THE CRITICS are having some difficulties with young Scott Hamilton. None of them deny his ability -- and they all know his work. At 23, with two albums of his own behind him, as well as a featured backup role on Rosemary Clooney's recent jazz-flavored LP, Hamilton is probably the most prominent young tenor saxophone on either coast; he is also conceded to be about the best in his age bracket. So what's the problem?
They feel he doesn't sound the way he ought to.Young fellows his age are usually into Coltrane or Archie Shepp, blowing vast cascades of notes or honkin out phrases of such dubious harmony that they seem fingered at random. Or, alternatively, they might, like Tom Scott and Michael Brecker, be in the process of working out some rough synthesis between rock and jazz. Obviously Scott Hamilton fits into neither category: he will have nothing to do with rock, and he looks for inspiration much further back than Coltrane and Shepp. They are calling him the youngest "main-stream" tenor saxophonist in jazz today -- meaning he is in that tradition to which Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young belong, and whose youngest survivors had been thought to be the fiftyish Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. In jazz, Scott Hamilton represents the sort of anomaly that Charlie Pride offers in country music: where Pride's voice penetrates putative racial boundaries, Hamilton's playing jumps the generation gap.
Coleman Hawkins is Hamilton's main man (as they say), and hearing the first Scott Hamilton album was a little like hearing the Hawk unexpectedly reincarnated in mid-solo. Lately, however -- that is, as recently as Hamilton's January engagement at Blues Alley with Buddy Tate -- he has begun to show other influences, chiefly that of Ben Webster, the Kansas City-ite whose breathy style enlivened the Ellington band during its best years.
That Ben Webster sound can also be heard on his latest album, Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache: With Scott's Band in New York City (Concord Jazz Cj-70). And there is a lot more that is new on the album, too. His associations with Vache, for instance. This East Coast horn man, nearly as young as Hamilton, obviously takes his inspiration from the same era, and so makes a most suitable musical collaorator. Sometimes on flugelhorn, more often on that favorite of the '20s, the cornet, Vache shows so many influences -- a lot of Bobby Hackett, some Charlie shavers, even now and then a flash of Chet Baker -- that he comes across as just a bit too eclectic. Once he manages to intergrate them into a single style, as Hamilton has, he will be blowing more comfortably and with greater confidence.
Also new is Sue Melikan, who sings on a couple of the album's tracks. She has an assured delivery and a voice that is just that one step up in strength from a club singer's so that she sounds ritht with horns behind her.
Her presence on the album here emphasizes the nice lyrical quality of Hamilton's music. All of the tunes on the album are basically ballads -- "Tea for Two," "Darn That Dream," "I Love You," etc. Even the two "originals," "Freego" and "Raus," are based on the old standards "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and "I Found a New Baby." And pleasant as it is to listen to Scott Hamilton playing in his lush, full tone at these relaxed tempos, you find yourself wishing he would show just a bit more flash and fire on the album.
Hamilton does what he does so well that there must be a great temptation for him simply to settle into his groove and make pretty music for the people. Well, that was never enough for Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster or any of those idols of his from the past. Ultimately, I'm sure, it won't be enough for him, either.