Saxophonist Scott Hamilton calls Pizza Express Jazz Club “a truly special place of jazz”. His new quartet album “Scott Hamilton Quartet at PizzaExpress Live In London” is being released on 14 April 2023. It is the first album to be released on new label PX Records(*) . Feature/ interview by Martin Chilton.
The PizzaExpress club in Soho was the first place in Europe that American tenor saxophone giant Scott Hamilton performed – back in 1979, when he was touring with trumpeter Warren Vaché – and it is fitting that it is one of his 2022 concerts, at the same venue, which is the first release from PizzaExpress’s exciting new record label, PX Records.
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Hamilton has enjoyed playing at the venue for more than four decades and the nine tunes on Scott Hamilton Quartet at PizzaExpress Live – in London feature his marvellous band (John Pearce on piano; Dave Green on bass and Steve Brown on drums) playing standards such as The Breeze and I. “It’s always been a high quality kind of jazz club and it’s great fun to play there because everything is quality,” says Hamilton in a zoom call from America. “We have a Steinway piano and we have a very decent sound system. You wouldn’t think that was a lot to ask, but it’s unusual. The PizzaExpress audience is great, too. Year after year they continue to be fun to play for. The audience is continually changing. You are playing for strangers more often than not, which is ideal.”
Hamilton, who was born in Providence, Rhode Island on 12 September 1954, grew up devouring the work of “obvious saxophone pillars” such as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and says he could cite an endless list of other inspirational players, including Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz.
One of the nine tracks is a scintillating version of “The Girl from Ipanema”, the 1960’s hit that featured Getz on saxophone and the ethereal voice of Astrud Gilberto. “I figured it was worth something in the recognition, but I actually like the song,” explains Hamilton. “It’s a great tune to play and although there is no way you can play it without a little bit of Getz seeping through, I have played it long enough to know that the trick is to find a way that doesn’t lean too much on him, because the original is a masterpiece and you are never going to be able to make that sound better than he did.”
Another tune from the same era is “The More I See You” – a standard written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordan, which became also a popular music hit. “I love the version by Chet Baker but I knew the song really well from it being a hit on the radio around the same time as Ipanema, when a young Mexican guy called Chris Montez sang a nice version,” adds Hamilton.
In his time Hamilton has recorded and played with some of the true legends of jazz, including vibes master Cal Tjader, guitarist Herb Ellis and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre. He also played in Benny Goodman’s septet and worked with Gerry Mulligan (he says he “learned a lot” from his fellow saxophonist when they rehearsed daily for three weeks at Mulligan’s house before recording their joint 1986 album Soft Lights & Sweet Music). All musicians must enjoy working alongside Hamilton’s golden sound and his unerring ability to add beautiful ornamental flourishes to melodies.
The power of his new live album, and his relaxed air on it, owes much to his band, who are deftly in tune with his elegant playing. Drummer Brown’s understated work is exemplary on “Blue ‘n’ Boogie”, one of two Dizzy Gillespie tunes on the album, while Green adds a sublime level of harmonic and rhythmic bass throughout. Pearce, an accomplished pianist, shines on his solo on Tin Tin Deo. “This group is my favourite group,” says Hamilton. “The other groups I play with won’t be too jealous, because they know how much I love playing with these guys. Individually they are all really, really great. The big thing is the way we play together. The four of us just works.”
Hamilton says he has fond memories of staying in the Pizza Express flat – something he and other PizzaExpress regular Mose Allison did with such frequency that they used to leave bags of coffee for whoever came next – and has deeply fond memories of socialising in London with his regular tour manager, the late and lovely Brian Peerless.
Hamilton, whose new album also features delightful covers of “Poinciana”, “Pure Imagination”, “The Summer Wind” and “Black Velvet” (a tune memorably recorded by another hero, Illinois Jacquet) and he remains busy, touring regularly at the age of 68. “I still love London, even today with all the frightening amount of construction that’s going on, and can’t wait to return,” he says.
The American is delighted at the arrival of a new record label in the capital, especially in what he calls an “unusual time” for the record industry. He is honoured that they are using his set for their debut release, part of a schedule that includes a live set from UK soul outfit Mamas Gun and future releases from multi-instrumentalist and producer edbl and rising band Native Dancer.
PizzaExpress Live – which has clubs in Holborn and Chelsea along with the Soho one – has showcased a remarkable array of talent over the years – Amy Winehouse, Anita O’Day, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison and Norah Jones included – and it remains, in Hamilton’s words “a truly special place of jazz”.
PP features are part of marketing packages
Scott Hamilton Quartet At PizzaExpress Live – In London is released on 14 April 2023 and available digitally, on CD and, from August, on vinyl. – PURCHASE LINK
(*) There are in fact two releases on 14 April, with Scott Hamilton as catalogue number 1 and the “incendiary UK soul outfit Mamas Gun” as number 2.