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Interview ‘He was the other half of my heartbeat’

CHRIS SEARLE speaks to drummer Spike Wells about his experience playing with the great Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins

BOBBY WELLINS (1936-2016) was one of the truly great saxophone virtuosi of British jazz.

Born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, to showbiz parents, he entered the RAF as a musician, and on being demobbed, played in the late 1940s with Buddy Featherstonhaugh and Tony Crombie’s Jazz Inc. In the early 1960s he joined Stan Tracey’s Quartet, making the 1965 epochal album inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and the equally fine With Love from Jazz. The break-up of the quartet and almost a decade of struggle against addiction and depression followed, but by the late 1970s he was back again, playing as powerfully as ever with a new quartet, with bassist Adrian Kendon, drummer Spike Wells and pianist Pete Jacobson.

The two limited-edition albums made by the quartet in 1978-79, Jubilation (recorded live at the Hanbury in Kemptown, Brighton), and Dreams are Free, are now rereleased by Jazz in Britain with the title What Was Happening, with several additional tracks.

I ask Wells about his own life in music and his long sonic brotherhood with Wellins. 

He was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1946: his father was an amateur violinist in the Royal Navy, his mother a housekeeper who played piano. As a teenager he liked big band (Glenn Miller), traditional (Louis Armstrong) and bop (Dizzy Gillespie) with a “passing interest” in rock and roll. He took piano/cello lessons from nine, and was a self-taught drummer from 14, inspired by records by the great jazz percussionists Max Roach and Art Blakey.

At university in Oxford he played with local modern jazz groups, “and got to know the pros who came from London to play with us: Tony Coe, Joe Harriott and Bobby Wellins in 1965. Within a few months I was invited to join the Tubby Hayes Quartet. I was living in a flat with Tubby’s bass player, Ron Mathewson. When Tubby needed a new drummer Ron recommended that he come and audition me. I got the job,” he tells me.

”In 1977 Adrian Kendon invited Bobby to play at the Brighton Jazz Club, with Pete Jacobson on piano. It felt so right that within a few gigs, we decided to form a permanent quartet.”

I ask him how he compared playing with Hayes and Wellins, probably the two greatest British-born tenor saxophonists. 

“Tubby was a dominant, extrovert player who led from the front with a strong personality. Bobby was more subtle and more original — by which I mean less influenced by the styles of contemporary Americans. Bobby was also more integrated into the band and allowed everyone to contribute. He was also the first bandleader I worked with who shared the money equally.”

Wells’s feelings for Wellins went far beyond music: “He was my total soulmate — the other half of my heartbeat, as Dizzy said about Charlie “Bird” Parker. To me, Bobby’s playing was utterly magical. His tone was unique, his rhythm impeccable, and his melodic and harmonic ideas were stunning.

“Where it all came from I really don’t know — one small aspect was a Scottish keening a la bagpipes. His playing is instantly recognisable, and I share the view of several other musicians and critics that he is the most original tenor saxophonist this country has ever produced. He was a very close personal friend, from when we met until his death.”

What about the rest of the quartet? “Pete Jacobson was phenomenal. Blind from shortly after birth, classically trained, he had a fantastic technique and a mastery of jazz that made him very inspiring to play with. Adrian Kendon is a fine bass player with great rhythmic drive and a large attractive sound. We seemed to jell perfectly as a rhythm section.”

I ask Wells which are his favourite tracks on the album: ”From the original albums I like Spider for its time signature changes, Dreams are Free for its structure, Aura for its pathos and Conundrums again for its time changes and key.

“From the extra tracks I like Softly … and the fast Billie’s Bounce — and Melancholy Baby with its accelerandi and decelerandi.”

And how would Bobby be most remembered? He named four matchless qualities: “His haunting tone, slow vibrato, sardonic lyricism and effortless swing.”

Wells carries on now-times with the QOW Trio. “Bassist Eddie Meyer introduced me to his young friend, the exciting young Irish tenor saxophonist, Riley Stone-Lonergan. We experimented in my Brighton front room and decided it was a marriage made in heaven! Two albums already and the diary for 2024 is filling up. The group is maturing nicely.”

Bobby’s spirit lives on: it’s still happening!

Bobby Wellins Quartet, What Was Happening is released by Jazz in Britain Records.

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