LP Review: Tubby Hayes Quartet - Seven Steps to Heaven: Live at the Hopbine 1972

Tubby Hayes Quartet - Seven Steps to Heaven: Live at the Hopbine 1972
(Gearbox GB1523. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

This album recaptures a memorable 1972 gig at the Hopbine. The name, which means the stem of the hop plant, suggests an idyllic country hostelry. In fact it’s a handsome old boozer in North Wembley. On a Tuesday night in May it played host to Tubby Hayes, who regularly gigged there, along with the impressive line up of Mike Pyne on piano, Darryl Runswick on double bass and free-jazz luminary Tony Oxley, making a rare appearance with Hayes, on drums.

At the time of the recording, Tubby Hayes had just over a year to live, and the tragedy of his abbreviated life is hammered home by the excellence of the music preserved here. Moreover, the rumours that his recent illness had curtailed his ability and shortened his breath are effectively refuted by his powerful performance on these tracks.

A piano intro of bell-like clarity by Mike Pyne leads us into Someday My Prince Will Come, which sees Tubby immediately on form, providing plump, melodious, sharp plosives on the flute followed by some virtuosic breathy figures which are half-sung. It’s a salutary reminder that Tubby Hayes was much more than just a tenor sax man. Darryl Runswick wraps around him like a vine, plucking the strings, then essays his own solo, sawing at the double bass and following the melody line, switching to some furiously improvised bowing à la Slam Stewart before the tune is finally, rather beautifully, restored. Tubby’s lovely, fluttering flute leads us out, Pyne’s piano shadowing it as the sound narrows, simplifies and finally vanishes.

Seven Steps to Heaven by Victor Feldman sees Tubby on tenor, sparking and speed-skating through some breathless bop. Tony Oxley’s lighting drumming is on display here as are some notable, shimmering high speed piano runs from Mike Pyne.

All of Side 2 of the LP is taken up with a warm, spooky version of Alone Together which offers plenty of scope for Mike Pyne to feature. The pianist, who also worked regularly with Tony Kinsey, Alexis Korner and Humphrey Lyttelton solos here with a kind of shrewd ecstasy, transported by the music but choosing each note with considered precision. Daryl Runswick then takes flight, edgy and eloquent, creating a dense curtain of sound with his sawing bow before Tubby Hayes cuts back in with his razor sharp tenor. At the climax of his solo he essays a wild Coltrane Eastern-mystical feel. The crowd at the Hopbine are also captured, sounding suitably appreciative.

The only problem with this album is that it isn’t twice as long.

The sleeve notes by Simon Spillett are also first rate. Besides providing appreciation and analysis of Tubby Hayes’s music, he has also done some crucial detective work and archaeology in identifying which musicians played with Tubby on this gig.

It all adds up to another outstanding slice of British jazz rescued from oblivion by Gearbox Records. There are arguably some minor limitations of the master tape — the title track ends a tad abruptly and Daryl Runswick is sometimes a bit far back in the mix for my taste — but the sound of this heavy-duty slab of vinyl combines sweetness and warmth with microgroove precision and three dimensional clarity, and more than compensates for that.

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