Scott Hamilton At The PDX Festival

When Scott Hamilton came to prominence in the 1970s he was a jazz wunderkind unlike any other saxophonist of his generation. He was twenty-two years old when he arrived in New York from Providence, Rhode Island in 1976. Most of his saxophone contemporaries wanted to be John Coltrane, blazing trails through the post-bebop era. Hamilton wanted to be Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn. He was dedicated to Scott Hamiltonunadulterated swing and harmonies not altered by complex chord substitutions. His untutored natural musicianship established him in the music before he reached the age of 30. Carl Jefferson, the founder of Concord Records, became enamored of Hamilton and recorded him frequently, to the point, I recall, that a prominent record producer exclaimed, “Good Lord, how many Scott Hamilton records does the world need?” The last time I checked, Hamilton’s album count as leader or co-leader was 102.

The world may not need Scott Hamilton records, but the evidence says it wants them. They keep selling, and he keeps filling concert halls and clubs. Last night at the Portland Jazz Festival, he filled Jimmy Mak’s, one of the primary listening spots in a city whose number of jazz clubs seems to belie speculation that the music’s audience is declining. He plays by ear—distinguishing him from the mass of musicians his age who tend to be rigorously schooled in harmony—and he plays with passion and humor. Hamilton is a quoter. In the course of “Cherokee,” for instance, he included, among other references, snatches of “Raincheck,” “Tangerine” and “March of the Siamese Children.” Hamilton appeared with pianist Dave Frishberg, bassist Dave Captein and drummer Gary Hobbs.

In the set I heard, Hamilton got off to a happy start with Hodges’ “Squatty Roo,” then floated into “In a Sentimental Mood,” his roomy, slightly grainy tone putting a bit of an edge on the Duke Ellington melody. In his solo, Frishberg was a pointillist, fragmenting the chords while building a lyrical solo. ThroughFrishberg from above the eight tunes of the set, Frishberg’s work emphasized the wisdom of simplicity. Sometimes he seasoned the simplicity with note-bending and explosive little left hand surprises. Captein’s power as a bassist does Dave Captein facing leftnot preclude precision and rapid articulation. Throughout the evening, he demonstrated his flexiility, notably in double stops in his solo on Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” Hamilton toasted Captein by quoting from “Cocktails for Two.” Hobbs solidified the reputation he developed when he was with Stan Kenton. He displayed plenty of power last night, but his most riveting moments were relatively quiet ones when he used brushes in exchanges with Hamilton and Frishberg. Gary Hobbs

Hamilton threw Frishberg a curve by calling the rarely performed Ellington ballad “Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile on My Face,” whose chord structure is unconventional and demanding. It turned out that Frishberg had never played the song. Hamilton went to the side of the stage and found a lead sheet. Frishberg studied the chords intently as he played the tune for the first time. The piece closed with Hamilton sustained and ethereal on a high note. Frishberg sighed deeply, shook his head and slumped in relief. Hamilton grinned with satisfaction at the success of the performance and the prolonged applause. Then he instructed the rhythm section, “B-flat,” set a riff, and the quartet played out on the harmonies of “I Got Rhythm.” They earned a standing ovation that lasted for a minute or two after they left the stand.

Further thoughts on the evening:

The softness and reflection of a Hamilton-Frishberg duet on “I Surrender Dear” was disturbed more than once by audience applause. Sometime, appreciation is more appropriately shown by silence.

Now and then a Portland MAX light rail train glided by just beyond the club’s big windows facing 10th Avenue. The passengers gazed in as we looked out at them. A woman on the train waved.

It’s good to be back in Portland.

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  1. Joe Lang says

    What a nice portrait of Scott. He has been a favorite since I saw him when he first arrived in NYC from Providence. In recent years I have seen him mostly sharing a front line with Harry Allen, and they sure bring back memories of Al and Zoot, a team that Frishberg often backed in the day at the legendary Half Note. W@hat memories!

  2. dick vartanian says

    Scott has been a real favorite of mine since I first heard him.I’m glad to know he’s still blowin’ around

  3. Don Glander says

    I had the pleasure of catching Scott Hamilton’s four sets with Rosano Sportiello on the 2012 jazz cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale last February…each set was absolutely terrific…The man always plays his best, every number, every set…what a treat! Don Glander

  4. says

    Excellent posting, and I vividly recall when he and Vache appeared on the scene, playing “old” beyond their years and making a kerfuffle of the straight ahead scene. His repertoire is voluminous, and having seen him over the decades (although not in some time) he has grown in sound and stature. And only those with the right ears hear the quotes, which is the beauty of poetic, real time fun on stage. He also picks great rhythm sections, and my guess was that he was in Portland because of Frishberg, which makes perfect sense-so few play that pointilist, John Lewis-piano that swings and swings-with humour.

  5. Mike Harris says

    I’ve wondered for many years why Hamilton seems to get so little airplay on the radio, given that his improvisations always seem so direct and ingratiating, with a full tone and a swinging band.

  6. Charlton Price says

    Back when he was 22 or so I caught Scott at Blues Alley in DC. Spectacular, as Doug reports. Jake Hanna remarked laconically later to me: “He doesn’t read. I hope he doesn’t learn.”

  7. David says

    I haven’t gotten around to all 102 of Scott’s albums yet, but would like to mention one favorite. A 1992 Concord session called Groovin’ High features three highly compatible and equally talented tenors: Scott, Ken Peplowski, and Spike Robinson. The interplay between the three generates considerable heat on numbers like “Blues Up and Down” and choruses of seductive beauty on numbers like “Body & Soul.”

    • David says

      Possibly better described as an informal concert with interview excerpts between numbers. Also available on a high quality DVD (“In a Sentimental Mood”). Yes, definitely a gem!