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?

Over the past few months I've been revisiting the work of several players that I hadn't checked out in a long time - or at all! Booker Ervin is one - I love his energy and drive and sheer individuality, especially on his mid-Sixties Prestige albums. Another player I've been listening to a lot over the past few months is Richie Kamuca. His work on those Shelly Manne Blackhawk and Lighthouse records is beautiful.

What was your most recent album purchase?

Yet another copy of Coltrane's My Favourite Things. I love that record and the tracks on the B-side are among my very favourite Coltrane recordings. Just check out Elvin Jones on the coda of But Not For Me!

Will you be recording any more albums?

I really don't like recording so therefore I have no plans to record again at present. I try not to be coy about these things - my playing on all three albums is pretty terrible, with Sienna Red the worst of all, and I think just as a camera doesn't lie neither does a recording microphone. I've never been able to relax when recording and become hugely intimidated by the whole process. It's Catch-22 really. I suppose if I recorded more I might get used to it but when I hear the fundamental faults exposed on my existing albums it's the last thing I feel like doing. The thing I really dislike is that I can't rectify what's on those records - they're bad and so people who buy them are unlikely to want to come to a gig, which is ironically the one place where I feel most comfortable playing. I didn't record for seven years, thinking I'd cure the issues by laying off but when we did Square One in 2012 it showed there was no change. So, never again.

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. Therefore a musician operating these days often has very little say in what gets put before the public. There are also other issues concerning recording/sound quality. My own experiences with You Tube have been, sad to say, mostly unhappy ones. And, of course, as with everything in cyberspace You Tube is a magnet for clever so and so's who like to tell you what you're doing wrong whilst they conveniently hide behind cryptic usernames. That's the main thing I dislike about it: I put my name on what I do - many online commentators don't have the guts to do the same.

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.

You've won several awards over the past few years. How does winning these effect your career?

When I won the BBC Rising Star back in 2007, Martin Drew said "Congratulations! You'll never work again!" He was only half-joking. I had the quietest year ever following that. Awards are nice and they help with certain bits of publicity but they're largely cosmetic. I recently won one for being The Most Vicarious Jazzman in the UK. Or something like that.

Is there any aspect of being a musician you dislike?

Musically, no, although I do prefer to play with people who give 100%. Other than that the only thing that really bugs me is how some of those who come to gigs show little respect of awareness of what music means to the those performing. There's nothing worse than someone talking down to you because you're a "muso" and assuming that apart from when you're playing you clearly must be some kind of dysfunctional waster. All the best musicians I've met have been highly motivated and dedicated - it's never just a case of "turning up and playing whatever you want for a couple of hours". 

Which artists playing today inspire you?

Along with the musicians in my band I'd also name Peter King, Art Themen and Alan Skidmore, three 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.

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. The example I'd use is this: Johnny Griffin recorded an album of folk tunes back in the early 1960s, which he, piano, bass and drums turned into scorching bop. If that record was made now, the folk element would be dominant, with the producer saying something like "hey, you know what would be good? We bring in a bunch of real folk musicians." To me jazz is strong enough to stand on its own feet and still be engrossing on many levels. Take Coltrane too: when he recorded things like Ole and Africa he used jazz instrumentation only; Ellington did the same with his Latin American Suite - there wasn't a percussionist in sight, just piano, bass and drums. Sometime, 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!

What are your musical goals?

To eventually come up with something that I can be proud of. Simple as that.

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.