In the autumn of 2007 producer Dave Bennett invited me to record an album with veteran British jazz tenor star Danny Moss, with whom I’d recently played a few gigs. Naturally I jumped at the idea and, over the course of several sessions taped at Dave’s home studio in Basingstoke, we set down not one but two albums’ worth of material, in the very heavy company of such musicians as Mike Carr, John Pearce, Len Skeat and Martin Drew. These were to be Danny’s final recordings; although already gravely ill with the cancer that would finally kill him less than a year later, he delivered a masterclass in jazz improvisation, his spirit and enthusiasm undimmed in the face of horrendous odds. It was both a privilege and a life-affirming experience to make music in these circumstances, one which made a huge impression on myself as a young saxophonist. This was one of those moments you sensed would never come again; the actual opportunity to make a recording alongside a genuine giant of jazz saxophone.
Sadly, for various reasons, these sessions remain unissued and I no longer seem to have any rough copies of the resulting recordings. I doubt very much if they'll ever be released but should they appear now, I’m certain they’ll show just how overawed I was in such company. However, during the production process for one of the albums – mooted to be titled ‘Similar Souls’ - I was asked to write a sleeve note giving some background to my relationship with Danny and detailing how the sessions came about. This is that sleeve note, unedited and unchanged in any way since it was written in December 2007. Reading it again I’m not altogether happy with some sentiments I expressed back then but at least, in lieu of the actual music, I have some sort of record of what was, for me, a wonderful moment in time. I only wish I’d savoured it more and, truth be told, made a better job of the music itself. It feels like another life belonging to someone else and, quite honestly, I didn't know how lucky I was.
Danny Moss and Simon Spillett: Similar Souls (unpublished sleeve notes)
The title of this album might initially seem like yet another exercise in quick-fix marketing for a double-headlined jazz recording session. The age difference between Danny and myself could have also led to all kinds of 'Young Lion meets Old Tiger' by-lines and such but thankfully the chosen title sums up - I think perfectly - an affinity I’ve shared with Danny for quite some time, but which until recently I hadn’t really realised ran so deep.
The thrust of my contribution to the sleeve notes on this release will concentrate naturally on my partners playing but before I do that I’d like to say a few words about what this session - or rather the experience of getting to know Danny - means to me.
I was born in 1974, which puts me squarely in the generation of jazz musicians who grew up after the rise of the late lamented Michael Brecker, indisputably one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in jazz and a performer whose influence has been ubiquitous. One of the greatest musical evenings of my life was seeing Brecker at Ronnie Scott’s - and there were similar awe struck nights there watching the late Bob Berg and Joe Lovano. I love this stuff but, as a player, it’s not in my head and certainly not under my fingers.
As everyone probably is tired of hearing now I’m very fortunate - and humbled - to be often bracketed with the name of the late Tubby Hayes. True, Tubby, alongside Ronnie Scott and Dick Morrissey had - and continues to have - a huge impact on me. But there are others, one of whom is Danny Moss.
We have a very rich seam of tenor saxophonists in this country, stretching right back to Jimmy Skidmore and up to contemporary giants like Mornington Lockett, and Danny Moss is assured a very special place in that litany, perhaps for more reasons than are immediately obvious.
That Danny has been one of our best jazzmen for close to sixty years is of course beyond doubt. That he has received a rare honour from his sovereign is another noteworthy recognition of this singular achievement. But to me, by far the most important aspect of Danny’s career is that he has consistently championed a form of jazz expression that to those too ill-informed to make a balanced judgement might appear second hand and old-fashioned.
I first heard Danny live in 2003 and the instant stamp of the massive authority of his playing shook me. Here was a man with 100% dedication to his way of playing jazz. It mattered not one jot that he’d been doing it for several decades before I was born. To call him good of his kind doesn’t quite sum him up. He’s a master.
Fast forward two years and Danny and I found ourselves on the same bill at the prestigious Brecon Jazz Festival. My quartet were going on halfway across town about fifteen minutes after Danny’s set ended, but I was determined to catch his entire performance. He blew the roof off the marquee and I zoomed off to my set both inspired and daunted.
Towards the end of 2006 our mutual friend, the great pianist John Critchinson, introduced me to Danny. Before I could really say anything more coherent that ‘er…that was….er…marvellous…’ Danny rounded on me and said 'Ah. I’ve heard a lot about you. Do you know what Lockjaw Davis said to me when we met? I’m gonna break your arms cos’ you’re good!'
Safe to say my arms stayed unbroken and Danny and I agreed to try and get some gigs together upon his return to the UK in summer 2007 for an extensive four month tour. Due to the tireless promulgation of Susan May - one of our best mainstream jazz promoters - Danny and I found ourselves sharing the stand on several gigs that summer, and we had a ball. Danny also returned the earlier Brecon favour by coming and joining none other than Art Themen in my concert audience. That certainly gees you up a bit!
After the gig, Danny mentioned that his friend and ceaseless champion Dave Bennett - who has recorded a veritable cornucopia of sessions by Danny (with everyone from Acker Bilk to Stan Tracey) for his Avid label - was interested in having us make an album. This is that album.
Getting to know Danny has been a blessing. For starters, he has been very vocal in his endorsement of my playing. More importantly he is willing to talk about his many years in the business and pass on his experiences. Quite simply, he is walking jazz history. For example, one night he casually let slip that he’d played with Louis Armstrong. There aren’t many around who can boast that claim to fame.
For me, Danny’s most pertinent comments were on the basis and growth of his own style of playing, which is I suppose if we need labels is an outgrowth of ‘Texas Tenor’ - in this instance from Sussex, England.
Danny told me that back in the 1950s, all his contemporaries from Tubby Hayes to Don Rendell and beyond were busy keeping pace with the ever changing cutting edge of jazz tenor whilst Danny himself had a recurring urge to just ‘play it like I feel it’, which in his case meant going back a little way beyond the bebop of his early years to the classic swing sounds of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller. Apparently an encouraging remark from no less a figure than Count Basie clinched Danny’s decision. That was the way he was going, as he puts it ‘no matter what’.
Before anyone thinks this essay is about to take a turn towards the ‘Danny Moss as a jazz anachronism’ argument let me say unequivocally he isn’t!
I think it was Digby Fairweather who wrote that Danny did in the late 1950s what Scott Hamilton was to do in the late 1970s but to fewer fanfares. Simply he proved that it is possible for a jazzman to assume a style to which he has neither chronological alignment nor indeed a geographical birthright and become not only a successful exponent of it but a truly individual one. Danny has done this in spades.
This all leads me to my opening point about the title of this album - Danny and myself being ‘Similar Souls’. I’m not protesting about any kind of artistic equality (by golly, I learned more in one day in the studio recording with Danny than I have in years!) but I think Danny recognises the enthusiasm I have for a way of playing that isn’t….well…isn’t currently preoccupied with breaking down major jazz barriers.
When we’ve talked about his old friend Tubby Hayes, as we inevitably do, Danny always stresses that whenever he and Tubby played together - which was rare (there’s one priceless broadcast where announcer Kenneth Alsop confuses them) - they tacitly agreed to play their own way; ‘If I’d gone his way, he’d have eaten me alive.’ Danny adds knowingly ‘And vice versa’.
So, as in all honest jazz, that’s what we’ve done here. However, make no mistake, this isn’t some desiccated and removed occasion wherein the two protagonists simply happen to find themselves blowing in the same studio. For my part Danny certainly made me play different.
As someone who has - in an alter ego role - written a lot about jazz, I know language always fails ultimately to convey the magic of the music. And so, if I could sum it up, Danny’s playing is so strong, it’s a bit like sitting next to a whirlpool of swinging, full-toned energy. You can’t help but go his way. To this end, throughout the weeks when I was working with Danny, and on the nights shuttling to and from Dave Bennett’s studio (of which more anon) I found myself listening to players I hadn’t - to my shame - checked out in ages: Hawk, Ben, Lester, Don Byas, Zoot, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Lockjaw, Georgie Auld.
These players, and of course Danny himself sitting right next to me, reminded me rather abruptly what a rich and seductive approach to the tenor emerged from what we call the ‘Swing Era’. As an all too enthusiastic jazz collector I spent a great deal of my late teens buying albums by these giants and I fell in love and wanted to play exactly like - at various times - Hawk, Ben, Prez, Byas and Zoot, just as I also fell in love with Coltrane and Getz. Knowing their music transformed and enriched my life, a point worth stressing as audiences and sometimes fellow musicians fail to appreciate how catholic a musician's tastes might be.
To my mind, Danny is right up there with the greats. And his deserved ascendancy isn’t simply down to the inevitable depletion of available jazz giants. In tone, in that elusive yet ever so certain quality called swing and in his tasteful harmonic choices he’s accomplished something which is every jazz musicians quest: to have an identity.
Danny’s very keen to stress that back forty or so years ago a tenor player could usually be identified at the drop of a stylus. In the hands of an armchair curmudgeon this declaration could be a depressing indictment on the present state of jazz but in Danny’s case, it illustrates that he listened far and wide for inspiration and enthusiasm.
After one of the sessions for this album, Danny waxed lyrical about Eddie Miller, a player who these days hardly gets a mention and who, I’ll wager, isn’t even a footnote on a college syllabus. In the same breath he told me that when he first heard Johnny Griffin at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, he felt like ‘jumping in the sea and swimming back to England’.
As with our co-headed gigs, there will doubtless be a few eyebrows raised over our pairing on this recording (I joked throughout the sessions that the album would eventually be titled ‘Danny Moss and Simon Spillett: Why?’). However, the music should speak for itself.
It would also be ignorant of me not to make mention of the esteemed colleagues who made this album with us: Mike Carr, the Hammond organ powerhouse who reverted to piano for one date: John Pearce, as dapper and elegant a piano player as you could wish to hear, who swings like the proverbial clappers and is without doubt one of the finest accompanists anywhere: Martin Drew, a legend who has swung everyone from Oscar Peterson on down and bassist Danny Moss Junior, whose skilful and energised playing throughout this album is definitely a chip of the old block.
A word too for Dave Bennett. These sessions were actually my first encounter with Dave, a man whose sheer enthusiasm for jazz led him to build a recording studio underneath his back garden! And not just any studio. The place has atmosphere in abundance; teetering piles of CDs, racks of mouth-wateringly rare vinyl, old 78rpms, master tapes, walls lined with photos of jazz icons. It is the kind of place where a musician feels more in touch with the outside world of jazz than in most studios. It’s intimate for sure - the first time I’ve ever recorded on someone’s lap - and for all the world it reminded me of a picture I once saw of Les Koenig’s Contemporary studio. Not so much a room for recording, more an environment where jazz takes place and just happens to be caught in perpetuity.
The sessions themselves were very informal affairs. We’d decide a tune, pick a key, have a brief top and tail run through and put the light on. The results, I feel, do have a marked atmosphere of spontaneity and the sessions were, to date, the most relaxed I’ve felt in a recording situation. I don’t believe there is much merit in outlining individual tracks - the listener will do that themselves - but an explanation of the instrumentation of several numbers is perhaps necessary.
On the first day of recording Mike Carr had to leave early and we thought that would be it for the day. However, after a convivial hour socialising - with Martin Drew and Danny keeping us all amused swapping 'on the road' stories - someone suggested we try a few tracks with just the two tenors and bass and drums. Things went so well that we emerged long past midnight having recorded another 45 minutes worth of music, some of which you’ll hear on this CD.
Finally, back to Danny. I’ll make neither light work or heavy weather of saying that, as many people know, Danny has been fighting a heroic battle with serious illness since 2005. Through a combination of a novel new treatment and his own bloody minded determination and spirit, not only has he been able to continue playing but to tour internationally. Throughout these sessions he displayed an unabated enthusiasm for his art, playing with a glorious joyful spark that was at times in distinct contrast to his physical condition. I have never ever seen a man with so much will to live and to give musically. The experience was something which moved me deeply and which I consider an honour to have been in on. Thanks Danny. You’re one in a million.
Photo: Gathering no: Danny Moss, circa. 1990.