JAZZ REVIEW / A blow on the big bamboo: Phil Johnson on Andy Hamilton at the Jazz Cafe, London

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The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH he was born only nine years after both Lester Young and Ben Webster, and two years before Paul Gonsalves, Andy Hamilton didn't make his first album until 1991, when he was 73.

Since arriving in Birmingham from Jamaica over 40 years ago, he has rarely played outside the city and his style on the tenor saxophone has been left to crystallise like that of an Ellingtonian who somehow missed the band bus and was forced to continue playing 'Body And Soul' for the rest of his life.

Self-taught on a bamboo-sax, Hamilton's technique is unpredictable; when he attempts an unpractised introduction to 'But Not For Me', the result is way off key; but when he plays an old favourite like 'The Nearness Of You' it's close to definitive, the air bubbling up through the horn in big, breathy, Websteresque cadences that go straight to the heart. His occasionally awkward, staccato phrasing can make him sound contemporary too, like the post-modern balled style of his admirer David Murray. As fashions in jazz spool backwards towards the mainstream and Hamilton remains the same, he gets more modern with every gig.

This performance unwound slowly, in Caribbean-time. Hamilton and his pianist Sam Brown have been carrying on an argument for over 40 years about what tunes to call and what keys to play them in and the younger members of the band wait patiently for each number to begin like long-suffering grandchildren. Occasionally they are scolded, as when their excellent singer Roy Forbes makes a grand entrance to the stage via the staircase rather then the floor, but more often they are praised, and smile sheepishly in return. Hamilton excels at slow tempos, where his playing has a delicacy that most younger players can't match; Brown's piano style, which recalls Earl Hines or Errol Garner, with, on 'Sam's Blues', a touch of Otis Spann (Muddy Waters's pianist), is wonderfully light.

Hamilton and Brown risked being upstaged, however, when they took a break to introduce two Jamaican visitors, Sonny Bradshaw and Myrna Hague. Bradshaw is known as the father figure of Jamican jazz, a pianist, trumpeter and music teacher who reputedly taught Bob Marley. He has all the showmanship and pizazz that the guileless Blue Notes lack. Gold buttons sparkling from his blazer, teeth glinting in the spotlight through a permanent smile, occasionally rising from the piano stool to cue in a drum break as if he were Jelly Roll Morton directing the Red Hot Peppers, Bradshaw didn't so much steal the show as ram-raid it.

This was subtle in comparison to Hague, who began her performance at an emotional high point normally reserved for third encores. She has an astonishing voice in the classic supper-club jazz mode and each of her three numbers demonstrated it to the full. Hamilton and Brown smiled benignly from the side of the stage but it was a relief when they returned and the final calypsos began, including the inevitable 'Silvershine', the tune Hamilton wrote for his employer Errol Flynn in Jamaica nearly 50 years ago.

Andy Hamilton and the Blue Notes host a Jamaican All Stars Bank Holiday party at the Bear pub in Birmingham (021-429 1184) on 30 August.