LP Review: Simon Spillett – Square One

Simon Spillett – Square One
(Gearbox GB1512. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

All the usual virtues of a Gearbox Records release are immediately apparent here. We have a heavy duty, precision engineered piece of vinyl packaged in the kind of striking cover art that Gearbox’s Darrel Sheinman favours with its clean, bold graphic design reminiscent of vintage Blue Note sleeves by Reid Miles. As usual, the record provides noise-free, deep and dynamic audiophile sound.

But in one crucial respect this latest LP is a significant departure from the norm. Previously Gearbox has concentrated on archival releases by departed jazz heroes like Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott, using sources such as unreleased BBC tapes from half a century ago.

This album, in contrast, has been newly recorded specially for Gearbox and features one of today’s finest young British sax players, tenor man Simon Spillett. And it is as fresh as today. Or tomorrow.

Side One opens with a Dizzy Reece composition, Shepherd’s Serenade. It’s a jaunty, infectious blast — Latin flavoured and immensely catchy. Make sure your loved ones aren’t around to cruelly mock your embarrassing attempts at producing vocalese or dancing along when you’re carried away by this track. Simon produces an uninhibited heartfelt cry from the tenor, signifying and sermonising.

John Critchinson offers perceptive and deft precision piano with a lovely sense of time before handing over to a pulsing pairing of Alec Dankworth on double bass and Clark Tracey on drums who then hand back to the leader to put on the finishing touches. Simon Spillett joyfully explores the contours of Dizzy Reece’s hypnotic riff. And then the quartet stops on a dime.

Next up is Square One, an original by Simon Spillett. It is melancholy and hip, with a buttonholing theme stated by the leader before turning into a showcase for John Critchinson. There’s a slinky nocturnal 1960s feel to the piece which brings to mind neon lights, gleaming sports cars and rainy Soho backstreets.

Yesterday I Heard the Rain by Armando Manzanero begins with a Coltrane shimmer of sound before turning into a beguilingly pretty ballad featuring delicate, filigreed piano courtesy of John Critchinson and soulful rhapsodising from Simon Spillett. A lonely, searching lyricism is the order of the day. It’s a lovely and eloquent performance.

Side Two opens with a blast from the past in the shape of a composition by another Dizzy — Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia. It is, appropriately, a scorcher with fiery bop pouring from the leader’s horn and Clark Tracey’s pulsing, hypnotic drumming weaving complex patterns with shimmering cymbals.

The appropriately titled Bass House by Jimmy Deuchar displays Alec Dankworth’s warm, supple, insinuating upright bass. It’s a witty, insouciant piece — conversational and swinging. John Critchinson provides lyrical, concise and studied piano.

The last track is a headlong plunge into Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night which here inspires an exemplary bop reading from the entire quartet — eloquent, ferocious and fast. Particularly of note is the nimbleness of John Critchinson, dropping seamlessly from solo to support as Simon Spillett takes over for a virtuosic conclusion, making for an exhilarating finale to an exciting album.

Gearbox Records should be congratulated on instituting a miniature jazz renaissance in the UK. Time was you could saunter down to your record shop and buy a long playing disc of superb jazz in a stylish cover and hurry home to begin many pleasurable hours at the turntable.

Now, thanks to Gearbox, those days are back again.

Categories: miscellaneous

6 replies »

  1. Andy, that's your choice. We're a vinyl record company because we believe audiophile quality records are good for the ears and the soul. It's an expensive process, but the the difference in sound quality is there to be heard. However, Simon is selling a CD version of this album exclusively at his gigs….musicians have go to eat too, right?

  2. Adam, that's very fair comment. Is there no way that the richness and dynamic of a well recorded LP can transfer to cd? I guess not. Best wishes, Andy.

  3. Andy, buy a record player, good music and good fidelity doesn't come cheap. Good Vinyl records have always been “not cheap”, but we are considering quality engineering. The vinyl LP was invented specifically as a medium for storing recorded sound, whereas the compact disc is a by product of computer data storage and was initially thrust down the throats (ears)of music buyers in an attempt to repackage and sell us music we already owned,CD was largely embraced and promoted by EMI as a means to turn around falling profits.
    Many music lovers have finally woken up to the reality that all the hype about CD was in fact just that

  4. Unfortunately I do not own a record deck, so I bought this album on CD at one of Simon's gigs, just this week in fact, and even in that format, and to these non-audiophile ear it sounds different to most current CD's. The music seems more able to 'breathe' somehow, Simon's tenor has a depth which I haven't heard before, it's as if it's in the room with you, and Clark's drum sound again has a real depth and naturalness – it sounds as if the drums weren't miked particularly closely, so you get some of the ambience of the room, too. This album could almost be a high-quality recording of a live set, not only does it sound great but the playing and choice of tunes is great too, and I think it displays Simon's ever-maturing style excellently. If I have a complaint, it's that the album is too short, but then obviously there is a greater restriction on duration with vinyl as compared to CD, but if it's a trade-off between quantity and quality, I'll take quality (of production and playing) any time. Thanks to everyone involved in this project. Cheers, Bob Green

  5. Many thanks Bob, will pass on your comments. Why the record sounds so good (to us too) is that the musicians played brilliantly that day and were recorded live in the studio, direct to stereo tape with no drop ins, edits or mixing down. Their performance was then mastered from the vintage Studer tape machine it was recorded on to a 1967 Scully lathe with Westrex amps – all completely in the analogue domain with no digital processing anywhere in the signal path.

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