Simon Spillett Quartet
(The Home Guard Club in East Sheen, October 18, 2012. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
A gloomy autumn evening with the traffic in gridlock in southwest London might not seem auspicious, but in fact it was the beginning of a notable date on the jazz calendar. For a start, the venue was new to me. There was a time when the map of Britain was dense with small jazz clubs. Sadly, many or perhaps even most have fallen by the wayside. Not so the Home Guard Club. Tucked away behind a suburban street in SW14, you wouldn’t even know it was there unless you went looking for it.
The club was founded just after the Second World War by members of the Home Guard who didn’t want to surrender the camaraderie of the wartime years — and who were sharp enough to buy the freehold. And for anyone who is accustomed to the school-hall level of comfort usually afforded by most small jazz clubs, it’s a revelation. With plush green chairs and banquettes occupying a warm, comfortable bar area it pulls off the trick of being both spacious and cosy. Factor in cheap beer and excellent jazz and it’s hard to imagine a better place to shelter from the tribulations of traffic and the onset of winter.
The jazz gigs at the Home Guard are run by Kelvin Christiane and his wife Leslie. Leslie is a gifted singer and Kelvin a formidable sax player. Which brings us to this evening’s jazz. Outstanding tenor player Simon Spillett, last seen performing a knockout gig at the Bull in Barnes, is here tonight with a new and remarkable quartet — the magnificent Trevor Tomkins is still in the drum seat but on bass we now have Paul Morgan and, fascinatingly, the fourth member is Roger Beaujolais on vibes. “Sounds like it's time for me to dig out those Getz albums with Gary Burton,” confided Simon Spillett when he was first contemplating this intriguing new line up.
Everyone arrives late because of the traffic nightmare. “Two hours from Clapham Common,” says Trevor Tomkins as he sets up his drum kit. There’s a Tubby Hayes CD playing as the musicians prepare, which gives us the delightful experience of hearing Simon Spillett play along with his hero as he checks out his reeds. It’s fascinating, too, to watch Roger Beaujolais setting up his vibraphone. The quartet launches into its first number, Green Dolphin Street by Bronislau Kaper and Ned Washington. Simon Spillett opens with a virile, swaggering tone and we get something special from the very opening chords as Roger Beaujolais drops in with a virtuosic burst of vibes. Simon and Roger exchange a smile — it works!
This is the first time the quartet has ever played together, unbelievably. They’re a very tight and cohesive unit. The tune turns into a feature for Paul Morgan on bass. He provides a rippling, harmonious, honeyed buzzing. The quartet is still sounding out the room, and each other. It’s an exciting experience.
Next up is Lover Man, composed by Jimmy Sherman, Jimmy Davis and Roger Ramirez and immortalised by Billie Holiday. The quartet have reinvented it in waltz time. Simon Spillett’s playing is lovely and lyrical, searching and exploring the melody. He even throws in a cheeky little snatch of My Favourite Things. Then the tempo slows for Roger Beaujolais to play a solo of glittering transparency, deft and ringing, with an impressive lightness of touch. Paul Morgan is coaxing and nurturing his bass while Trevor Tomkins provides the foundation on which everything is built. Simon and Roger are laughing together now, relaxing as the band settles in. Simon Spillett concludes with clarion urgency, softening to silence. “Lovely,” says somebody in the audience.
On Armando Manzanero and Gene Lees’ forgotten ballad Yesterday I Heard the Rain the audience is treated to gentle, delicate ensemble playing with Trevor Tomkins providing more warmth than I thought it was possible to coax from a drum kit. The music is simultaneously thrilling and, well, smoochy. The quartet advances together, united and measured, before Simon Spillett steps back and Roger Beaujolais is featured, ringing and plangent, playing sweetly sustained chords. Simon Spillett is mounting a one-man campaign to revive this lost classic, and it features on his new CD.
Next comes I Remember April by Gene de Paul, Patricia Johnston and Don Raye. Now Kelvin Christiane joins the band, sitting in on tenor and providing the opportunity for some wonderful unison sax playing. He and Simon Spillett play in parallel, then go their separate ways, then reunite. Kelvin Christiane’s tone is rich and powerful, with great projection. He’s a fluid, elegant player. Simon Spillett and Roger Beaujolais are listening and smiling as he plays. This is instant artistry of a very high order, from a unit who have never played together before. Simon Spillett takes over again for a sweet, dense solo with bossa flourishes.
Kelvin Christiane stays on stage for Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are and the two sax men illuminate this beautiful tune from different angles with their diverse talents. It’s an extravagant asset to have two sax players of this standard exploring the melody. Kelvin Christiane’s playing ranges from a finely detailed astringency to a big, rich fullness, swinging and celebrating.
On Angel Eyes by Matt Dennis, Leslie Christiane joins her husband on the bandstand to provide us with the bonus of a sumptuous jazz vocal. The soft caress of her voice floats over the backing — the bright tones of the vibes, the plump throbbing of the bass — then the combined forces of Trevor Tomkins’ high precision drumming and the two saxes come in. Kelvin Christiane moves to the fore with a superlative, silky solo that gives way to Roger Beaujolais stepping through the tune, building a picture with smoothly echoing tone fragments.
The song is one of the highlights of the evening. As it concludes — all too soon — Leslie Christiane says, “I’m tingling. I hope you are, too.” We are. And I wonder if the good folk of Richmond Park Road have any idea of the splendid music being made here, just a few yards away, as they watch television and eat their dinners.
Joe Henderson’s Recorda Me features Roger Beaujolais’ sunny, sweeping vibes and high voltage sax from leader Simon Spillett, assertive and full toned. Paul Morgan plays with the richness of a whole rhythm section while Trevor Tomkins offers pulsing drum support with an utter precision that sets the heart racing.
Anthropology by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie sees Roger Beaujolais delivering an amazing solo of express-train energy. Simon Spillett and Kelvin Christiane trade fiery licks in an explosive ending to the evening.
Simon Spillett’s new quartet with vibes is something special, and I envy anyone who hears them on future dates, when they’ve had a chance to hone their already spectacular skills. And the Home Guard Club proves decisively that the small jazz venue isn’t dead in Britain. In fact, it’s thriving. The only complaint about the whole evening? My jazz mad friend, trying to read the program notes, was grousing about the lovely moody, low illumination in the club. “The lighting at jazz gigs,” he said, “I don’t know…” Mind you, he could have removed his dark glasses.