Consistent Homogeneity – A 75th Birthday Tribute to Stan Tracey

Written by: Bill Newman

Good jazz players are still plentiful, thankfully, but the Great Jazz performer – like that wonderful classical-music interpreter of yesteryear – is somebody one clings to spontaneously. Not only does he represent a noticeable change from what one usually hears often on radio or television, but the listener is immediately attracted to opening chords which consist of unusual and daring harmonisation, and melodic inventions that wend their course in company with intricate rhythmic backings. Then there are the expressive qualities of the playing itself, at one moment luring the true connoisseur into a smile of sheer contentment, next startling him into foot-tapping mobility by some stark outburst accompanied by new key-blending with colleagues.

Like most fans I remember Stan Tracey from his earlier days as Ronnie Scott’s resident pianist, although I was never lucky enough to attend those sessions at the famous Soho club. But Stan on radio roughly corresponded with the formation of the BBC Third Programme. As a teenager, fed up with endless School Certificate homework my tired brain needed constant revitalising, and Tracey’s revolutionary free-style inventions – combining stride, off-beat jazz and modern contemporary explorations – had strong affiliations with Hines, Garner and Powell. It also possessed those partly disguised elements of improvisation, to give it a highly distinctive touch.

Later I joined EMI Records, and during the 1960s Stan was to make LPs for the late Denis Preston at Lansdowne Studios that I still remember with fondness. But hose I especially treasure came in the 80s on the Steam label with artists like Clark Tracey, Art Themen, Roy Babbington, Tony Coe, Don Weller, Harry Beckett, Peter King, Malcolm Griffiths, John Surman, Sal Nistico, Keith Tippett, Dave Green and Bryan Spring. There was also a Mole Jazz 1989 release at Lansdowne dedicated to Duke Ellington, entitled “We still love you madly”.

Happily Stan’s qualities are all still very much intact, and son Clark on drums with Andrew Cleyndert on double bass are taking equal responsibility whenever the ’Trio’ perform their set numbers. The actual 75th Birthday Concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall took place on 4th April under the aegis of the Park Lane Group (PLG). The stage was heavily miked, which suggests perhaps a CD release. After Miles Kingston’s introduction, Stan’s short opening comments also announced another birthday tribute – to poet Michael Horowitz, present in the audience. More importantly, his piano solo was a preview to ’sounds modern’ which were to follow.

Ellington was again to feature in a programme otherwise comprising compositions by the two Traceys. “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got Swing)”, containing solos by the Trio, showed off Clark’s consummate drum skills and rhythmic control. The remainder of the first half featured the Trio plus other performers: Andy Panayi, saxophone, and Andy Wood, trombone in “A M Mayhem”; Guy Barker, trumpet, Peter King, tenor saxophone, and Mornington Lockett, soprano sax in “Devil’s Acre”. Then came “Sophisticated Lady” with Jay Craig, bass sax – a real ’humdinger’ that had the lady sitting beside me singing away – and “The Cuban Connection”, which besides those already mentioned also featured Martin Shaw, trumpet, and Mark Nightingale, trombone. All the performers delighted in performing together for a very special occasion. With no attempts to outdo one another in individual solos, duets and ensembles, their differing personalities and diverse skills each provided a perfect launching pad for extemporising with immense virtuosity.

The second half was even more challenging with three extended works by Stan and Clark, the last a combined effort by father and son. Each was scored for 11-piece ensemble. “May Weed” followed the usual solos with challenging riffs for piano and drums. These terminated with an abrupt Bang! Clark, for his “Continental Shift” – first London performance – commented that the Deutschmark was no good, things were very much the same, and it was now a case of “Buddy, Can You Spare A Euro?” Lilting, humorous contrasts of strict and off-beat drum technique set the comic scene. During their travels, India had made a certain impression, and “Ruby” with her sly, suggestive demeanour – caught by Clark’s subtle shimmying – may have suggested a relaxed, romantic interlude. “Too Good” had everyone working overtime with some real tricky solos and tremendous feats of high-note bravura. In these Algeria-Africa settings one visualised stew-pots, crocodiles, natives in full regalia, including witch doctors, and victims! “Jasmine” sounded crafty, wilful and teasing by comparison, while the final “Pulses” had everyone transfixed by Clark’s rhythmic hand-motions on drum skins. The fierce sforzandi that followed were taken up by the other instrumentalists and built towards a grand climax.

I should mention that several ’alternative’ instruments were available in the reed section. Andy Panayi doubled on flute and clarinet, while others performed on various saxophones. A glorious bean-feast of music-making. I would welcome an interview with the great man himself.

Photograph of Stan Tracey (Stan Tracey website)

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