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A jazz radical turns to the familiar

By David Sterritt / June 10, 1981

New York

Leave it to a young radical like Scott Hamilton to come up with the wildest idea jazz has seen in ages. Bucking all the trends, ignoring all the experts, he has plunged into . . . the art of melody. In a world that thrives on rocks, fusion, "free" jazz, and such, he heads in just the opposite direction. His hallmarks are clean tunes, gentle rhythms, a delicately controlled tone.

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And what does he play? Songs! With beginnings and ends! Written before he was born! Of course, Hamilton is not the only young jazzman to cherish the old values. Another is cornetist Warren Vache, who has recorded a couple of fine albums with Hamilton: "Skyscrapers" and "With Scott's Band in New York City," both on the Concord Jazz label.

But there's something especially dramatic when a saxophone player chooses this path. One theory comes from critic John McDonough, who points out that brass instruments have been less affected by changing fashions. In strong contrast, John Coltrane and others "threw the reed instruments into such a state of chaos that anything resembling a pure tenor sound was virtually eclipsed by the barrage of honks and belches that were passed off as innovation and freedom."

I have a lot of affection for the "honks and belches" of a genius like Coltrane. But it's true that jazz has lost something in recent decades. You can hear that "something" in recordings by men who influenced Hamilton -- Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins. Through their younger followers, Illinois Jacquet and Paul Gonsalves, Hamilton discovered their work, and began learning the most important things he knows.

Listen to Lester Young, for instance, and you'll hear in a flash one source of Hamilton's breathy tone. Yet he makes it very much his own, and uses it as a mark of individuality. On his Concord albums with Buddy Tate (including his latest, "Scott's Buddy") you can spot which tenorman is playing almost all the time, largely because of Hamilton's consistent Webster-inspired smoothness, contrasted with Tate's sharper line.

If Hamilton is really distinctive, though, why talk about influences at all? Partly, because he is so young (in his mid- 20s) and still close to the origins of his style. And partly because it's big news to havem venerable influences like Webster and Young in this postmodern day and age.

I recently caught Hamilton's act at Sweet Basil, and talked with him between sets. He agreed there's been too much written about his influences, but he's not complaining, because good press is always valuable and his has been very good. For a young musician whose career is absolutely soaring, he's remarkably modest about his gifts and accomplishments. And he's right -- he doesn't have to blow his own horn. Blowing the saxophone is quite enough when you do it with his kind of panache.

Hamilton has wanted to be a musician as long as he can remeber. Why? "I just took to it," he says. As a child he listened to Louis Armstrong and Eddie Condon records. As for rock'n roll, "My father didn't like it, so we didn't have it in the house. I listened to it when I was 11 or 12, to be with my friends, but I always liked jazz, too."

He doesn't know why he latched onto the saxophone. "I just wanted to play a horn," he says. "I tried a couple of others, but they were too hard. I never could understand the concept of a brass instrument, and how you get your chops right for it.

"So I didn't do well on other instruments, though I had a good feeling for music. Saxophone isn't too difficult to play. I stuck with it when I decided the time had come to concentrate on something and try to become a professional."

He came to his present style naturally. "I've been attracted by a lot of different kinds of music," he says, "especially when I was learning how to play. But I always listened to this sort of thing, and I feel really at home with it. It's comfortable and attractive."