Tubby Hayes Quartet ‘Grits, Beans And Greens: The Lost Fontana Studio Sessions 1969’ LP/CD/2CD (Decca) 5/5

These recently rediscovered studio sessions pose a chocolate box challenge for collectors and fans of British jazz: what to choose and where to start. Decca, the owner of the Hayes/Fontana back catalogue, has opted to make the recordings available in three formats; a five-track vinyl LP that speculates how the record might have been programmed for release fifty years ago, a single CD equivalent and a bumper double deluxe CD that includes multiple takes, studio chatter and breakdowns from the two studio dates of 27 May 1969 and 24 June 1969.

Perhaps the logical starting point is chronological: Hayes entered the studio in London for the first date with his new working quartet that included two youthful membership changes from the line-up that delivered 1967’s masterpiece, ‘Mexican Green’. Dublin guitarist, Louis Stewart (aged 24) and postgraduate student drummer Spike Wells (aged 22) had been with Hayes for only a matter of months and this was to be their first experience of the disciplines of the recording studio. It’s clear from his loose, relaxed drive that Wells was a natural in this environment but Stewart doesn’t seem to have been so at ease with his softer style betraying some nervous introspection. Perhaps as a result of this, the session produced just three complete takes of ‘Where Am I Going’ from the musical ‘Sweet Charity’. It’s instructive to listen to them back-to-back as the performances evolve. Each take follows the same structure and Hayes is clearly in command throughout as they gradually iron out the kinks, most notably on the transitions around the bass solos.

By June, Hayes’ former pianist, Mike Pyne, was available and replaced Stewart for the second session. Whether it was Pyne’s and Hayes’ mutual familiarity, the replacement of guitar with piano liberating Mathewson on bass or some other alchemy, the second session was much more productive. The band returned to ‘Where Am I Going’ and delivered three more complete (in every sense) takes, the first of which has been rightly selected for the single LP/CD release. The double CD edition provides multiple takes (and breakdowns) of three of the other four tunes tackled with ‘For Members Only’ the rumbustious exception needing only one attempt.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the preceding year of personal turbulence and ill-health for Hayes, he demonstrates a mature command of his instrument. Yes, there are fewer of his trademark extended high-speed lines and cadenzas but the pay-off is more considered note selection; everything seems meticulous yet natural. The slow tempo of ‘You Know I Care’ is so emotionally literate as to be redolent Dexter Gordon’s exemplary handling of ballads. Elsewhere there are echoes of other tenor stylists like Clifford Jordan, Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins but Tubby was always his own man and deploys his full range of technical bravado albeit in less sustained stretches than earlier in his career. It’s a delight to hear Hayes focus exclusively on the tenor saxophone and resist the temptations of soprano saxophone, flute and vibes. He was more than competent on all those other instruments but the tenor-led quartet was always the most compelling format for this Hayes listener.

Alongside the complete takes, Decca has chosen to include a number of breakdowns or incomplete takes in the two-CD version of this release. Some of these outtakes last but a few seconds and it is fair to question the value of their inclusion. For the casual listener, the single vinyl/CD version offers the best value for money; this distilled, concentrated dose of Hayes in action will be more than enough for most to appreciate his talent. However, for those with a deeper interest in the workings of jazz recording sessions and how a group quickly learns and adapts from its missteps, running through each take (complete or aborted) of each tune is a fascinating exercise.

Such an examination is made so much more enjoyable by Decca’s commendable choice to entrust the original analogue master tapes to the team at Gearbox Studios. Gearbox’s specialism in analogue mastering using carefully restored vintage equipment combined with its empathy for British jazz recordings made this the ideal choice. Even though this review was based on listening to digital files, it is clear that the sound quality is exceptional. My only gripe is Decca’s decision to limit the vinyl analogue release to just the single five-track LP. This seems an odd discrimination against exactly the audience that would be most likely to cherish the quartet’s music.

However, in the final analysis, that’s perhaps a churlish criticism. Decca could easily have opted to leave these important tapes unreleased and gathering dust in the vaults. After all, the evidence in favour of them was not propitious. Simon Spillett‘s highly regarded biography of Hayes afforded these sessions only a single paragraph and Hayes himself didn’t rate the results worthy of release at the time. Thankfully, fifty years of maturation and the benefit of hindsight enables us to hear this material afresh.

In his lifetime, the last of his material that Hayes saw Fontana release was the commercial compromise of ‘The Orchestra’, a record that frankly hardly deserves to be considered as jazz. Now, in the form of ‘Grits, Beans and Greens’ we finally have a bookend to the most illustrious career in British jazz that can serve as a fitting epitaph to the genius of our own Little Giant.

Martin Kelly

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Tubby Hayes ‘A Man In A Hurry’ DVD Documentary (Mono Media) 5/5