The Simon Spillett Big Band at Atherstone

The tenorist leads his big band in a tribute to Tubby Hayes

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Simon Spillett big band. Photo by Matthew Wright

When Tubby Hayes was on the road he more than likely passed through Atherstone on the A5 in the band bus, before the days of motorways. Don’t know if he ever stopped – Simon Spillett would tell us straight away no doubt, given his association with the life and work of the great man – but this was the unlikely location for the debut of Spillett’s big band, playing recently rediscovered arrangements of Hayes material.

It was all credit to Peter Playdon who organised and promoted the event in a marquee at the Black Horse, and despite a draughty tent not being everyone’s ideal setting on a chilly February night, the audience quickly warmed to the music.

Spillett is no stranger to a big band. He works regularly with Pete Long’s, has understandably guested with the Ronnie Scott Big Band for the club’s 60th celebrations and has a standing invitation to front a big band in Los Angeles. For this project he assembled some of the finest players around and all of them showed their mettle in an evening of fine playing and tight arrangements. You’d have thought they’d been playing together for years, such was the ease in which they handled the music: A reflection of their ability and professionalism.

Of course it helped that Rob Barron, Alec Dankworth and Clark Tracey work in the current Spillett Quartet, so no introductions necessary. For the rest, all have a history with the leader and whilst it seems unfair to pick out individual contributions, as all the solos were first rate, some particularly stood out.

The band was out of the blocks right from the start, blazing into Dear Johnny B, varying in volume and intensity, leaving us in no doubt. This had real clout. Benny Golson’s As Close As You Are featured the leader’s tenor and an impressive solo from trumpeter Mark Armstrong, whose strong open tone was also later heard on the Spanish-tinged Pedro’s Walk and on Rumpus, with its sharp and decisive brass infills.

Milestones showed what a fine trombonist Mark Nightingale is – polished technique, smooth delivery, speed and agility in his handling of the slide; Clark Tracey chattering behind emphasised the sense of urgency. On The Killers Of W1 the trombonist took things onto a further level of excitement with an inventive solo over a solid-riffing sax section.

Simon Spillett fronts his big band. Photo by Graham Beale

But it wasn’t all high octane. Spillett showed how well he handles a ballad on You Know I Care, a sensitive and captivating reading with Pete Long taking care of directing the band behind the leader’s solo. The lyricism of Song For A Sad Lady and later, Soft And Supple (aka Tubby’s Theme) in which Spillett shared the honours with Alan Skidmore, the pair emulating the Hayes/Paul Gonsalves partnership of the original.

The night gave many other memorable moments: Alec Dankworth’s bass intros on Pedro’s Walk and Milestones; Pete Long’s playing to the crowd on The Killers Of W1; the collective muted trumpets on Solweig; Steve Fishwick’s spirited trumpet break following Spillett’s solo on Night In Tunisia; Rob Barron’s sharply defined phrases and single-note runs on Milestones; the collective power and intended fragmentation of Jimmy Deuchar’s Russian Roulette, its theme tipping a hat to Work Song; the soul-inflected She Insulted Me In Marrakesh; and throughout, the leader’s dry wit, anecdotes and self-effacing humour.

The final number saw Spillett and Skidmore playing Sonny Rollins’ Sonnymoon For Two. A mellow start then clutch in, change gear and step on the gas. Roaring stuff and an appropriate ending – on several levels – the younger man having played with Skidmore in his formative years and the admitted inspiration it had; Skidmore having played with Tubby’s Big Band (and whose “energy, fire and commitment … instantly struck a chord in Hayes” – Spillett: Long Shadow Of The Little Giant); the link between Rollins, Ronnie Scott and Tubby.

The logistics of running a big band must be tricky – an understatement – and appearances are limited. The only ones currently arranged seem to be at Swanage in July and Herts Jazz in October. Get your tickets – you’ll not be disappointed. Another understatement.

The Simon Spillett Big Band Plays The Music Of Tubby Hayes: The Black Horse, Atherstone, 7 February 2020. Personnel: George Hogg, Steve Fishwick, Mark Armstrong, Nathan Bray (t); Mark Nightingale, Ian Bateman, Andy Flaxman (tb); Richard Henry (btb); Bob Sydor, Pete Long (as); Alex Garnett (ts, f); Alan Skidmore, Simon Spillett (ts); Jay Craig (bar); Rob Barron (p); Alec Dankworth (b); Clark Tracey (d).