Scott Hamilton: ‘We have a lot of new songs’

    The original young fogey of jazz has latterly discovered a taste for things he missed in the 70s, including Stevie Wonder, EWF and Steely Dan

    Scott Hamilton, in the vanguard of a rearguard revolution, at Knebworth jazz festival in 1982. Photo © Brian O'Connor

    Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton first played in London’s Pizza Express over 40 years ago. For the last 20 years his accompanists in the club on his regular visits have been John Pearce (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Steve Brown (drums). To celebrate these enduring relationships Pizza Express’s new record label, PX Records, has released At Pizza Express Live, which was recorded in the club during Hamilton’s 2022 residency.

    “We’ve done two previous live recordings in the Pizza and both of them are now out of print,” says Hamilton. “But the gig continues to be very successful and we have a lot of new songs and we wanted to have something that represented us now. The quality of the recording is very good and the band sounds really good and I’m looking forward to people hearing it.”

    Hamilton explains his fondness for playing, year after year, with the same musicians. “I’ve always had groups over long periods of time. Very often there comes a time when a good group stops sounding good. You get tired of what you’re doing. But it’s been 20-some years now with this particular group and we haven’t had a time when we weren’t all very enthusiastic about getting together and playing together.”

    Hamilton guffaws at my query about band rehearsals. “None of us have time to rehearse! I rehearse in my head when I’m not playing and we develop stuff while we’re on the gig.”

    Musicians don’t need to be buddies to work successfully together in a band, Hamilton argues: “You don’t need to get on but we do. We like each other and I think when you have a group like that, that’s the best. But I’ve been in good bands where nobody talked to one another. And the guys in Duke Ellington’s band didn’t speak to each other for 20 or 30 years. They used to go into a coffee shop and sit at 16 tables! But they sounded great.”

    As a band leader, both with his Pizza Express band and with other bands in other territories, how much does Hamilton guide his musicians as to what he wants them to do? “I do as little suggesting as possible,” he says. “I play with a lot of groups and everybody has different strengths and weaknesses and that’s a good way to get ideas because you never know what guys are going to do with a particular song. If something really needs spelled out I’ll say it, but very often I get more ideas from the musicians than they do from me!”

    Hamilton enthuses about the Pizza Express. “It’s one of the nicest jazz clubs I’ve ever played in. We have a Steinway piano, a really good sound system and the atmosphere has always been great. It’s a friendly place and it’s not strictly business. And I think the audience feels that as well.”

    At Pizza Express Live includes an interpretation of the Dizzy Gillespie-associated Tin Tin Deo. “I was playing an arrangement of it for two saxophones with a tenor player in Barcelona and I thought ‘It would be really nice to have a tune like this in our repertoire, to break things up.’ We play bossa novas and things like that but we didn’t have anything quite as fiery as that. And I used to be on the same festivals as Tommy Flanagan’s group and Tommy had an arrangement for Tin Tin Deo which was extremely exciting and I wanted to steal a bit of that!”

    ‘Gillespie knew more about harmony and musical theory than most jazz musicians even today. And he understood that rhythm was the driving force, the thing that makes everything else possible’

    Hamilton actually knew Gillespie. “Back in the day we were often in the same place at the same time on festivals and on jazz cruises in the Caribbean. I can’t say we were close friends but we knew one another and I admired him and I still learn a lot from listening to him – he knew more about harmony and musical theory than most jazz musicians even today. And he understood that rhythm was the driving force, the thing that makes everything else possible.”

    A version of Black Velvet by Illinois Jacquet, one of Hamilton’s great inspirations, is also on the album. “I saw Illinois play in the early 70s when I was young and I don’t think anyone was playing tenor as well as him at that time,” he says. “He was a very powerful player and he continued to play beautifully right up until he was 80 years old.”

    Hamilton has declared that Jacquet’s 1968 Bottoms Up album actually changed his life. He has further said that, at an earlier age, hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was also life-changing. My suggestion that he might have soon grown out of such rock records as his love for jazz deepened gets short shrift from Hamilton. “I still listen to them now and I love them! I really enjoy listening to pop music from my childhood and I also listen to a lot of pop music that I missed in the 70s and 80s – things by Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire and Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan. I like those things.”

    At Pizza Express Live contains a few tracks like The Girl From Ipanema that are familiar to everybody in versions performed by vocalists. The age-old question for instrumentalists, of course, is, do they think of the lyrics as they play? “I didn’t ever think about lyrics when I was young,” admits Hamilton. “But the older I get the more I think it helps. It’s actually a nice thing to think about when you’re playing.”

    Hamilton has been internationally recognised since his first Concord album, Scott Hamilton Is A Good Wind Who Is Blowing Us No Ill, in 1977, when he was 22. He explains how he thinks his playing has changed over the course of his career. “Well, I’m 68 years old now and I can’t play the way I played when I was 35 when I was physically at the top of my game technically. But I think I’m better now than when I was 22 when I didn’t know what I was doing. And I know more than I did when I was 35. I just can’t play as fast!”

    His basic style is essentially unchanged, however, for Hamilton has pretty much played mainstream – swing jazz – for his entire career. “I might have done all kinds of things if somebody had asked me,” he laughs. “If somebody had asked me to make a more contemporary jazz album I might have tried to do it. But I knew how to play the songs I was playing and I try to keep fresh things coming into the repertoire and I play them differently every night so for me every time I play it’s contemporary and fresh to me.”

    ‘I grew up half an hour from Berklee College of Music and I could have gone there but I wanted to get out and play in bars and night clubs. I didn’t want to sit in a classroom’

    Unlike virtually every jazz musician who has emerged in recent decades, Hamilton didn’t study the music in college. In fact his entire formal musical training comprised a few clarinet lessons when he was eight. Does he regret missing out on the educational opportunities so many musicians had? “I wouldn’t have enjoyed being in school. I grew up half an hour from Berklee College of Music and I could have gone there but I wanted to get out and play in bars and night clubs. I didn’t want to sit in a classroom. In some ways it took me longer to learn things than it might have done if I’d gone to school but the way I learned was enjoyable and I eventually learned the things I needed to learn. There are still things I would like to know more about but I find if I want to learn something, my brain works a little slower now!”

    Asked about his practice regime, Hamilton answers, “I’m not proud of it but I don’t practise at all. I don’t have any practice discipline of any kind. I never developed those habits. But I try to keep busy [gigging] and if I’m busy playing I figure, well, that’s almost the same as practising!”

    Having early in his career based himself in New York, Hamilton now lives in Italy. “After a certain point it didn’t make any sense staying in America. I loved New York but it was expensive and by the late 90s I was hardly ever working there. Beginning in the mid-90s I was working 200 and some days a year in England so I moved over to London and had a flat in Queensway for six or seven years after already having been practically living there for six or seven years. But there came a time when the work around England was slowing down for me and I was beginning to work on the Continent a lot more and it made sense to move some place cheaper so I moved to Italy and I’ve not regretted it. It’s very reasonable and I have friends there and it’s very restful when I’m not working.”

    But does he speak Italian? “I’m terrible. I’m so bad it’s embarrassing!” he groans.

    ‘New York is still the centre of everything important’

    Hamilton’s physical album collection hasn’t managed to survive his international relocations. “I left all my LPs back in New York in the 90s and when I moved to Italy I sold all my CDs because it was just too difficult to carry them. Now I’ve got everything I listened to, classical music and pop music and jazz, on my iPad and I just put it on shuffle and listen to whatever comes up.”

    Some critics argue that jazz’s centre of gravity has moved from America, and New York in particular, to Europe. Is that possible, I wonder? Or will jazz, for whatever socio-cultural reasons, always be an American music? “The origin of jazz will always be America,” says Hamilton. “That doesn’t mean that people aren’t proficient playing it everywhere these days. If you went to New York today you’d see thousands of jazz musicians from every corner of the world so it’s international and there’s a lot of interesting music being made all around the world. But, yeah, definitely, New York is still the centre of everything important.”