Dave Lyons was absent from this gig and is already aware that he missed a corker. We will see you soon, Dave, and wish you well. This was a standout gig of the season for which I have written a review built around the setlist.
Last night, we had a fine quintet of musicians under the co-leadership of Simon Spillett and Pete Long, each one an uncompromising powerhouse on tenor sax, paying tribute to The Jazz Couriers, the UK band that emerged in the late 1950s. Spillett is well-known as the biographer and keeper of the flame of the great tenorist, Tubby Hayes, who formed one half of the frontline of the Jazz Couriers along with Ronnie Scott. Spillett’s close attention to the Hayes legacy has influenced his own playing stance and we were honoured (yes!) to hear what seemed to my ears to be the living embodiment of Tubby Hayes, who died at the absurdly early age of 38 fifty years ago this year. Alongside, we had award-winning repertory bandleader, Pete Long, taking the role of Ronnie Scott, dazzling us with solos galore and flashing a knowing grin at the audience each time, as if to say, “Beat that!” The rhythm section was stunning and versatile in complimenting the two strong tenorists extremely well, but also as a trio when Spillett and Long took a well-earned rest during some numbers. Our pianist was Pete Billington, depping effortlessly and with a beautiful lyricism on many numbers; Alec Dankworth, a truly world-class double bass player who worked the whole length of the instrument and left me reeling each time he took a lead; the wizard that is Pete Cater showing us on many occasions why he is so much in-demand with his controlled pyrotechnics on drums.
The band kicked off with two hard and fast numbers to take us through a rollercoaster ride of emotions to set the scene: the eponymous (as Simon said, “imaginatively titled”) ‘The Jazz Couriers’ followed by the first ever recorded track of the band, ‘Through the Night Roared the Overland Express’, with both tenorists creating a wall of sound as the rhythm section worked busily almost just to keep up.
Bringing the tempo and volume down just a shade, we had ‘Southern Suite Parts One and Three’, a mini masterpiece of big band scoring, written by Hayes and here adapted for quintet, which was originally written for a BBC broadcast.
Throughout both sets, the two tenorists took it in turns to present anecdotes on the background to each number and its place in the career of The Jazz Couriers, as well as the development of post-war British Jazz generally. If this sounds dry, think again. Both Spillett and Long are charismatic performers gifted with a dry observational wit. Simon has immense skill in making the history of jazz come alive, using his infectious passion to explain how British Jazz after the war, stuck in the dance band genre, was languishing behind Swing era American Jazz, until the likes of Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar and a few others arrived on the scene.
As if on cue, the band treat us to the calming, melodic ‘Yesterdays’ by Jerome Kern. The tenors state the theme, then Long takes an excellent solo and soon after Billington’s groove-laden solo leads into an ‘out’ chorus by the two tenors. The first set concludes with Tubby Hayes’ quickstep arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘Love Walked In’.
While the double act of Spillett and Long pays homage to the music of the Jazz Couriers, they are fully aware that they are there to entertain. The audience are kept amused throughout by banter and quips; Long is whips up the audience until they roar and exuberant cheers and cries from both Spillett and Long push the band to ever-higher states of euphoria. This stuff is not for the faint of heart!
The second set drives from the outset with the Silveresque ‘Mirage’, a 1958 composition by Tubby Hayes, already showing his ease with the hard-bop genre. Following on from this is Victor Feldman’s ‘Karen’, dedicated to his niece, which originally featured Tubby Hayes on tenor in Feldman’s big band. Feldman’s vibraphone was an inspiration to Tubby, so much so that one night, when Feldman was late arriving for a club date at the Flamingo club, Hayes took over and played an impromptu version of Bags Groove on vibes to an astonished crowd! Within months, Tubby had begun to play the instrument on his own gigs, astounding everyone. Simon took barely hidden delight in relating the inspiration for a Jazz Couriers favourite and perfect slice of hard bop penned by Tubby, ‘The Serpent’. The Hayes composition is one which could easily pass for the work of Horace Silver and was allegedly dedicated to the outsized manhood of jazz promoter, Bix Curtis. The pace is brought down again with a ballad medley of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’, with Long leading on tenor before segueing into ‘But, Beautiful’ with Spillett taking the lead; both tenorists show how they can play sensitively and sensuously. Jimmy Deucar’s steaming ‘Suddenly last Tuesday’, a reworking of Get Happy, is officially the last number of the set and showcases the talents of each member of the band, not least those of the rhythm section: Pete Billington drawing calls of encouragement and excitement from Long; Alec Dankworth plucking the bass at an impressive pace and Pete Cater excelling and matching the near superhuman stamina of Long and Spillett.
The band had worked themselves ragged but gave us the encore we demanded: a danceband-era workout by Tubby Hayes called ‘Take Your Partners For The Blues’. At the beginning of the gig, Pete Long quipped that bands only play twice at the Fleece, once on the way up and once on the way down and then followed with “It’s good to be back”. He really was joking – our appreciative audience went home glowing and buzzing. For some of them, including an older couple that I sat next to, this brought back vivid memories of the Flamingo Club and Ronnie Scott’s at Gerard St when this reviewer was just a toddler!
In two weeks’ time, on Wednesday 23rd August, we welcome another quintet, Five-Way Split. Co-led by two great musicians, Quentin Collins on trumpet and flugelhorn and Vasilis Xenopoulos on tenor sax, with the golden touch of Rob Barron on piano, virtuosic bassist Mátyás Hofecker and rock-solid drummer Matt Home, Five-Way Split presents a sound that respects the tradition of the hard-bop era whilst also bringing it up to date for today’s audience. With an extensive repertoire of hip material by greats like Jimmy Heath, Cedar Walton and Horace Silver, expect a night of the best swinging and soulful music.