Scott Hamilton, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London

While other saxophonists were busily contemplating the wonders of harmolodics, subtones and Asiatic scales, New Englander Scott Hamilton found his inspiration in the full-toned, melodic tenor saxophonists who strode through the 1940s. Born in 1954 and self- taught from his father’s record collection, Hamilton released his first album on the mainstream jazz label Concord in 1977. Now living in the UK, but still recording for Concord, he plays as though insulated from the vagaries of jazz fashion, taking the American songbook as a harmonic reference and the blues as a spiritual guide.

At this gig, Hamilton and his acoustic piano trio hit all the right buttons – lush ballads made sexier by the sound of swishing brushes; jaunty mid-tempos driven by measured walking bass; heated exchanges between soloist and rhythm section to add spice. Most importantly, Hamilton, very much the lead soloist, is a brilliant improviser in the mainstream tradition, and a master of his chosen style. He has a rich, centred tone, is relaxed on the fastest tempi, and subtly decorates his melodies, wrapping their sustained notes in vibrato.

But Hamilton not only plays a good tune, he is also a brilliant storyteller, spinning phrases at will. Poignant ballads such as “This Is All I Ask” and “The Man with the Horn” were sensuous and full of yearning, while bouncy swingers suh as “Lil’ Darling” and “Robbins Nest” had an underlying sense of triumph in adversity. Playing on the cusp of modernism – Dizzy Gillespie’s “Blue and Boogie” and “Groovin’ High” were highlights – he has an underlying chromatic edge that is at odds with his at-ease stage manner. Appropriately, his natural speaking voice is remarkably close to that of actor Jack Nicholson.

The rhythm section played their supporting roles with expertise and some flair. Bassist Giorgos Antoniu tossed the odd quote into his singalong bass solos, John Pearce provided well-crafted piano voicings and solos, while Steve Brown’s incessant cymbals were just right. But it is Hamilton’s gorgeous tone and joyful control that lingers.
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