Simon Spillett Interview with Erminia Yardley

Written by | Artists, Interviews, News

As a writer and journalist, I consider myself lucky, indeed, I am very grateful to all the incredible musicians and artists who have allowed me in their homes, their dressing rooms, backstage of theatres to chat with me about their music, their careers and more!

To this extent, I am thankful to Simon Spillett: tenor saxophone player with extraordinary talent, humble musician and, most of all, in times of technical difficulties… a very patient man!

Spillett – the musician

1. Let’s talk about Simon Spillett the player, how did it start for you?

It all began before I knew it! My Dad is a jazz fan and was a musician so there were records around the house from day one. I was really fortunate in that I never had to “get into” jazz – it was just one of the types musics I heard around me as I grew up. Originally I wanted to be a singer then a trumpet player – after seeing Louis Armstrong in a film – then a trombonist, as that’s my Dad’s instrument. I dabbled a bit on cornet aged eight then played trombone from 13 to 16. I was really fortunate that we had lots of musical instruments at home, including three saxophones. In my teens two of my idols were Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond so I gravitated towards the alto at first. Then it was the tenor – I loved Getz, Coltrane, Rollins and was really taken with contemporary players like Branford Marsalis and Courtney Pine so eventually I decided to stick to tenor, around aged 17. I turned professional aged 21, after around two and half years tuition with Vic Ash, a great player and a lovely man, who was the first person to really get me thinking seriously about my instrument.

2. You normally play the tenor sax, but what about the other ones? Do you have a preference?

I used to love playing alto – you hear things differently on another horn, at least for a set or two and then all the same stuff comes out but in a different key. I haven’t played alto in ages although I recently tried Alan Barnes’s horn – something which was a traumatic experience for all involved!

I still play soprano from time to time and really enjoy it but, as everybody from Coltrane on down has said, it’s another beast altogether and you need to be doing it consistently – going between tenor and soprano – for it to really work. If I play a soprano these days I really feel the after effects if I go back on tenor. I’ve tried the baritone a couple of times but never pursued that further. As for the woodwind doubles, I sold my clarinet and flute years ago – I’d never devoted enough time to them to really call them “doubles”, although I loved playing the clarinet on function gigs – just tunes though, not jazz. I think I’ve got my hands full with the tenor – it’s a constant challenge.

3. I recall you saying you don’t record anymore – why?

As a start, I hate the recording process and it clearly shows in the end results. I’m not going to be coy about this – I don’t like the albums out there under my own name at all. This isn’t me doing a “Ratner” – it’s just me being honest. I get edgy, nervous and very unsure and I just lose it when recording – that’s just how it is. I’ve avoided doing anything in the way of recording for years now but I recently appeared on someone else’s album which was much less pressured. However, I still think I did a terrible job and am not proud of my playing on it in any way. I could point out a million things wrong with my playing but a recording does all that in one go. I just prefer to play gigs as I find them so much more relaxed and natural to do. It would be lovely to make a recording I actually like one day but I don’t think that’s in me. I also think I badly let down the people and labels who recorded me in the past by not being at my best, which I feel awkward about.

4. Which is your favourite venue and why?

That’s a tough one.  In general, I prefer more intimate venues rather than arts centres or concerts. Of course, playing Ronnie’s is special but there are other places I love to play at too – the Wine Vaults in Bath has great atmosphere; a real Left Bank 1950s kind of vibe, and I love the gig at the Eagle in Rochester as the audience are so so enthusiastic. It’s hard to pick a favourite venue but I can name favourite towns and cities – oddly enough I always seem to enjoy every gig I do in Birmingham and Brighton, I’m not sure why but I have really good associations with those places. Maybe I’m working alphabetically?!

Spillett – the writer

5. Last year you finished writing two very iconic CD booklets: “Tubby Hayes Live at The Top Alex 1973” and “Trane ’90”, the latter to coincide with Trane’s anniversary this year.  Can you let the readers know how this experience was for you?

Well, you’re talking about my two favourite saxophonists right there so anything to do with them is special to me. I’ve written lots about Tubby but never get tired of it – the Tubby CD you refer to was a real forensic labour of love, which is how I’m increasingly finding sleeve note writing these days. If it’s British jazz, I like to go and see the venue, find out who was there, include their memories and find photos or press clippings to give some historic perspective. I recently did a similar thing with a Dick Morrissey live session recorded in 1972 – I found the pub where it was recorded, found some of the musicians who were on the gig and tried to make a real historic document of the entire thing. Of course, people sometimes say these old recovered recordings aren’t valuable if they’re recorded on poor equipment or in less than pristine sound quality. I disagree and like to think of a comment a friend of mine made about how you’d feel it you found a previously unknown photo of a relative years after they’d gone – to me these things are as much cultural souvenirs as musical documents.

Writing about Trane presents more issues: for Trane ‘ 90 I didn’t want to just regurgitate all the previous stuff that other sleeve notes have already. It was a big project and required a lot more thought so I tried to come in at some unusual angles – both for and against. I looked at those who didn’t like him as well as those who did and I wanted to make particular mention of his rather bizarre “Three Wishes” given to Baroness Nica De Koenigswarter in her book – they don’t seem to be widely known at all. I also wanted to examine his influence in a less sycophantic way; he changed the landscape of jazz certainly but there were those whom he completely derailed because his musical message was so strong. We needn’t be shy of these things – Coltrane’s musical importance is set in stone so that it takes nothing from him to admit that he left a lot of people confused about where to go next.

6. There have been a lot of celebrations and write-ups on Trane this year, more so to celebrate a genius that we lost far too soon.  What is your view on Trane and why?

Coltrane is the ultimate saxophonist – he could, quite literally do it all. And when you consider that he had a recording career of roughly a dozen years what he did becomes even more impressive – it’s one of the greatest bodies of recorded music ever, all set to disc in a remarkably concentrated period and in that journey he goes from bop to free improvisation in one fascinating, logical and interconnected line. It’s a development from beginning to end – there are no sudden jumps onto other bandwagons or about faces – it’s all organic. And the breadth of his music is astonishing. I’ve heard people complain that his music is too serious and intense and not melodic enough – to which I’d ask if they’d heard the album Ballads? That’s the thing about Coltrane – it’s the same man playing Sun Ship and Nancy With The Laughing Face, yet a new listener might think it was two different players on first listen. The other great lesson Coltrane taught people was that in order to go forward you sometimes need to abandon what you can already do – he never truly let go of anything he did but you can hear him stripping things back, especially in 1964-65. Crescent is my favourite Coltrane album – it’s a record of stunning elegance and deep melancholy and his sound on that album is absolute perfection. Another thing about him was that he created a genuine language of jazz – trace the sheets of sound phase through the Giant Steps phase and onward and you can hear a guy with a real voice rather than a tone. There are moments when it’s genuinely frightening like on Om or  Live in Seattle or The John Coltrane Quartet Plays – his soprano solo on Chim Chim Cheree sound like he’s talking in tongues – it’s like Sumerian or something deep and ancient and indecipherable. That’s how it gets me. As I said, fifty years after his death, he’s still the ultimate saxophonist.

7. You write and contribute quite a lot for Acrobat Records.  How did this come about and are you envisaging this to be an on going venture?

I stated working on album projects with the Acrobat label back in 2012 when they released some previously unissued Tubby Hayes live recordings. Since then I’ve worked on over thirty more albums with them – mainly of vintage British jazz but also some American artists like Coltrane, Miles, Zoot Sims and Coleman Hawkins. It’s a great partnership and I’m really pleased with how the albums have been received in the jazz press. It was a lovely moment when the Miles Davis box we did made into DownBeat‘s best releases of the year – I got interviewed by the Washington Evening Post, which was a tad strange – an English writer being asked about an American jazz icon doesn’t quite add up, does it? I’m also pleased to say that several of the albums I’ve compiled or written notes for have won various awards (there are three nominated in the 2017 British Jazz Awards – on three different labels!)

I just try to make each album more than a simple reissue: we find press cuttings, photos and other ephemera and include in-depth booklets in which I try to include some new information about the music on offer. To me, the reissue/archive issue market is littered with labels who just pump out stuff with no perspective at all, something that only adds to the “cheapening” of older jazz music that digital downloads and streaming have contributed to society! I treat each Acrobat release as a challenge: what can we do to make this the definitive issue? I spend weeks assembling the essays – I really do care about this stuff. The last project I completed was a boxed set of Booker Ervin, one of jazz’s oft-overlooked figures. There was virtually no information on him at all so I went digging and came up with everything from previously obscure school photos to the fact that the date of his death was recorded wrongly in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz! I’m really proud of this one – it was sheer pleasure to do and rather than simply concentrate on the recordings in the box I used the opportunity to write a 50 page (over 23,000 word) mini-biography of Booker, tracing his family tree and his living relatives. It’s probably the best bit of writing I’ve ever done – and I’m never happy about anything I write!

8. You have also written an incredible tome on Tubby Hayes.  In my review of that book, at the time, I asked when would we be seeing a blue plaque at his home address.  This finally happened last August! So can you tell the readers how the whole event come about and your feelings on the day of the unveiling. 

All this came about through the hard work of the truly indefatigable Mark Baxter, mastermind behind the 2015 documentary film Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry (Mono Media). Mark made all the right overtures to the powers that be and amazingly it happened!
The actual unveiling day was surreal: I’d been past the house in West Wimbledon – Tubby’s home for the first sixteen or so years of his life –  several times but this time I was inside with Tubby’s son Richard, and the lovely couple whose home it now is. Admittedly it was difficult to envisage how the house must have been during Tubby’s childhood but just to be there was special. Richard unveiled the plaque but I’d had to honour of ascending a step ladder to set up the red curtain. It was weird – I remember thinking “I’m standing on a ladder outside Tubby Hayes’ house Blu-Tacking a curtain to the wall! How on earth did this happen?!” But that’s it – that’s the power of Tubby’s music and I’m thrilled that he now has a lasting memorial in place.

9. Are you writing or planning to write anything at the moment?

I have some commissions for other labels in the pipeline; I’ve been asked to write the notes for a previously unissued Joy Marshall album featuring John McLaughlin and am collaborating with Nick Duckett (Rhythm & Blues Records) on his on-going Soho Scene series. We started working together earlier this year on a Harry South boxed set (a lovely project to do) and it’s just gone on from there. I’ve also just done a genuine LP sleeve note for an album by American saxophonist Paul Jeffrey – that was nice to do as it was a record I’d originally bought back when I was eighteen. It just keeps rolling on…there’s also a rumour that Tubby’s legendary unissued 1969 sessions for Fontana will see the light in 2018. I hope to be in on that…

Spillett – the award winner

10. You have won the British Jazz Award and played with some veterans of the jazz world.  How has that affected you, if at all? 

Awards are funny things – musicians tend to be a bit dismissive of them but I think they’re a nice accolade to have. They certainly don’t generate work (as some people might believe) but they do help to maintain (that dreaded 21st century buzz-word) “profile”, which I think can only be for the good. I was a more than a little shocked to win the “Services to British Jazz” one last year as I’d assumed that those sort of things went to those with far more miles on the clock than me. In fact, I joked at the time that it had taken precisely nine years to go from BBC Rising Star to stand-in jazz veteran.

As for the “veterans” I play with, well, that’s a different story. My experiences playing with musicians older than myself has been the greatest education I could have ever wished for. Take last week – I was fortunate to do three gigs – one each with Art Themen, Peter King and Alan Skidmore. That’s three on-stage saxophone lessons right there. But it’s not just the practical side, it’s the friendships that have built up too. The Miles band I had with Henry Lowther, John Critchinson, Dave Green and Trevor Tomkins was like a musical masterclass and a life lesson rolled into one. If we’d stop over on the way back from a gig, I’d just sit back and listen and soak up all that combined jazz wisdom. Things like that actually change your life. I’m a great believer in you finding the way that works for you in jazz – when I was much younger I felt really unsure of who I was because I hadn’t gone through NYJO or the Guildhall or the usual routes people of my generation took into jazz, but now, I realise my education has been at the hands of people like John Critchinson, on the stand, in the car to and from gigs, just hanging out. Critch is without doubt the person from whom I’ve learned the most – we’ve travelled thousands of miles together over the past thirteen years and it’s no exaggeration to say that he helped me to grow up and get on with things – I really love him, he’s been a huge part of my life. Society likes to pretend it doesn’t traffic in ageism but we all know it does. However, when you see people like Dave Green or Art Themen, uber-hip septuagenarians for Christ’s sake!, you realise that there’s a whole deeper level of maturity that only they can offer. The biggest crime to me would be if jazz “fashion” meant that young guys coming into the business didn’t know who these people are. I think that does happen a bit now – I guess it is a generation thing. I remember when I was coming up I’d go and see Art, Don Weller and Bobby Wellins and sit as close to them as I possibly could. They were like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young for my generation. And you could go and see them for the price of a couple of pints and a raffle ticket. It’s a cliché, but you really do have to make the most of what these people do while you can – they’re irreplaceable.

11. Are you still “suspicious” of social media?

Yes. It’s just a personal thing but I realise I’m trying to hold back the tide. However, just look at the powerful positive effect that it had on Nigel Price’s campaign to keep the Swanage Jazz Festival going. I can’t argue with that. My issues with it are more personal: I really don’t like the culture of the self that we live in at present – that kind of self-promotion I find hard to take – but if it works for some musicians then that’s OK for them. Don’t forget that I’m also a bit of a Luddite where these things are concerned – maybe if I knew a little more about what it can do as a positive force then I’d be less sceptical. I’ll willingly take advice (as long as it doesn’t come in sound bites which begin with someone calling me dude – is it me or is that how a lot of people begin online correspondence these days?). Also – and this is a very personal thing – if I play a crap gig I know it’s crap; I don’t need people I don’t know filming it on their phone, posting it and soliciting negative feedback from other people I don’t even know. That’s why I loathe YouTube. I put my name on what I do – the sniping commentators on there hide behind cryptic handles. To me, it’s all an unnecessary load of… right, I’ll stop there.

12. What kind of music do you listen to when you need to relax? 

Not mine! To me there are two kinds of listening: I listen to certain things to study them, transcribe them and try and get something from them as influences – it’s generally heavyweight tenor players that figure in that list – and then there are things I listen to for pure enjoyment. These tend to be lighter things – I adore Astrud Gilberto’s records, for example. I listen to lots of singers – not all of them pure “jazz” – Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat Cole, Julie London, Matt Monro, and so on. Then there are the classical things. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 never ceases to move me – I love Ravel and Debussy. I grew up with an older brother obsessed with 1960s pop so I have a soft spot for a lot of that too, particularly The Beatles. Revolver is a favourite. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is another album from that period that I love. Funnily enough, a lot of jazz musicians still hate The Beatles. I can understand the older guys being that way – after all they saw Beatlemania as it was happening – but I don’t get it from the younger ones. The last CD I bought featured Tom Scott playing a medley of tunes from the White Album – it’s a glorious piece of arranging and a red hot band with Bob Brookmeyer, Roger Kellaway, Pete Christlieb, and so on. I had it on an LP when I was in my teens but it’s not jazz per se so some people might think it’s just lightweight commercial music and why am I bothering. I admire the craftsmanship of it, that’s why. Plus, it’s beautiful and lyrical. I’d far rather listen to lyrical “light” music than jazz that sets out to be deliberately angular or ugly.

13. What next for Simon Spillett? A new tour, perhaps? 

More gigs, I hope! More writing. Possibly another book, I’m not sure yet. The one thing I’d like to do is make things clearer for myself. Up until very recently I was really unsure about how best to progress as a musician – I got the feeling that people just wanted and expected me to play Tubby Hayes tunes all the time. As much as I’d love that, there are other things in jazz…

I came to a real crossroads about what I do. On the one hand I felt safe playing Off The Wagon and so on but I’d also got heartily sick of it. After all, I’ve been doing it for over a decade – longer than Tubby did! So this summer I had a real think about what I wanted to do and I decided the only thing was to just be me. I’d been hugely unhappy with comparisons to this player and that and, as someone who’s suffered a bit with low self-confidence, I often found myself massively intimidated by other players on my instrument – I’ve actually ducked out of gigs because of that. It was all that listening to Booker Ervin back in the summer that did it – I heard a player who wasn’t a Coltrane or a Rollins but who just played like himself and seemed to have the self-belief to ride it all out. I’d often wondered what it would be like to totally forget the Tubby side of things and just play what I like rather than what’s expected. Of course, there are always promoters who want a specific thing – a Tribute to Tubby Hayes –  and I’ll happily do that if that’s what the gig is but otherwise I just want to try to improve and find out who I am. Since making that decision I’ve been much much happier and feel more musically “healthy” if I can put it like that. It’s like the pressure is finally off. I know I’ll never get to a certain level – my goals are realistic – but I think I stand a better chance of improving if I let my own character – strengths and weaknesses – come out. I can’t be a Tubby or a Ronnie just as I’ll never be a Brandon Allen or an Alex Garnett.

Sometimes I do laugh though: I played a quartet gig last week and we did tunes by Dexter, Sonny Rollins, Booker Ervin and Jimmy Heath – it really had nothing to do with Tubby Hayes at all – and a guy came up afterwards and said “ooh, this is so authentic, a real tribute to Tubby.” I guess some people equate hard, fast playing with Tubby regardless of what the tune or style is. I suppose Tubby will always be at the back of things for me but there are so many others who I love and try to get something from – Hawk, Coltrane, Dexter, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Getz, Zoot, all of those great tenor voices. After all, no matter who you hear, it always comes out like you in the end.

Interview by: Erminia Yardley

Photos: Carl Hyde

YT Video: Courtesy of the Hideaway  – London’s premier live music and comedy club


Last modified: April 25, 2020