Tenor saxophonist, flautist, vibraphonist and composer Tubby Hayes, who died at the unconscionably young age of thirty-eight in 1973, was that rare thing among the first generation of British jazz musicians in the 1960sa player who was taken seriously by the hippest American musicians and audiences. He visited New York in 1961 and 1964 for well-received seasons at the Half Note, and went to Los Angeles in 1965 for a run at Shelley's Manne-Hole. An uplifting player, a gifted composer and technically advanced on each of his three instruments, Hayes first encountered his life-long friend and mentor Ronnie Scott when, aged 15, he asked Scott if he could sit in with his band. "This little boy came up, not much bigger than his tenor sax," said Scott years later. "Rather patronisingly I suggested a number and off he went. He scared me to death."
In an obituary for Hayes, Scott was quoted as saying he was "the best jazz musician this country ever produced." People say things such as this in obits, but Scott was in the right ballpark.
Jazz In Britain's 2xCD set Free Flight catches Hayes towards the end of his life, one night during an engagement at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in October 1972. Hayes was still struggling with the cardiac problems which had almost killed him a year earlier, and his longtime indulgences in heroin and alcohol were also coming home to roost. His tenor sound is a shade less like a blow-torch than it was in the 1960s; a contemporary writer described him as sounding in 1972 "like a heavier Stan Getz." The night's first set consists wholly of covers, three from the Great American Songbook and one from John Coltrane. Hayes is still steaming: his first solo on Coltrane's "Trane's Blues" lasts for eight fiery choruses. The second set comprises one cover and three Hayes originals, two of them, "Lady Celia" and "Sienna Red," written only recently. The third original, the flute feature "Trenton Place," had been in Hayes' set list since 1967, when he recorded it on what is widely regarded as his chef d'oeuvre, Mexican Green (Fontana, 1968).
Free Flight is also distinguished by Hayes' quartetcompleted by pianist Mick Pyne, bassist Ron Mathewson and drummer Tony Levinthe lineup which recorded Mexican Green. The band had drifted apart during the late 1960s / early 1970s, but were reunited on the night of the recording and are still killing it.
"What if?" history is a pointless exercise, but it is hard to avoid it after listening to this album, in particular to "Lady Celia" and "Sienna Red" (which is, unfortunately, cut short by the recording tape running out). Both tunes are built around whole-tone harmonies and suggest Hayes may have been stepping out in a new direction.
The album comes with a twenty-page liner booklet written by Hayes' biographer, Simon Spillett, which is particularly strong on mapping the eventful friendship between Hayes and Ronnie Scott. And, despite being sourced from a cassette recording that Ron Mathewson made on the night, audio quality is surprisingly good. This is a terrific addition to the Tubby Hayes archive.
CD1: I’ve Got You Under My Skin; Trane’s Blues; Someday My Prince Will Come; Seven Steps To Heaven (incomplete). CD2: Trenton Place; Lady Celia; I Thought About You; Sienna Red (incomplete).
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In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.