Another kind of lament

Another kind of lament

Back in 2010, the custodians of the Tubby Hayes archive launched a record label dedicated to releasing material contained in the late, great saxophonist's tape collection, which had been kept by his final partner Liz Grönlund after his death in 1973. Actually to call a few cardboard boxes an ‘archive’ is a bit of a misnomer. Like many musicians, Hayes was the recipient of recorded copies of all manner of his own performances, from rehearsals to radio broadcasts, live gigs and even informal jam sessions. Indeed, in this instance the tapes contained a broad swathe of his output (on both the ¼” and 3 and 3/4 IPS formats), dating largely from the 1960s - Hayes’ golden era - with a smattering of sessions from his brief final comeback in 1972-73. The condition of these varied in quality ranging from master-tape stereo sound to the audio verite atmosphere of a live performance, with, sadly, the poor condition of several of the tapes precluding public issue.

As well as presenting Hayes himself in a variety of contexts, the tapes also contained albums by other artists, in turn revealing a little of the saxophonist's own personal listening tastes. These included recordings by Woody Herman, Archie Shepp, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard and Ella Fitzgerald. Rather surprisingly, they also featured the odd pop single by The Beatles and The Supremes!

Frustratingly, the box cover annotation within the archive often didn’t match the actual contents of the tapes and so it was only after painstaking transfer and restoration that the treasures within were finally identified.

Named Savage-Solweig (in tribute to both Liz, whose first names was Solweig, and Robert Savage who was then the dedicated custodian of the tapes) the new label launched with an astonishingly vibrant recording of Hayes’s quartet live in Kent in April 1967, the same band which had recorded his classic Mexican Green album barely a month before. In fact, the tapes of the gig revealed one of the few ‘live’ recordings of Mexican Green itself, stretching to almost thirty minutes in length (the studio version clocks in under quarter of an hour). Upon release Lament: The Tubby Hayes Quartet (SS-001) received rave reviews, the Guardian’s John Fordham summing up these reactions by declaring the record ‘not just a museum piece, but a slice of still very engaging jazz action.’

Asked to pen a sleeve note for the album, I wrote two separate and quite different essays, one of which was included in the final release. The version included below is the first attempt, which has never previously been published. Rediscovering it while clearing a backlog of digital files, I had intended to delete it but thought again, deciding to share it here. Rereading it, there are a few things that, were I writing on the same subject today, I would perhaps convey differently, but on the whole I think it captures something of the feel of the time and, more importantly, the recording which, sadly, is now deleted (I believe copies are available second-hand on Amazon).

The Tubby Hayes Quartet: Lament - Live in Rochester 1967

By the spring of 1967 the Tubby Hayes Quartet had largely succeeded in satisfying its leaders aim of tying together the various facets of modern jazz currently preoccupying him. Hayes had always been a formidable synthesiser of the latest trends (witness his earlier triumphs with the Jazz Couriers and the Tubby Hayes Quintet, both of which shone with Silver-ish polish) but as the vanguard of jazz moved forward in the early to middle-1960s, codifying the ever diversifying language of the idiom grew ever more complex and, at times, bewildering.

John Coltrane had long been a hero for Tubby (he was among the first British modernist to cite Coltrane as a favourite), but whilst assimilating the virtuoso harmonic strides of the 'sheets of sound' era was comparatively easy for a musician of Tubby’s innate technical ability, the Coltrane Quartet was quite another matter. As the decade progressed Tubby kept a weather eye on the American’s development, panning some aspects of the music (initially he hated the Impulse! albums Coltrane Live At The Village Vanguard and Coltrane), praising others (he adored the rhythm section of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) and succinctly cherry-picking the elements he thought most useful for his own ends.

Added to this was the impression made by Miles Davis seminal 'time-no-changes' rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the impact of which was probably the single-most important factor in altering Tubby’s requirements of an accompanying group. Other influences and factors were at play too: Stan Getz increasingly advanced looking quartet with young vibraphone virtuoso Gary Burton was critical, as were the albums of tenorists Booker Ervin (the famous Prestige ‘Book’ series) and Joe Henderson (especially Inner Urge) and Sonny Rollins in-person adventures at Ronnie Scott’s (and on the movie Alfie, on which Tubby was also said to have performed) also threw down heavy creative gauntlets.

By the mid-1960s Tubby’s apparent veteran status had, to some critics and indeed some musicians, almost totally obscured the fact that he was still a remarkably young performer, a fact he would argue in private and, on occasion in public. To his friends, such a manifest interest in remaining viably contemporary came as no surprise. Saxophonist Peter King once referred to Hayes ‘kind of mission of being on the cutting edge’ and from what we know from other colleagues, Tubby was not immune from vanity, increasingly so from 1965 onwards when the reservoir that once was the London jazz scene began to shrink to a watering hole.

Regular gigs like the Flamingo and The Marquee disappeared and by 1966, Ronnie Scott’s almost exclusive import policy also began to bite deep, leading Tubby to voice some off-the-record reservation about the club to those close to him. He had a point; he’d been the emissary enabling Scott’s famous exchange series to begin so to be reduced to playing suburban venues (even partisan ones like the Bull's Head at Barnes) must have felt more than a little unjust.

There was no real immediate musical threat and even after the rise of other equally deserving local tenor saxophone players, albeit with very different approaches, like Evan Parker, Art Themen and Alan Skidmore, Hayes remained top-dog, a position he’d held for so long that to displace him was tantamount to unthinkable mutiny. What had changed was the speed with which the music was progressing, so that despite remaining a creative force, Hayes suddenly had to field critical brick-bats for being old-hat. Writers who had embraced him when riding high on the Hard Bop ticket (a period roughly bracketed by the Jazz Couriers' 1958 tour opposite Dave Brubeck and the disbanding of the Tubby Hayes quintet in 1964) now cast him aside as anachronistic and predictable.

In the armchair critic role it’s all too easy to forget exactly how such a dismissal must have felt to Hayes. Robust and never too mindful of jazz magazines critique, he felt that he were being written off before his time a situation that seemed to reach its peak just ahead of the formation of the new Hayes quartet of spring 1966. Travelling internationally, spiralling from studio to studio at home, and with no new recording since his 1964 big band album Tubbs Tours, it was all too easy to overlook the fact that Hayes was entering yet another artistic purple patch.

The 1966 Tubby Hayes Quartet ticked all the boxes its leader wanted: minor modal moods, harmonic stasis alternating with regular chord changes, hip-soul slanted themes a la Roland Kirk, Getzian balladry, even nascent free-form.

His sidemen too encapsulated perfectly the dynamic nature of the days modern jazz: pianist Mike Pyne echoed Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Mathewson had all the springy energy of Scott La Faro and Chick Israels and drummer Tony Levin was cut from the same poly-rhythmic cloth as Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.

Interspersed with short periods of inactivity due to the leader's ill-health (and a holiday in California early in the new year) across the winter of 1966-67, the quartet's music deepened and over two days in February and March 1967 they convened at Philips Studios in Marble Arch to record what has become Tubby’s best known album Mexican Green.

Across its seven track programme all of Hayes' virtues were apparent but it was with the title track, named in honour of an especially potent type of pot then enjoying favour in London, that caused the biggest flurry of critical reaction. With the perverse sense of timing beloved of record companies, Mexican Green waited over a year to be released, by which point the band that had recorded it was no more, but the delayed shock of Tubby Hayes embracing avant-garde jazz was still something of a spectacle.

Ironically, despite it being the album's focal point, Mexican Green had been its most problematic track. Probably influenced by the album The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Hayes had added a second bassist, Jeff Clyne, to the band but after a days recording Clyne thought he wasn’t adding anything of significance and baled out. He may well have had a point. The composition - which alternated free-blowing with a stiff, soul-strut really relied on a democratic viewpoint shared by the regular band members but such was the open-ended nature of the performance that things could potentially hit dead spots, or spiral into self-indulgence (‘One night it lasted one hour and thirty-eight minutes, which I agree is a bit much’, Tubby wrote in his sleeve notes).

Hayes himself thought the performance represented something of a break through, although some critics quickly spotted the same old Tubby-isms. Jazz Monthly’s Ronald Atkins thought the track suggested ‘[Hayes] is evolving without jumping from one fashion to another’ and Alun Morgan wrote in Gramophone that ‘This is as free as Hayes would want to play, I suspect, for he has his roots deeply entrenched in the music of Charlie Parker’.

Such observations were true. Tubby was unlikely to come up with anything as radical as the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s efforts, or as starkly naked as Evan Parker’s methods, and, if anything his was an approach that benefited holistically from the increased elbow room nudged out by the Avant-Garde rather than by any whole-hearted leap into the unknown. To this end, the Tubby Hayes Quartet of 1967 were at their best when marrying the disciplines of Hard-Bop with the freedoms of Post-Bop, exactly as they do on this release, recorded at The Little Theatre in Rochester, Kent, on what must surely have been a typical out-of-town one-nighter for the band.

Actually the quartet had visited the theatre once before, on Sunday December 4th 1966, an engagement captured on Tony Levin’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and which, prior to its legitimate release in 2005 (as Addictive Tendencies on Rare Music Recordings RM 028) was among the most sought after and prized of the many hours of privately recorded Tubby passing hands between collectors.

The music on this release comes from the groups return engagement, Sunday April 2nd 1967, and even succeeds in upping the creative intensity of that earlier volume, something that is instantly apparent and which requires no lengthy delineation of each tracks merits

However, it may be worth appending a few historical notes to the programme: for example, the opening number, trombonist J.J. Johnson’s Lament began life as a mournful ballad before Tubby transformed it into the stiff-Blues March heard here.*

What Is This Thing Called Love is a feature for Tony Levin, gamely harrying Tubby with his chattering snare drum throughout the absurdly fast quartet choruses before embarking on a remarkably creative solo which moves with dynamic ease between mallets, brushes and sticks.

The only ballad heard here, Nancy With The Laughing Face, is a genuine rarity in Hayes discography, only appearing on two other occasions (a BBC session with strings from 1963 and as part of a medley on a bootleg tape recorded shortly before his death in 1973). Nevertheless, it is, for this writer, the album’s highlight, showcasing Hayes' velvet tone and unabashed lyricism in a performance that, should anyone still need convincing, confirms the saxophonist's equal skills as an affecting balladeer.

Mexican Green is also heard in what has thus far transpired to be the only known live club-recorded version. Its myriad delights are best left undisclosed, but suffice to say that anyone familiar with the earlier studio recording will find that extra bit of creative juice fully wrung from this new version. There are some familiar landmarks along the way, but the overall performance is testament to the creativity of all four musicians.

Simon Spillett, January 2010

* actually this treatment was borrowed; Roland Kirk had first recorded the arrangement on his Domino album (Mercury) in 1962

Photo: up close and personal - Mathewson, Levin, Pyne and Hayes, Club Octave, Southall, April 21st 1967

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