Simon Spillett

Award Winning Saxophonist

What made you decide to become a jazz musician?

Probably exposure to the records in my Dad's collection when I was a child. I heard things by Bird, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie that just drew me in. Even today, certain records I heard back then continue to move me: Dizzy and Stan Getz' It Don't Mean A Thing; Sonny Rollins' Plays For Bird album; Art Farmer with Hank Mobley playing Farmer's Market; Gerry Mulligan's big band chart of All The Things You Are from 1957; Miles Ahead. They've stayed with me.

Why did you choose the tenor saxophone?

I was just drawn to it. To me, it's the jazz instrument and at the point I was getting into jazz there was a big focus on tenor players - Courtney Pine, Branford Marsalis, Steve Williamson, early Joshua Redman. Although I started on alto and sometimes play soprano, I still prefer the tenor.

Who are your favourite saxophonists?

That's a very hard question to answer. I've been most inspired by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Tubby Hayes, but there are many other saxophonists I enjoy listening to. And not just saxophonists, obviously. Others who've inspired me are Miles Davis, Roy Haynes, Bill Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, Jim Hall, Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, J. J Johnson ... the list is endless.

Which saxophone, mouthpiece and reeds do you use?

Selmer or Cannonball saxes, Otto Link mouthpieces and Rico reeds. Recently I've been trying out a new mouthpiece marketed by D'Addario - the Jazz Select. It's truly excellent, with a lot of projection and attack. I can recommend it to anyone looking for an alternative to the established mouthpiece brands. Check it out.

Can you name your favourite albums?

There are so many I like - however, if we're talking saxophone-wise, I'd pick Stan Getz' Sweet Rain, Sonny Rollins' Newk's Time, John Coltrane's Crescent and Tubby Hayes' Mexican Green as those that have had the biggest impact on me. I think my all-time favourite album is Miles Davis' Miles Smiles. There's something magical about that whole record.

What have you been listening to lately?

I find myself listening more and more to players that might be termed 'mainstream' by some critics; the great tenor voices from the 1940s to the 1970s - people like Coleman Hawkins, Lockjaw Davis, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and so on. I've always been aware of them, and always liked what they did, but as you grow a little older you hear something deeper. There's a real truth in their playing. It's not just about notes and chord changes and playing as hip as they could. It's about sound. I think you come to these things later in your musical journey.

What was your most recent album purchase?

My hobby is hunting charity shops for jazz albums. I hardly ever buy new releases these days, I'm a little ashamed to say. Lately, I've picked up some great CDs by Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, the Benny Goodman Quartet, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz. I think it's rather amusing to find that my listening tastes have gone sort of full circle. When I started getting into jazz in my teens these were the sort of players I was mad about and I still am. Listening to them reminds me of how deep this music is...and how I'm only scratching the surface.

Do you have any thoughts on You Tube?

I have very mixed feelings regarding You Tube. Whilst I can see its value for allowing those who can't make it to gigs to check out a musicians playing, the fact that many of its submissions are filmed without the players agreement (and sometimes knowledge), without even a cursory question about whether the players mind, makes it very hard to regulate.

Are there any musical experiences from your career that stand out?

I've had some wonderful experiences playing music, but I think one of the very best memories must be working at Ronnie Scott's with the legendary Jon Hendricks, a truly amazing man both on and off the bandstand. I can remember him telling some hilarious anecdotes about Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk - it was quite something to hear all this from someone who was actually there.

I'd also number playing at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Ronnie Scott's 60th anniversary celebrations in 2019 one of the most memorable nights of my life. Being on-stage next to two of my earliest heroes - Courtney Pine and Alan Skidmore - was very special.

Which artists playing today inspire you?

Along with the musicians in my own band I'd also name Art Themen and Alan Skidmore, two esteemed veterans of the profession who always knock me out. There are other fabulous British players I like listening to as well. I've worked a bit with Trevor Whiting, who plays mainly on the more traditional/mainstream jazz circuit. I think he's an outstanding player with a great, authentic tenor sound - right out of the tradition. I like his playing very much. There are so many amazing saxophone players these days. But I think for sheer inspiration I most enjoy Alan Barnes. He and I share very similar outlooks on jazz and you can feel the whole tradition of the music in his playing and writing.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of jazz?

Yes, many! I think as jazz enters its second century it'll change into something else entirely - as it always has done and as it always should. I don't think anyone can hold it back, nor should they. For example, the music of Ellington and Basie has very little cultural relevance to a young player attending a jazz course these days - and why should it; it belongs in a different time space and is from a distant generation. However, I do object to people using the J label simply to elevate musics that aren't as accomplished, or to give a project a certain kudos it might otherwise lack. I'm also a bit wary of too much eclecticism, especially when it's done very self-consciously. Sometimes, it would be better if people were just honest and called their music jazz-flavoured or improvisation-based rather than jazz. As an idiom jazz should be respected and not thought of as something you can toy with. It doesn't mean people shouldn't experiment. Is Evan Parker jazz? Yes, to me he is, whereas certain contemporary piano trios sound more like prog-rock to my ears. As a player, I just stick to my guns - it's the only way to stay sane! I like to play standards and jazz tunes with a swinging rhythm section. It may not be rocket science but it's what I like to do. If that format was good enough for Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, Zoot Sims, who I am to disagree?

What are your musical goals?

To eventually come up with something that I can be proud of. Simple as that. So far, I've not come anywhere near.

You write about jazz as well as play gigs. Which do you prefer?

I enjoy both in different ways. Writing is an outlet for what I've learned about jazz history - I love researching the stories of the music and its great figures. Playing brings different emotions and requires a more 'in the moment' mindset. I try to balance the two.