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The Greg Abate-Simon Spillett Quintet
At The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gayton - 15 July 2011
Greg Abate - alto saxophone and flute
Simon Spillett - tenor saxophone
John Critchenson - piano
Alec Dankworth - bass
Clark Tracey - drums
Once again, the pews of Gayton church were packed to the rafters for a ‘Jazz in the Church’ gig - a sell-out of around 100 jazz fanatics - to hear the star-studded Greg Abate-Simon Spillett Quintet.
The line-up comprised some of the UK’s top jazz players. The audience - some from as far as Seattle - clapped and cheered throughout an eclectic variety of numbers, many from the traditional American songbook.
The Quintet was on great form. Leading US, alto saxophonist and flautist, Greg Abate, approaching the end of yet another of his formidable UK tours, was well into the groove and Simon Spillett, as always, was in fine fettle, boosted by a top-line rhythm section led by that stalwart of the late Ronnie Scott’s Quintet, pianist, John Critchinson, supported by two artistes from two jazz dynasties, Alec Dankworth and Clark Tracey.
Before the gig, Greg Abate reflected on his career in jazz. “I suppose it all started when I was about 9 years old,” he mused. “Our family was not particularly musical, but I wanted to learn an instrument - a trombone at the time - but they wouldn’t let me, so I took up the clarinet.”
He chooses his chief influences as Paul Desmond (“I especially admire his playing on Blue Rondo á la Turk on the album, Time Out, Time Further Out”), Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods and John Coltrane. “I began to realise the importance of these artistes when I was in High School, when I would have been 14-20, I suppose,” he explains.
“I was very much influenced by each of them. Gradually, I began to learn their styles and techniques, and from them, I’ve developed and built my own way of playing. But even after all the years I’ve been in the business, I still feel I’m learning. I think, in jazz, you’re always learning.”
He cites his favourite current musicians as Phil Woods and top UK alto player, Alan Barnes. Despite talk in some quarters of jazz fading away, he firmly believes this genre of music is here to stay. “I don’t think jazz will ever disappear”, he says emphatically, “there are so many different styles of jazz, for instance, boogie, swing and be-bop and so on. And because of this, there’ll always be musicians wanting to play in their preferred styles.
“But I do think that jazz must be structured, and some of the so-called ‘free music’ I don’t really regard as jazz in the true sense of the word. In my view, unstructured music is not jazz, because it has no particular jazz style.”
He feels strongly that the younger generation are not latching onto jazz as much as they could and should. “I think the basic problem is that they aren’t exposed to jazz - what I call true jazz - by the media.
“Jazz doesn’t seem to hold any sway in the popular media, and that’s a shame because it means a whole generation is growing up without any appreciation of what jazz is. Some young people will never really know what jazz is and what it’s about, and that’s an important cultural issue.”
Greg’s now in his 60s, so what of his own future? “I’m happy to keep playing as much as I can. Obviously one always strives for greater recognition, but that’s not as important to me as being able to play whenever and with whomever I want. I never tire of it!”
Right from the outset, the Quintet set the tone for the evening with its energetic rendition of Star Eyes, in which Greg Abate opened with a Coltranesque alto solo, followed by a sprightly reply from Simon Spillett on tenor.
It is unusual for modern jazz to be played in a church setting, but none the worse for that. The acoustics are obviously different from, a concert hall or a club, but the unique surroundings add a distinctly surreal feeling to the experience. Certainly, the audience was captivated as the sounds reverberated around the church rafters.
The members of the Quintet played with effortless enjoyment, with amusing quips to the audience between numbers, with Greg occasionally requesting permission from the audience to play a number in a particular key!
It is difficult to pick out highlights because there were so many. Everyone’s choice would be different. Certainly, one of the outstanding numbers of the night was Airegin, (a reverse-spelling of Nigeria), a Sonny Rollins composition with African emancipation as its theme. This was a number in which the Quintet roared into action from the very first note, with frenetic, driving and rasping solos from both lead players. I’ll remember April, frequently played as a ballad, found Clark Tracey in an interesting Latin mode.
Organising such a line-up was a real coup for John Shaw and his team who run the Gayton Jazz Appreciation Society. A proportion of the proceeds go to maintenance of the church. It is a highly enterprising project for which the GJAS deserves wider recognition. No-one will have gone home disappointed!