charts were tatty, others were third generation photocopies, and we had a handful of things various people had transcribed in varying degrees of accuracy. Mark made all this uniform and the album would have been far more complicated to make had he not done so.
What were Tubby’s virtues as a writer and composer?
Power and passion no matter what the style. And although his writing closely followed the leading jazz fashions of the day – from hard bop through soul jazz, free form and jazz-rock – somehow his musical thumbprint was always recognisable. He was a shrewd synthesizer of all that he heard, which makes his big band music from the early 1960s right up to his death in 1973, a sort of walk through of the contemporary aspirations of modern jazz during those years.
How on earth did you get twelve charts recorded in a day?
Because this band comprises the best musicians around, both as improvisers and section players. Plus, we’d played this material on Festival and club gigs across 2022. Also, the input of Chris Traves as recording engineer was crucial. He made the entire process as easy as it can be, with no stopping for technical hitches and the like. In fact, we finished the session twenty minutes early!
Do you envisage another album from the band?
Yes. There are plans for another volume next year, including more pieces by Tubby, together with charts by Jimmy Deuchar, Harry South, Victor Feldman, John Dankworth and maybe others. I’m already looking at repertoire for this.
What are the difficulties of running a big band that took you by surprise?
Well, I had to learn to be a leader! Working with quartet things are much freer. With the big band I realised how much the band expect me to be able to really direct things and know each chart inside out. It’s been good for my overall musicianship and despite some early nerves when the band started, I’ve gone on to feel really comfortable fronting the band – it’s no longer difficult.
Do you ever feel imprisoned by Tubby?
Yes. I love his music very much but there are other things to me as a musician. It’s not wall to wall Tubby tunes on my gigs. Sadly, the association does have some downsides; occasionally I’ll be dismissed as merely a copyist or a tribute act. Worse still is when people think that’s all you can do – I like many different things in jazz and I sometimes feel as if I’m not given the opportunity to explore them due to the type casting. That said, nobody but me can take the blame for this.
Your research for ‘The Long Shadow’ was extremely impressive. How do you do it? What are the tools that you use?
Patience and detail. Anyone can amass a welter of research material but sifting it into a readable narrative is something else. I like writing that tells a story, with context both social and musical as its framework. Endless pages of dates and facts, as in the recent Phil Seamen biography, are tedious and bog down the narrative – keep all that to the footnotes.
On a practical level, I’ve been fortunate to have collected an archive of vintage jazz magazines and books – these are vital if one wants to understand the wider context of historical music. My writing would be very different if I didn’t have these resources.
If Tubby hadn’t captured your imagination, who else might have enraptured the young Simon? Who now enraptures the present day, Simon?
My favourite saxophonist is John Coltrane. He’s been of equal fascination to me since my teens. As for now? Well, I find myself drawn more and more to much older figure like Coleman Hawkins. I find though that I can become obsessively enthusiastic about any of the greats of this music. I also have tremendous admiration for – and get great inspiration from – the best of my own saxophone playing colleagues; people like Art Themen, Alan Barnes, Alex Garnett, Simon Allen, Pete Long, Sammy Mayne et al. And of course, the guys in my quartet are a constant stimulus too.
Do you have a book in the offing?
I have a book completed entitled ‘Upward, Backwards and Free: A Journey into Jazz’ based upon my own teenaged listening and aimed to break the myth of how one ‘gets into jazz’. I’d like to get that published.
I also have plans for a saxophone tutor book based around advice given in interviews by people like Getz, Ben Webster, Hawk, Zoot, Sonny Rollins and others, combined with insights I learned from my own local heroes when I was coming up, players like Alan Skidmore, Bobby Wellins, Peter King, Duncan Lamont, Don Weller, Art Themen, Danny Moss and Tommy Whittle. I think there’s a need for this right now.
What are the differences between the current UK jazz scene and the one where Tubby thrived?
Opportunity. There are far more musicians now and the technical standard is far better and more consistent. But jazz is now so broad and diverse that a ‘scene’ as such, the tight inner circle of the music Tubbs and co. operated within, is a thing of the past. It’s therefore hard to feel you’re part of the overall fabric of the music sometimes. The press like the new and challenging but I think there is still as much challenge in playing time and changes and standard songs as there was in Tubby’s day. I think you simply have to go your own way and ignore fashion and fad. The core tenets of jazz are still here. I think they always will be for those willing to seek them out.
For more on Simon Spillett, check out the review of “Dear Tubby H”.