Review: Simon Spillett Quartet at The Bulls Head

Simon Spillett
Simon Spillett Quartet
(The Bull’s Head, Barnes, August 24th, 2012. Review by Andrew Cartmel)


It was a rainy Friday night in late August and the London village of Barnes was quiet, with many of the locals on their annual pilgrimage to Tuscany or Provence. But at the Bull’s Head things weren’t quiet. They were cooking.

Tenor man Simon Spillett’s quartet were up on the stage. John Critchinson was playing piano, Alec Dankworth upright bass, with Trevor Tomkins on drums (subbing for Clark Tracey). I had last seen Spillett’s outfit at the Polish centre in Hammersmith, on a memorable winter’s evening when an impressively drunken audience member had purchased a copy of John Critchinson’s CD, taken the disc out of the cover and flung it at the pianist (“He hadn’t even had a chance to listen to it,” reflected Simon).

Tonight things were comparatively restrained in terms of audience participation, but the performance was even more energetic. Looking as dapper as ever in his suit, the leader opened proceedings with ‘Speak Low’ and we were immediately and gorgeously immersed in Kurt Weill’s lovely melody, with Simon Spillett building towering structures on the chords, swooping down before soaring to a climax. The pace only increased with John Critchinson’s solo, which danced nimbly through the joyous theme.

It was a high octane start to an unforgettable set. Alec Dankworth was agile, musical and expressive as they swapped solos, then it was back to Simon Spillett and the rhythm section resumed the role of forceful and judicious backing. Trevor Tomkins made the final statement of this ravishing piece and then the entire room exploded into applause. “Wow!” shouted someone in the crowd — and they were right.

From this point on, the energy level was way up.

Next came ‘Off the Wagon’, which Simon prefaced with a reminiscence about Tubby Hayes, composer of the tune and once a regular player on this very stage, “In the halcyon days of the Bull. This one is dedicated to everyone with addictive tendencies — but you look like a pretty abstemious lot.” Simon Spillett is an expert on Tubby Hayes and his knowledge and passion for the subject informed his playing. Trevor Tomkins played delicate, subtle, tactical drums behind Spillett’s gorgeous big-toned solo. It was laid-back and grooving, stepping in parallel with John Critchinson, who segued into his own perfect miniature of a solo, which was like a man skimming stones an impossible distance across placid water, each note placed just so, with Alec Dankworth and Trevor Tomkins chugging in support. Simon stood at the edge of the stage, contented and jubilant, digging these three before returning to bestow on us another richly textured series of statements, cascading, conversational and beguiling.

He obviously loved playing his hero’s tune.

Alec Dankworth contributed a loping and witty solo and Trevor Tomkins added some lovely cymbal flourishes.

The shade of Tubby Hayes must have been smiling as the boys brought it home as a single, polished unit. They were jolly and sophisticated — and jolly sophisticated.

The next treat in store was Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’. Here Simon Spillett’s playing was rhapsodic, open and rich. It was hard to believe, but things were getting even lovelier. His saxophone seemed literally to sing the song. Like Lester Young before him, Simon Spillett is obviously a player who makes a point of knowing the lyrics. John Critchinson contributed delicate and artful decorations that circled the tune, turning, returning and overturning it playfully.

Critchinson could show Monet a thing or two about using tiny splashes of colour to paint a picture.

Alec Dankworth was grinning with delight as Simon Spillett played the final statement. This was a band that was having fun — and making music.

Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ was given a driving, hard-bop treatment. Trevor Tomkins got our pulses racing, riding the beat with relaxed precision as the leader launched a galloping solo. There were roars of approval from the audience. When he stopped playing, John Critchinson joined in seamlessly, like a man jumping onto a moving horse, and took over. The excitement was tangible in the room and even the immaculate Simon Spillett was breaking a sweat. Alec Dankworth kept up the pace as he soloed, plucking at the resonant strings, racing like a thoroughbred.

‘Alone Together’ by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz followed. “This starts with some free jazz — jazz you wouldn’t pay to hear,” joked Simon Spillett. And indeed it did, reminding this listener that Sun Ra had covered this gem of a melody. John Critchinson was lyrical and ferocious while Trevor Tomkins built walls, ceiling and a floor for the music. Simon Spillett played with fire-siren urgency and Alec Dankworth provided a strutting, resonant, conversational solo, caressing opulent music from the strings.

The second half of the set opened with ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’ — the Jerome Brainin and Buddy Bernier standard and not, as Simon Spillett was quick to point out, the Bobby Vee song. The highlight here was the amazing, bouncing delicacy of Trevor Tomkin’s playing. Better was yet to come, however.

A little known ballad by Gene Lees and Armando Manzanero, ‘Yesterday I Heard the Rain’ showcased Trevor Tomkins. The drummer played with tender, swinging precision. Simon Spillett’s shimmering purity of tone was also very much in evidence and there were cries of ‘Wonderful’ from the audience. Here Alec Dankworth’s playing was majestic and profound, every note carefully chosen and plucked to perfection.

But the real highlight of the evening came next. Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s ‘Tin Tin Deo’. This was a small, or maybe not so small, masterpiece. It was a feature for Trevor Tomkins but started with Alec Dankworth playing unaccompanied. “Good luck, son,” called John Critchinson dryly from the piano. But no luck was required as the bass alone, then the bass and drums suddenly conjured an insinuating Latin presence into the room. And then the sax and piano came in and it was Afro-Cuban heaven. Shivers down the spine swiftly transformed into an urge to get up and dance. This wonderful piece concluded with a tour de force drum solo from Trevor Tomkins, playing infectious, propulsive and intoxicatingly complex rhythms first with his hands, then stick and hand, then stick, hand and elbow.

It was the high point of a gig which was, itself, one of the high points of the year so far in live jazz.

Unforgettable.

And those who decamped to Tuscany and Provence have no idea what they missed.

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