JJ 04/81: Tony Scott, Bebop Preservation Society at Pizza Express, London

Forty years ago Stan Britt saw the bebop nomad coerce, inspire and almost bully his London colleagues into playing far above their normal standards. First published in Jazz Journal April 1981


Tony Scott’s fourth appearance at the Pizza Express – he’d played there the previous three nights in the company of the Pizza Express All-Star Band and with the trios of Eddie Thompson and Jay McShann respectively — turned out to be something resembling a cross between a revivalist meeting and a 1981 version of how jazz might have sounded if the Dean Street premises had been sited somewhere along 52nd Street.

The Scott charisma was evident, and the nomadic clarinettist-saxist never relaxed for a second during an all-action, nobody-sleeps-on-my-show few hours. He played clarinet and tenor – the latter showing all kinds of influences, including Webster, Bird and even Jacquet – sang a more-than-passable Lush Life, accompanying himself most expertly at the piano, and even cajoled both Hank Shaw and a visiting Benny Waters to swap bop-scat four-bar phrases. More important, though, for the local scene at least, was how he coerced, inspired and almost bullied his colleagues into playing far above their normal standards.

Hank Shaw, in particular, produced some marvellous trumpet; his playing throughout the evening was never less than superb. Bill LeSage, too, seemed uplifted by the situation and I cannot recall finer pianistics from him for many a year. Spike Heatley was his usual tower of strength on bass and Bill Eyden – seemingly making a kind of jazz comeback in recent times – drummed splendidly, never more than when TS was roaring encouragement into his ear.

For those who remember only his past recordings, Scott’s clarinet playing must have come as even more of shock than his appearance. In comparison with his well-nigh raucous, totally impassioned playing, with much overblowing and use of the instrument’s extreme registers, those recordings tend to sound not only anaemic but as sounds produced from different sources. While one welcomes real emotional commitment in place of technical dexterity, this writer, for one, missed the clarinet’s intrinsic beauty in a more conventional jazz sense.

The opening Anthropology perhaps best showed the strengths as well as the shortcomings of Scott’s present-day approach to this instrument. On tenor, the metamorphosis from ‘then’ to ‘now’ was less dramatic (traumatic?). Some freak high-register playing aside, it evidenced some warm, exciting and – surprising perhaps – virtually mid-period playing, amply illustrated during ’Round Midnight, I Can’t Get Started (very Jacquet-ish ballad playing) and a Sophisticated Lady that segued comfortably into a booting Satin Doll.

So much more one could write about a highly memorable evening, but suffice it to say that one cannot recall an obviously pleased KC Sulkin looking equally subdued. For, you see, nobody gets a word in edgeways – not even the Pizza emporium’s usual emcee – when Tony’s doing his thing.

Even though the sideshow distractions cannot erase themselves from the memory, this was really a fine musical evening’s entertainment – make no mistake about that!