A jazz radical turns to the familiar
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.
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."
Hamilton knows the old-fashioned approach has not gotten much attention in the jazz world for many years. "When I first started playing back in New England," says this lad from Providence, "it was about the most unpopular thing to do. But I managed to work enough to make a living. Anyway, I don't see why you have to play in the same style that's been prevailing. After all, the kind of music we play has been around longer."
In the beginning, things were hard, and Hamilton knew he might have to switch to "something popular -- a rock band or something." There were other jazz styles he might try, too, though he probably would have avoided some fashionable routes at all cost -- such as the Coltrane approach, which he "doesn't really understand."
But he soon discovered "there is an audience for my kind of jazz." And he knew he had an asset: "What I do isn't hard to get acquainted with. Anybody can come in and listen and understand what's going on." His carrer zoomed ahead. In fact, he says, "It's been kind of handed to me on a platter. I've never had to do something I don't like for a living."
The first thing you notice at a Hamilton set is the smoothness, the gentleness of the sound. That's on purpose, and it could be a main reason for Hamilton's appeal to listeners who reject the heavy amplification of most current jass and rock. "I've played in a lot of laud bands," says the saxophonist, "and never really enjoyed it. I don't like listening to that kind of sound, or playing it. Whether the audience likes it or not, I always feel I'm assaulting them. And I don't feel that's what it's all about.
"Of course, my listeners and I are in a minority. I don't think you can have a huge mass audience with this kind of music. But the people who do follow it are strong, and not fickle. If they like you, they'll stick by you."
Though he feels there's a limit on the popularity of his music, Hamilton doesn't really mind, partly because he mistrusts the wiles of fame. "I don't feel there are many entertainment stars who really enjoy things," he says. "The bigger you are, the less control you have over your life." And anyway, the music is the main thing. "I'm working with musicians I've always dreamed of," he says happily.
What does he listen to on his own? He likes piano players a lot -- Art Tatum and Errol Garner, among others -- and singers like Frank Sinatra and Billy Holiday. And newer folks? "I'm not very hip," he admits. "i've heard most of the important new jazz stars at least once or twice, and I'm impressed by a lot of them. But I'm not very knowledgeable about it."
How about material? Will he stick to the classics forever? "I don't know," he says. "I could, I guess. I try to keep myself fairly loose. Actually, the material isn't as important as what you do with it. I try to keep things coming into the repertoire -- there are thousands of nice tunes that haven't been used widely in jazz, and once in a while I hear a new song I like, too. But I put things aside if I stop playing them freshly."
As for the current jazz scene, Hamilton feels it's very healthy "because there aren't too many people in warring factions, as there used to be. In the past five years, everyone seems to have a liberal attitude -- peaceful coexistance and all that.
"It's the most important thing that's happened to jazz recently: People are getting intelligent and listening to differentm types of things.I don't hear as much as I'd like, because I have my work, and I'm on the road a lot. But there's so much available -- it's silly to have some critic say thism is the real jazz and thatm isn't. The whole point is doing what feels good to you!"
Back in the 1950s, when jazz was taking off in wild new directions, TV comedian Sid Caesar used to poke fun with a character named Progress Hornsby, who included a radar player in his band -- "to warn us in case we approach the melody." For listeners who smiled in sad agreement, and haven't had much to smile at since Scott Hamilton is a fresh breeze that blows nothing but good. To fans of all ages, from teen-agers on up, he's a young man with a big horn and a very big future.