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"In Conversation with Simon Spillett"

Leading UK saxophonist, Simon Spillett, takes time from his busy schedule to talk to Northants Jazz
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Simon Spillett’s formative jazz years resemble those of many of the great jazz musicians. “Jazz was all around the house,” he explains. “It’s a family joke that the first music I responded to as an infant was a Stan Getz album!

“Father played the trombone, but it was an instrument I couldn’t get used to. I found the saxophone more appealing. At about that time, I was listening to Courtney Pine and the decision was made for me.”

Again, like many of the jazz giants, he was largely self-taught. “I began by teaching myself - if you can imagine it, I used to blow along to the music, for instance, Sonny Rollins! Quite a task!

“Then I took a few lessons and at 18, I had some formal tuition from the great Vic Ash, with whom I’ve remained great friends ever since. In fact, we’ve been working together on his 80th birthday celebration tour of nine or ten gigs around the country.”

Besides Vic Ash, his response to the question of which jazz musician has been the greatest influence is instant. “Tubby Hayes, with no shadow of a doubt.” But he’s quick to reel off a ‘who’s who’ of jazz greats who have also made a strong impression, “Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane,” although he expresses surprise when I pick the track Make Someone Happy from his first CD Introducing Simon Spillett as having a flavour of Coltrane.

“I’ve borrowed a little from each, I suppose,” he says. “I think it’s a jazz musician’s duty to that and then add his or her own interpretation and style over the years.”

Although playing is his main priority, he’s already begun to try his hand at a few compositions as well as writing some arrangements for band music, “It’s something that I might move into sometime in the future, I think.”

He’s also involved in jazz education, holding master-classes and offering private tuition. “It’s really rewarding teaching someone and seeing the results, you know, seeing them develop and derive some benefit from what I’ve passed on - in just the same way as Vic Ash passed on his knowledge to me.”

2010 is being good to Simon - a clear sign of an increasing recognition of his abilities in economic times when jazz sometimes struggles.  “Although 2009 was lean, this year’s been really busy so far, to such an extent that I’ve been able to pick and choose a bit - in fact, there’s a lot of work out there.”

As for the future, he’s optimistic and doesn’t agree with my suggestion that the passing influence of the great American song will have detrimental influence on the future of jazz.

“Jazz is a broad church,” he says, “I’m a traditional player of the post-bop 50s and 60s. But jazz represents a very broad spectrum of music. It should be allowed to progress. It’s good for new musicians to express themselves in new ways. The shape of jazz isn’t static, it’s dynamic and will inevitably change over the years. I accept and respect that absolutely.”

But he does see a problem for younger musicians. “The audiences that like to hear my own music are very often aged 50 plus. There’s nothing wrong with that. They are core audiences, knowledgeable and essential for the survival of jazz.

“But there are lots of young musicians coming through, playing more experimental jazz and I wonder sometimes if there’ll be sufficient numbers for them to play to.”

He agrees that younger ‘jazz-associated’ artistes, such as Jamie Cullum, Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr can be a very valuable entry point for potential jazz listeners. “In my view, these artistes occupy the middle ground. New listeners may listen to these types of artiste and then move on to someone like Ella Fitzgerald.

I end by asking him to name his favourite album. “Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus,” is one that I’m listening to most at the moment,” he says, almost without hesitation. “It’s one of those albums in which I hear something new each time. I often listen to new musicians and hear them play out their ideas, and yet when I hear Saxophone Colossus the suggestions are there from all those years ago.  But my all-time favourite is Tubby Hayes’ Mexican Green - a record I never tire of and find continually inspiring.

“I make a point of setting time aside each day to listen to artistes who’ve influenced the way I play. Jazz is such a huge reservoir of different types of music. That’s the great thing about it. There’s plenty for everyone to enjoy.”

July 2010
Photo by Jerry Storer
<Double click to hear Simon at the 2007 Luton Summer Festival>
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