Nice work if you can still get it. . . and all that jazz

PEOPLE make jazz so complicated and it doesn’t need to be – so says Mick Hutton, who is one of Europe’s premier jazz double-bass players. We sit at a table in a sunny pub garden having a catch-up. It must be almost 35 years since we last met.

The last time I saw him, was in a venue somewhere outside Norwich in the mid 1970s. He was playing electric bass and singing backing vocals in a pick-up band for an American soul singer.

Tall, skinny, and denim-clad, with lank hair and Lennonesque specs, he was streets ahead, musically, of most of his fellow rock musicians – even as a teenager.

He’d been classically trained. He knew about stuff that most of us didn’t even know was stuff.

He’d left the Colchester Royal Grammar School by mutual consent. He’d been called to the head’s office to apologise for something he’d said or done and had refused to. “Either you change your attitude or you leave, Hutton,” he’d been told.

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The legend was that he’d said: “Ta-ra, then,” slung his jacket over his shoulder and walked. He never returned.

The list of where he’s played and who he’s played with since then, is formidable. It begins with Stan Tracey, Don Weller, Slim Gaillard, Humphrey Lyttleton, Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard, and runs on for several paragraphs.

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He’s played on about 70 albums. He’s toured the world with Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and played the Vienna Opera House with Nigel Kennedy. Not bad for a Colchester lad with an attitude.

In the 1970s, in a run-down student house on East Hill, which we all frequented between gigs, he’d sometimes sit at the battered old piano and play Schubert’s Who is Sylvia singing the words in a mock boy-soprano voice. It was simultaneously hilarious and moving.

He could play Grieg’s Wedding March and Chopin nocturnes.

The middle-class young women who also lived in the house could not equate this moody, teenage railway labourer – his job at the time – with the music that came out of him. “Who was that playing the piano last night?” they’d later ask. “Hutton,” we’d tell them.

The son of an army doctor – an RAMC kid, like me – I brought him home for lunch one Sunday and despite him looking even more disreputable than I did, my mum said: “What a nice boy.” She never forgot him.

In the pub garden, we now laugh about it. “Medical Corps people, Mick,” I say. “I reckon she could smell the RAMC on you.”

The band leader, Buddy Rich, once said that rock musicians only play rock music because they’re not good enough to play jazz.

I was indignant at the time. Now, however, whereas I still don’t necessarily agree with the statement, I do recognise that there are certain musicians for whom the rock genre is simply too confining. Mick Hutton was one.

I wasn’t surprised a few years later to hear that he’d defected from an electric to a double bass. It took him about a year to learn the thing.

You can be quite well regarded – famous even – as a jazz musician and still not be that well heeled. Mick Hutton was driving a London tube train for a few years.

We exchange lists of musicians’ other jobs. I offer taxi-driving, kitchen portering and gardening. Mick returns accountant, barrister, orthopaedic surgeon and GP.

Jazz is bigger in the professions than rock, it seems. It figures.

He was doing brilliantly, until a few years ago, when disaster struck. A serious hand injury stopped him playing double bass. He doesn’t elaborate, but I would guess that it devastated his life somewhat.

He couldn’t play bass for six years. Finally, he had an operation.

When he began playing again, he had to develop a completely new technique.

Not that he’d been idle in the intervening period. He learned to play the steel drums, he also took up percussion and, of course, he kept composing.

Now he’s match-fit again and out on the road with his band, The Mick Hutton Group, and a brand new album, Knackered Academics.

He maintains that those Chopin pieces he learned as a kid are still a salient influence on his music. And he’s working again, although not as much as in the past.

As with everything else, at the moment, there isn’t quite as much work about.

“There were huge amounts of work, in the old days,” he recalls. “I once did 500 gigs in 11 months.”

There’s a new generation of jazzers coming up now and quite few more double-bass players among them, he tells me. “The standards are higher, too.”

“I saw Ian Thomas the other day, who was on that Madison Square Gardens concert with Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood. I asked him how he was doing. He said ‘Oh, I haven’t got much work.’ Everyone’s saying the same thing.”

Some musicians have taken to teaching. Mick doesn’t do much teaching, although he sometimes moonlights as a piano player.

“Girl from Ipanema, stuff like that,” he says, casually. as if the Jobim classic, with its tricky bridge section was ever easy to simply peel off.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, he played a piano gig in Manningtree during the afternoon, then headlined the Arts Centre with his band in the evening.

Resident in London for many years now, Mick still returns to Colchester regularly.

Later, when I hear his new album, as expected, it’s great jazz. And it’s true, it’s not complicated.

You wouldn’t want to try and busk it, though.

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