Reviews – by Kenny Mathieson

Kenny Mathieson, the respected Scottish journalist and music reviewer, sent me a selection of appreciations of Bobby’s work which I am delighted to reproduce below.

Preview – February 1990

The second Scottish Jazz Network tour brings together two Glasgow-born jazzmen who have made their living in the south for many years. Saxophonist Bobby Wellins is the senior by almost ten years, and moved into jazz from the dance band scene in the late 1950s, joining drummer Tony Crombie’s Jazz Inc, where he first met up with pianist Stan Tracey. He joined Tracey’s quartet in the early 1960s, and contributed his distinctive saxophone voice to Tracey’s most famous record, the suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”.

His career was eclipsed for almost a decade by what are politely referred to as “personal problems” in jazz circles, but he re-emerged in the mid-seventies with his own quartet, and a highly-regarded five-piece with Don Weller. When I heard him last year, playing with ex-Mingus trombonist Jimmy Knepper at London’s Bass Clef, Wellins sounded in fine voice, an impression more than born out by his new recording “Birds of Brazil” (Sungai), an intricate suite arranged by Tony Coe, and inspired by a horrific oil spillage in Bognor Regis, where he now lives. “It brought home very directly the damage we are inflicting on ourselves and the creatures around us,’ Wellins says, “and I felt I needed to express how I felt by composing a jazz suite.’

His partner, guitarist Jim Mullen, began his musical life as a bass player, coincidentally in Andy Park’s band, who returned to the stage for the Network last month. Mullen switched instrument and moved to London, where he was involved in the progressive rock scene as well as jazz, but is best known for his partnership with saxman Dick Morrissey. Those two have begun playing together again after a temporary split, during which time Jim led a fine but economically impractical quintet; both players found that their public liked them better together than apart. Jim is accordingly well used to playing with a tenor saxophonist, which augers well for the tour, with Eddie Severn on trumpet, the excellent Brian Kellock on piano, Ronnie Rae on bass, and Tony McLennan on drums.

Review – 30 April 1993

BOBBY WELLINS at the Tron Jazz Cellar, Edinburgh
Saxophonist Bobby Wellins belongs to a generation of jazz players who cut their teeth on bop, but now plays in a rather less frenetic, more lucidly mainstream style. He has been based in London for many years, and is a relatively infrequent visitor north of the border, which made the smaller than expected audience a slightly disappointing one.

There were no such disappointments from Wellins, however. His playing is rarely marked by anything too surprising, but concentrates on assured and highly coherent melodic and harmonic developments, played in an expressive, beautifully articulated fashion, even when the tempo is up in the breakneck region, as on an unconventionally lickety-split reading of Love for Sale.

It is that impeccable control, combined with a rich, even luxuriant horn tone, leavened by just a touch of asperity, which makes him such a consistently pleasurable player. He played the kind of mix of standard songs and rather more modern jazz tunes which form the universal jazz language of the pick-up band.

On this occasion, that meant a lively trio which featured pianist Chick Lyall, George Lyle on bass, and Tony McLennan on drums. Lyall is not a “natural” standards player, and his oblique and angular approach to harmony proved to be a good foil to Wellins’s more straight-forwardly idiomatic playing, a stylistic disparity which injected a little tension into what could have developed as a rather conventional blowing session.
(First published in the Scotsman newspaper).

Interview – April 1995

“Yes, Culloden Moor was just something I wrote. Most composers will do that anyway, but it is nice to have something definite to write for, and a piece like this is something of a challenge.

” The problem for me is to write music that would be illustrative in terms of the commission, but at the same to provide something that is harmonically structured for the jazz players to get their teeth into, and which makes the most of their own particular qualities.

” SYJO will function as a kind of harmonic backcloth to the soloists. It is written as five separate pieces rather than a single through composed work. Fluid improvisation is all about playing regularly. There is an abundance of talent in this country, but they lack places to play, and I also think it’s important that places be affordable for jazz fans.

” I have a nice sextet with Spike Robinson and John Barnes. I’d like to see a lot more interaction with people from other areas of the arts. We have both the spirit and the talent here to do good things.

” I believe utterly in the importance of artistic order. in terms of writing, I still have a lot to learn, and I’m looking forward to gaining more skills in that area, but there is always something new to learn. That’s one of the great things about being involved in music. I had ten years of addiction that was dragging me down – I put an end to that, and now I may not always do things exactly as I would want in my life, but I know that I’ll never let myself fall that low again.”

Preview – June 1995

Sound paintings
Saxophonist Bobby Wellins is the second Scottish composer-in-residence at the festival (for trivia fans, Tommy Smith in 1993 was the first). His composition “Images of Scotland’ will be played by a Scottish All-Stars band and SYJO, but this kind of writing is not new for him.

He was the saxophonist on Stan Tracey’s celebrated Under Milk Wood thirty years ago, and his own works include extended pieces like Birds of Brazil or Culloden Moor.

Wellins established himself on the 60s London scene, but his career was eclipsed for almost a decade by personal problems. He re-emerged in the mid-70s with his own quartet, and a highly-regarded five-piece with Don Weller, while last year’s “Nomad’ album found him playing as well as ever.

“Fluid improvisation is all about playing regularly. There is an abundance of talent and spirit in this country, but they lack places to play. I’d also like to see a lot more interaction with people from other areas of the arts, which is something I’m very interested in. ”

McEwans Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow Friday 7 June 1995, 7.30pm.

Review – March 1997

Bobby Wellins: The Satin Album (Jazzizit)
It was an inspired notion by label boss Michael Eagleton to bring together Bobby Wellins’s rich, smooth-as-hot-syrup tenor saxophone with the twelve tunes from Billie Holiday’s legendary Lady In Satin album. The result is an instant late night classic.

A highly sympathetic trio-Colin Purbrook (piano), Dave Green (bass), Clark Tracey (drums) – provide Wellins with lush, beautifully focussed support on the unfussy arrangements, still in the original album’s running order, and the Scottish saxman responds with sublime, insightful ballad playing. Don’t miss it. 4 stars
(First published in the Scotsman newspaper).

Review – 8 Dec 1998

Bobby Wellins at the Tron Theatre Bar, Glasgow
Bobby Wellins has been based in London for most of his career, but the Glasgow-bred saxophonist is always a welcome visitor. Wellins was in town to record a new piece of music written by the young Scottish trumpeter Tom McNiven, a work commissioned by Basement Jazz and the Scottish Arts Council.

They decided, however, not to air the new work before Friday’s recording date, and settled instead for an assured and highly enjoyable set of standards and classic jazz tunes, some better known than others. Wellins was joined by excellent Brian Kellock Trio for the occasion, and attracted a full house.

The saxophonist remains an impressive player. His approach is very much based in bop methodology, but with a notable concentration on melodic as well as harmonic development. The tune is never far away in even his most extended harmonic explorations, and he builds solos from phrase to phrase with a lucid, highly organic feel, employing a clean, expressive articulation and a rich, almost opulent tone on tenor saxophone.

It was heard to advantage on a set which included a fine reading of Lover, turned in its final stages in a Coltrane-like exploration over a simple vamp, as well as tunes by jazz luminaries like Benny Golson, Thelonious Monk and Bucky Pizzarelli, but none of Wellins’s own compositions. It was, in other words, the lingua franca of modern jazz, and the trio of Brian Kellock, Kenny Ellis and John Rae provided impeccably imaginative support, with the pianist himself in excellent fettle even on an electric piano. Kellock’s own understanding of building a solo is every bit as refined and exciting as the saxophonist’s, something he demonstrated on everything he played, and nowhere more so than in his pulsating treatment of Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way.
(First published in the Scotsman newspaper).

Review – 18 October 1999
Bobby Wellins Quartet at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
The Aberdeen Alternative Festival offered the Glasgow-born saxophonist Bobby Wellins an all too rare opportunity to bring his own London-based quartet north of the border. The results were fascinatingly different from the last time I heard him play in Scotland, with the Brian Kellock Trio in Glasgow, and underlined the essential differences between a pick-up rhythm section (however good) and a regular line-up.

Spurred on by Liam Noble’s extrovert pianism and a resourceful rhythm section of bassist Simon Thorpe and drummer Dave Wiggins, Wellins was prepared to take the kind of audacious harmonic risks seldom negotiated in Glasgow. While strongly rooted in bop, his playing has always avoided the predictable in any case, but in this setting he pushed his harmonic explorations into even more unexpected twists and turns. Even at extremes, though, Wellins never lost touch with the core melodic material of the tune, and constructed his solos from phrase to phrase with a lucid, highly organic feel, employing a clean, sharp-edged articulation and a richly expressive tone on tenor saxophone.

They chose a mixed programme of Wellins’ own tunes (including his Glasgow-inflected tribute to trumpeter Clifford Brown, CUCB), jazz compositions and standards, most of which segued neatly into the next with no break. The standards were approached in deconstructionist rather than reverent mode, as was what seemed to be an extended fantasia on tunes by or associated with Thelonious Monk in the first half.

Noble’s angular, percussive pianism might not be every saxophonist’s ideal accompaniment, but Wellins did much of his greatest work with the grand-master of such an approach, Stan Tracey, and responded to Noble’s promptings with relish and invention. The pianist’s own solos mixed stacatto locked-hand chording, scampering runs, cheeky punctuations and incongruous quotations in highly effective fashion.
(written for the Scotsman newspaper).

All text on this page (c) Kenny Mathieson and gratefully used with permission.

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