Simon Spillett Quartet swing hard in homage to Harry South

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Harry South has been an overlooked figure in British jazz, yet this pianist, composer and arranger not only played with some of the major musicians of his time – including Tubby Hayes, Dick Morrissey and Joe Harriott – but was held in such high esteem generally that when Georgie Fame decided to record his 1965/6 album Sound Venture, Harry was the arranger and big band leader that the young vocalist wanted.

As a celebration of his life and work, the Spice of Life saw Simon Spillett perform an evening of numbers associated with Harry, to coincide with the release of The Songbook, a 4CD set of Harry's work. An appropriate choice of saxophonist, given Spillett's in-depth knowledge of the playing of Hayes and Morrissey and his own straight-ahead technique.

Kicking off with 'Downhome', which was the Morrissey/South theme tune, the quartet showed immediately what the audience could expect – a hard driving attack full of fluency and swing, using the compositions as vehicles on which the soloists could stretch out. Baltimore-born bassist Tim Wells held a pivotal position around which the others weaved and he took impressively lyrical and commanding solos; Spillett's muscular, full-toned approach combined with fast sinewy lines while pianist John Horler and drummer Trevor Tomkins showed the kind of interaction that often only comes with years of playing together.

The Stan Tracey ballad 'Little Miss Sadly' (Spillett's tenor moving from forthright blowing to a mellow response) and 'Off The Wagon', were taken from the Morrissey/South album Here and Now, as was 'Corpus', in which Horler's variations drew sensitive and thoughtful support from Tomkins, who adeptly alternated between sticks, brushes and rutes to create the desired effect. In return, the pianist's economy of touch through an occasional chord, phrase or note during the drum solo on 'Simple Waltz', underlined their mutual awareness. And when Spillett came in to double the tempo, there were smiles all round and Tomkins, completely unfazed, took it in his stride and once more showed what an excellent player he is.

Other numbers played included 'The Scandinavian', Leroy Anderson's 'Serenata' and 'Sound of Seventeen', all introduced by Spillett's laconic wit, making this a special night, especially for members of the South family who were in the audience and for the distinguished writer Brian Case, a connoisseur of hard edged tenor men, making one of his rare and welcome excursions into Soho.

– Matthew Wright
– Photo by Paul Pace