Tubby Hayes ‘The Complete Fontana Albums (1961-1969)’ 11LP/13CD Box Set (Decca) 5/5

Last Summer, Decca records unveiled a lovely surprise for fans of British jazz by releasing the previously “lost” Tubby Hayes’ ‘Grits, Beans and Greens’ Fontana LP recorded in 1969 but never released at the time. Now the company has followed up by making good on its promise to release an extensive Hayes Fontana box set.

In truth, the story of Hayes’ tenure with Fontana has its roots in the final period of his contract with Tempo Records. Tempo was a small operation enthusiastically led by Tony Hall but with its purse strings tightly held by its parent company – ironically also Decca! Hayes final record for Tempo (the excellent Tubby’s Groove) was a breakthrough and, in 1960, became the first British jazz LP to be lauded as album of the month by Melody Maker magazine. It went on to sell well almost in spite of a ludicrously low budget marketing campaign. The final straw came when Decca refused Hall the paltry £19 budget to record a follow-up (but that’s a “lost” Hayes LP legend for another time). So Hayes took matters into his own hands and directly approached Fontana’s UK boss, Jack Baverstock. It worked, as is evidenced by the decade’s worth of material collected in this set.

The vinyl version of the box set comprises 11 records that cover all of Hayes’ LPs as leader that were released between 1961 and 1970 with the addition of the aforementioned ‘Grits, Beans and Greens’. It’s a numbered limited edition only available online but how limited is unclear. The CD version goes a little further by adding both sides of a 1962 single as well as unreleased recordings, alternate takes and false starts from four of the albums: most excitingly, three complete previously unreleased takes from Hayes’ masterpiece ‘Mexican Green’. Wonderful as this is, it does expose Decca’s decision-makers to an obvious criticism that they’ve shown the same shameful and callous disregard towards vinyl collectors as they did with the release of ‘Grits, Beans and Greens’. The very audience most likely to rejoice in the additional material is denied it and not even offered the sop of a free download of the missing material. Decca isn’t alone in this policy as witnessed by the recent Miles Davis Bootleg series releases from Sony Legacy.

It’s impossible in the scope of a single review like this to provide a detailed critique of all the music in such a significant set. However, some important observations are in order to help potential buyers orient themselves, and there’s no better place to start than at the beginning. The first LP Hayes recorded for Fontana was ‘Tubbs’, which is somewhat of an unusual mongrel in that it stitches together tunes recorded in three different group configurations: the familiar quartet and two larger bands augmented by guitar, flute, oboe, trombone and various clarinets. It appears that the aim was to demonstrate the breadth and depth of Hayes’ talent (composer, arranger, musician) as a single “big bang” for his Fontana debut. I’ve always felt that the programming doesn’t come off. Taken individually, each performance is at least fine and in some cases, Cherokee for example, blistering but it demands a lot of any listener new to Hayes to switch mode from track to track.

If you are a Hayes neophyte, then the best advice for navigating such a volume of recordings is simple: the smaller the group, the stronger Hayes performed. In other words, you won’t go far wrong if you set your compass for the magnetic North of the quartet and quintet sessions. The live twins of ‘Down In the Village’ and ‘Late Spot At Scott’s’ have legendary status as the first live records taped at Ronnie Scott’s and feature Hayes’ regular working quintet at the time. They ease you into that genuine 1960s Soho vibe and expose you to Hayes’ gregarious wit as well as his wide-ranging talent. He was “the little giant” of the tenor but could also perform well on vibes (Down In The Village) and evocatively on soprano (In The Night).

Once you’ve got a handle on that highly representative set of performances, you have the choice of moving on chronologically to the mid-1960s big band records ‘Tubbs’ Tours’ and ‘100% Proof’ or skipping ahead to the advanced tour de force ‘Mexican Green’. I have to confess a personal lack of fondness for big bands so that kind of material doesn’t move me much but I know for others it is quintessential Hayes. The consensus about ‘Mexican Green’ is much more clearcut: this quartet date was by far Hayes’ most impressive and sophisticated record released during his lifetime. As the lone horn, there’s no hiding place for Hayes and he, true to his lights, doesn’t seek one. The opening three tracks alone: Dear Johnny B, Off The Wagon and the flute outing Trenton Place are worth the admission price several times over. Although Hayes is at his irrepressible best on these, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t generous with solo space for his new young rhythm section and their post-bop leanings.

There’s a carry over of the core of this quartet into the 1960 “lost” session and a continuation of Hayes’ efforts to meld his pre-existing style onto newer ideas. You can still hear the Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins influences but now those of Joe Henderson and, to some extent, John Coltrane have started to surface. As I wrote in my previous review of this disc for UK Vibe, had this record been released before Hayes’ death, it would have been a far more fitting epitaph than the one that was the final Fontana release he saw: ‘The Orchestra’. If there is a dud in this box set, then ‘The Orchestra’ is it, simply because it plays like an ill-conceived attempt to capture a commercial “easy listening” market. We will probably never know the thought processes that led to its recording, but I suspect that influences other than artistic ones were in control.

The music is accompanied by a lovely booklet containing some great photos and an extensive loving yet unsentimental essay by Simon Spillett who has unrivalled Hayes expertise as his biographer. The remastering by Gearbox Records from original master tapes using vintage analogue equipment is both sympathetic to the source and delivers magnificent audio. I compared more than half of the new pressings to original first pressings and the differences are wafer-thin. For the overwhelming majority of people, the combination of silent new vinyl and rarity/expense of the originals will make the choice of this new box set a no-brainer. Yes, there is a quibble about short-changing vinyl collectors versus CD collectors; there is the unexplained decision to use a mono master of ‘Late Spot at Scott’s’ while opting for the stereo master of ‘Down in the Village’ which draws on material recorded on the same dates, and there are the rather flimsy facsimiles of the original covers. However, these pale into insignificance given the historical importance and quality of musical and mastering execution.

Martin Kelly