Bassist Jeff Clyne has played with everyone from Tubby Hayes to John McLaughlin - but he’d still rather celebrate other musicians’ work than talk about his own. BRIAN BLAIN drew him out.
TWO TRUTHS EMERGE with blinding clarity about bassist Jeff Clyne, whose 50th year as a professional jazz musician this is. The first is that he’s constantly fascinated both by where jazz is going, and where it’s been. He’d much rather rave about a recent gig or recording (by old friends, or unknown newcomers - saxophonist Stan Sulzmann’s Neon and Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s trio are current favourites) than talk about himself. The second is that he’s a man who’s completely comfortable with his personal and musical situation. Jeff has worked with some of the most creative musicians on the planet, but balanced that with a stable family life with his children, Amy and Joel, and his schoolteacher wife, Chris.
‘There are two standout firsts in my British jazz life,’ the drummer John Marshall once told me. ‘One was the first time that I saw Phil Seamen play drums and I couldn’t believe anyone British could be so good. The other was the first time I played with Jeff Clyne, when we were depping in the Rendell/Carr Quintet. I just thought: “WOW – this is what it is supposed to be like”. His concept of time and counter-melody is probably still in advance of many of his ex-students, who now have big profiles themselves.’
Jeff Clyne is largely self-taught, and he must have been an astonishingly quick learner. From playing in the 3rd Hussars band while doing National Service in the mid 1950s (‘cymbals in the marching band, double bass in the orchestra and dance band’), he was playing with the Tubby Hayes Quartet on the opening night of the first Ronnie Scott Club in Gerrard Street in 1959.
‘I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was part of two really important events in British music,’ Jeff Clyne says. ‘One was the opening of Ronnie’s, and then in 1965, there was Stan Tracey’s recording of Under Milk Wood, probably the most famous modern British jazz record of all time.’
Jeff was with Tubby Hayes for a decade, also appearing in the co-led Hayes/Scott Jazz Couriers quintet. He was also involved in the Tubby Hayes Big Band that recorded the still astonishing 100% Proof.
‘If you worked hard, Tubby never had any complaints,’ Jeff says, ‘and because he was only two years older than me, he was incredibly supportive - like a mentor. As a bassist you need to play with powerful saxophone players to bring you along. We didn’t have that many in England, so I was fortunate to be with him for so long. He really forced me to play.’
Of all the challenging situations Jeff Clyne encountered as ‘modern’ began to shade into ‘contemporary’ in the ‘60s, it was the prospect of working with pianist Gordon Beck, and the legendary ‘free’ time drummer Tony Oxley that attracted him the most. That lineup seemed to offer some of the possibilities he had heard in the hugely influential Bill Evans Trio, with its bassist Scott La Faro. Alongside Beck, Jeff Clyne worked with John McLaughlin on the Experiments with Pops album - and later with Alan Holdsworth, another world-class guitar legend.
The bassist was also drawn into the totally free-music world of Trevor Watts and the late John Stevens, who he had met while on tour with Tubby Hayes in Germany. But Jeff was also playing straightahead with pianists Dudley Moore and Roy Budd, and then a completely different concept of time in Ian Carr’s Nucleus, with the 1970s emergence of jazz-rock.
‘I was also involved with albums with Neil Ardley, Mike Gibbs and Keith Tippett,’ Jeff says, ‘all of whom were part of this melting-pot atmosphere. I even put my toe in the water as a leader, with Turning Point.’ That fusion band also involved drummer Paul Robinson - later to work with Nina Simone - pianist Brian Miller, singer Pepe Lemer, and saxophonist Dave Tidball.
But Jeff doesn’t see today’s mellower and less experimental jazz era, with its emphasis on vocalists, as a retreat. ‘I’ve worked with some of the best singers,’ Jeff insists, ‘including Mark Murphy, Blossom Dearie, Norma Winstone, Annie Ross and Marian Montgomery. It’s a huge skill, and a rewarding, fulfilling role.’ The bassist is currently getting lots of space ‘within Nick Weldon’s beautifufully crafted arrangements’ with singer Andra Sparks. ‘And even a wine-bar gig,’ he says, ‘can be rewarding if you’re with someone really good. Of course, it would be nice to get a call from some hot new band - but there are so many good young players out there. I enjoy my teaching and the work I do. And as long as there are guys like Marc Johnson to listen to, and all the other great jazz being made today, I still find this music extremely fulfilling.’This feature originally appeared in Jazz UK Issue 82 (August/September 2008)