PREVIEW FEATURE: Dick Oatts - by Gareth Lockrane (Pizza Express Dean Street 26/27 October)

Dick Oatts. Photo credit: Hreinn Gudlaugsson/ Creative Commons


DICK OATTS makes a very rare appearance in the UK next week. In this feature GARETH LOCKRANE explains why the Iowa-born saxophonist is such a unique figure in jazz, and why these gigs are an important occasion not to be missed. He writes: 

October 26th and 27th mark a great occasion for the London jazz scene; one of my favourite musicians, the fantastic and hugely influential alto saxophonist/composer Dick Oatts is performing (for the first time I think in this country in a quartet setting) at the Pizza Express, Dean St.

I was first introduced to Dick’s playing in the 90s by London saxophonists Mike Williams, Steve Main and Paul Jones, who had clearly already been bitten by the Oatts bug and were quietly passing recordings around in their inner circle (this was the pre-internet days of course). I was hooked instantly, and would seek out as many recordings of his that I could find.

A few years later I was fortunate enough to be taught by him briefly at the Lake Placid Summer School in New York, and a more humble and encouraging figure you could not hope to find. He struck the crucial balance with me between the craft side of playing (“you’re only as good as your weakest key” has stuck with me in case I ever get complacent!) and a genuine sense of wonder and mystery in his playing; I have never heard him just reel something off and he always sounds to me like he is playing in a human, conversational, blending way, seemingly effortless in molding his particular set of skills to suit any situation or group of musicians.

His playing contains a wonderful mix of influences, a direct line from Sonny Stitt, Johnny Hodges, Cannonball, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz; even a hint of the 70s soulful rasp of David Sanborn in his younger days, mixed with his own ever-evolving, harmonically probing sensibility. He is probably best known as the lead alto player in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra from the late 70s onwards, and still is holding down that role every week in the present day incarnation, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. His lead playing is just one aspect of his recording and performing career, but in a way he approaches this just like anything else, always sounding immediate, fresh and personal.

The most immediate influences in his playing to my ears are perhaps that of his contemporaries in the Thad/Mel band; Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, Billy Drewes, Gary Smulyan and his lead alto predecessors, Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion. Seeing Dick play at the Village Vanguard with the band a few times has had a profound impact on me!

This performance of Bob Brookmeyer’s composition “Make Me Smile” from the early 80s is beautifully crafted, effortlessly shifting the moods and colours in his sound and improvising. Note a young Kenny Garrett sitting next to him; to my ears there is a definitely an Oatts influence in Garrett’s later heroic playing!



Other key recordings I would recommend are:

- with Mel Lewis - Mellifluous with Lewis’ quintet from the late 70s with Bob Brookmeyer  Bob Brookmeyer Composer & Arranger (featuring Brookmeyer’s groundbreaking arrangement of Skylark, a feature crafted around Oatts) and Soft Lights and Hot Music

He has had some wonderful ongoing collaborations too;

- a series of records with large and small ensembles with pianist Garry Dial
- with Red Rodney’s quintet in the 80s
- with pianist Harold Danko
- locking horns recently with the great Jerry Bergonzi on the albums Saxology and Intersecting Lines.

He has also had a long fruitful recording career as a leader on Steeplechase recordings and these albums are well worth checking out, adapting his playing and composing beautifully to the different lineups on these records:

-  pianoless trio (All of Three),
- quartet with Bruce Barth (Simone’s Dance)
- quintet with Gary Versace on piano and organ (Gratitude)
-  pianoless quartet with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli (South Paw),
-  finding subtle, personal ways through the standards on his masterful Standard Issue records.

There is a great book of Dick’s tunes from these records that you can purchase from his website (LINK) that is well worth checking out! I guarantee to all the musicians reading that there are some huge challenges in there, but as always Dick makes it all sound so natural and easy, and the tunes are instantly memorable. Like all the great composer/players, his pieces teach you how to play and give you a window into the composer’s thought processes.

One more thing; Dick is one of the most staggering ballad players I’ve ever heard – check out this beautiful Jim McNeely arrangement of In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning from the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra “Lickety Split” album. (SPOTIFY LINK).

I urge everyone to get out and see this gig! He hardly ever plays in this country on his European travels and NEVER performs as a quartet over here so it’ll be a performance to savour, with a top UK trio of Barry Green (piano) Mark Hodgson (bass ) and Stephen Keogh (drums).

Gareth Lockrane
18th Oct 2016

LINK: Wikipedia Entry with extensive discography
Dick Oatts website
Bookings for Dean Street

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