CD Review: Scott Hamilton Quartet - Dean Street Nights

Scott Hamilton Quartet - Dean Street Nights
(Woodville Records wvcd 141. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Tenor sax player Scott Hamilton performed his first gigs in the UK in 1978, following a much-heralded breakthrough in the States alongside Roy Eldridge and Benny Goodman. He was described as the saviour of mainstream jazz, a young fogey and a Ben Webster sound-alike. It soon became apparent that, while each of these statements had an element of truth, Hamilton was intent on forging his own way through the international jazz scene with an individual voice grounded in quality, consistency and swing.

Hamilton’s latest release, recorded at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, celebrates the 35th anniversary of his début appearance at the venue. The quartet has been touring in the UK and elsewhere since the turn of the millennium. Some of the relationships go back much further: John Pearce (whom I first saw with Hamilton beside Dick Morrissey in 1989) is a hugely experienced and enterprising pianist; bass legend Dave Green has worked with Hamilton on and off for at least 20 years, and the talented, brio-fuelled Steve Brown replaced the much-loved drummer Allan Ganley in 2000.

The opener, I Just Found out about Love, is relatively benign and gives little indication of what comes later. Sweet and Lovely - arranged as a slowish samba – includes a magnificent piano solo followed by a quietly arresting creation by the leader. You think you know what you’re going to get from Hamilton, but his work is full of surprises and rarely derivative. He prefers to improvise on the music at hand - rather than throw in quotations at random - and it’s easy to overlook the power that he generates.

Zoot’s Blues is a bright, jaunty tribute to one of Hamilton’s early influences, John Haley “Zoot” Sims. Its swagger is ideal for him and Pearce, whose skilful runs and beautiful chording maintain the momentum. Most revered for his ballad interpretations, Hamilton displays a fluffy and expressive vibrato on If I Had You and Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most. They both contain well-executed work and beautiful flourishes, although they are arguably the least impressive selections in a varied and classy concert.

The cornerstone is Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz, which Hamilton has recorded several times before. The responsiveness of the musicians – especially Brown, who you can see smiling right the way through – makes all the difference. Pearce’s solo fires up as soon as the drummer switches from brushes to sticks, and later, Hamilton plays hard and bluesy, swinging like mad. After a fine bass feature and an extended section of “fours”, you think the piece is ending. But then there’s a short duet for saxophone and piano, and the others rejoin to triumphant hoots from Hamilton prior to a slow, greasy conclusion. This really does have the “Oh yeah!” factor.

Cherokee is a favourite set-closer. Its tendency to over-familiarity is avoided by an arrangement that provides considerable freedom, and begins with a tenor cadenza. As the rhythm team kicks in, Hamilton packs in a lot of melody – along with a few quotations and some humorous touches - over the shifting chords. Pearce contributes another fine solo before an exciting dialogue between all four men.

This recording reinforces the values that Hamilton presented when he first emerged on the scene, and his timeless, distinctive style whets the appetite for his forthcoming shows at the Pizza Express (April 18-21).

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