Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Stan Tracey
Stan Tracey, Vincenza 2006                                                                                             Pino Ninfa©2010

Trying to break America as an octogenarian might seem to be leaving it a little late in the day, but that’s what veteran pianist Stan Tracey is doing this month as he launches his first ever American tour, just six months short of his 84th birthday. Whatever the outcome, it’s unlikely that success will go to Stan’s head, or that failure will plunge him into despair. Stan’s black dog is no longer a puppy. He’s famous for a view of life that isn’t so much atrabilious or jaundiced as constitutionally unimpressible. At the celebration for his 80th birthday, his old friend poet Michael Horovitz, with whom Tracey worked in the 1960s when jazz and poetry attempted a brief creative coalition, tried to ginger Stan out of his usual sardonic mood: “Count your blessings, old man.” Quick as a flash, Stan raised an open hand and started peeling back fingers: “One, two ... uh ... two.”

If it was his left hand, that would certainly count for one of them. If it was his right, that might settle the other, but for the fact that Tracey is also an astonishingly fine jazz composer, both of discrete themes and larger-scale suites. His pianism is blunt, relatively unembellished and direct to the point of antagonism, and yet capable of both lyricism and a kind of contained abstraction. It’s now routine to suggest that his twin inspirations are Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, and there is an unspoken consensus that what this means is that he sounds like Monk at the keyboard, but has Ellingtonian ambitions as a composer. The truth is probably the other way round. Stan’s virtuosity is always at the service of the music rather than of self-expression, and while he can be as florid as Duke in a romantic context, and as unadorned and A-to-B when leading one of his extended compositions, it’s Monk, unexpectedly, who he resembles as a composer. Both are, or were, seriously underrated in that realm, not least because both have dared to extend a jazz language based on blues form and the thirty-two bar song into structures that evolve even over a short duration. Another paradox: it is Stan’s shorter themes rather than the big festival commissions that tend to be packed with musical information. Added or subtracted notes, internal variation of the chords mean that many of his “simplest” ideas actually reveal a subtlety that isn’t immediately evident.

Stan Tracey was born in South London in 1926, which meant that he reached the age of discretion during the Second World War. He was pressed into service as an accordionist with an ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) touring party, and also took part in Ralph Reader’s Boy Scouts Gang Show, a British institution hard to summarize in all its weird complexity for a younger or transatlantic audience. He made a tentative attempt to break into America as early as the mid 1950s. Having worked for a period with Cab Calloway and performed on the Queen Mary, he did tour the US as a member of saxophonist Ronnie Scott’s group. He started recording in 1952, a handful of sides with Kenny Baker, and then as the decade progressed, with another trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, making his debut as a leader on May Day 1958 with sides that eventually found their way onto the Little Klunk/Showcase material subsequently re-issued on Jasmine. As a standards player, Tracey doesn’t so much deconstruct a song as highlight its internal architecture. He has an engineer’s appreciation of the relative stresses of chords and how much weight or work a particular section will bear. His minimalism is never spidery and certainly never scamped. It always gives the minimum support required.

By the turn of the 1960s, Tracey was a first-call player on the developing British scene, a recognition reflected in his recruitment as house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s club, where he began a seven year sojourn as accompanist to visiting acts, almost all of whom – but Sonny Rollins most vocally – recognized his enormous skill and unflagging judgment. It was while at Ronnie’s that he became involved in Horovitz’s New Departures project and met Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins who the following year was to help mark an epoch in British jazz by recording Under Milk Wood with Tracey and recording a solo on “Starless and Bible Black” that remains – somewhat to the detriment of both composer and interpreter – their best known work to this day. Interestingly, while everyone raves – and properly so – about Wellins’s aery solo, there’s scarcely ever a comment about Tracey’s writing or his deft accompaniment, which manages to be melancholic and sinewy, lyrical and curiously abstract, at one and the same time. With the late Jeff Clyne and drummer Jackie Dougan completing the quartet, it’s worth re-foregrounding the rhythm section to hear what is happening behind the saxophone.

Like clarinetist Acker Bilk, with whom Tracey worked at this time, that one piece became a defining, if not determining, moment. Unlike Bilk and his Stranger on the Shore, Tracey’s Dylan Thomas suite never turned into a milch-cow. Though several times re-recorded since and much loved by British fans, it has never been the best-seller that many assume it to be, a situation that left Tracey at the turn of the 70s – a dim time for jazz anywhere, but particularly in Britain – seriously considering a move out of music. Interestingly, much of the energy that was in evidence at the time was in free and avant-garde music, and Tracey took a highly individual step in this direction, establishing a relationship with some of the leading improvisers of the time, including Evan Parker (a duo partnership that has stood the test of time) and fellow pianist Keith Tippett: their T’N’T project was well-named.

Tracey never sounded out of place or uneasy in free music, but it was clear from every performance, and from a number of interviews since, that his instinct was always towards some kind of order, not necessarily normative form, but something that channeled improvisational energy along clearly audible lines of support. If he contributed nothing major to the language of improvised music, he took something from it and applied it in what can only uncomfortably be described as the mainstream. Tracey’s writing acquired a new openness and edge, as well as an ability to relate quite disparate elements within the same musical conception. This became the basis of his early extended works: The Salisbury Suite, The Crompton Suite and The Poets’ Suite which were put out on his own Steam imprint.

Whatever its exact origin – and there are competing versions – the label’s name was apposite, for Tracey remained firmly wedded to the old steam technology of acoustic piano rather than to any of the electric keyboards that dominated the scene in the 1970s. He had had a brief flirtation with vibes, a fascinating prospect given his percussive attack, but gave them up for practical reasons. “I had no desire to get myself fitted with a truss, and I got sick of dragging those things round with me.” The payback was, of course, a career negotiating sticky keyboards and dead spots on a procession of club and festival pianos.

After Wellins, who was off the scene for some time, Tracey worked with saxophonists Don Weller and Art Themen, the latter a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in his other life. Tracey likes players willing to deal with the nitty-gritty, and nothing is nittier or grittier than rebuilding a child’s hip before scrubbing up and coming to the club. Wellins’ role in Tracey’s music is rightly celebrated. Themen’s less so, and Weller’s all to rarely mentioned, though Tracey himself has always spoken up for Weller as the kind of no-nonsense player – Dickensian surname and all – who doesn’t want to bugger about with fancy classical crossovers but likes to get his jacket off and deliver artisanal jazz, crafted but not arty.

At the turn of the 90s, a revived Blue Note got wind that things were stirring in British jazz and briefly took on both the youthful Tommy Smith and the now 60-plus Stan Tracey, dropping both just as quickly when sales failed to hit the corporate minimum. Stan’s Portraits Plus and the subsequent Queen Elizabeth Hall live recording represented a first introduction for many fans to a composer and player who was primarily interested in working with larger combos – the “Hexad,” Octet and occasionally big band – at a time when the paradigm for modern jazz was still the horn-plus-rhythm of the Coltrane and Monk quartets. It was also a seriously overdue whiff of “major label interest,” though that proved to be a mare’s nest.

When the first edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz was published, the most common criticism – indeed, yelp of fury – was that Stan Tracey was omitted. We had to reply lamely that according to our remit only currently available commercial records were eligible for review and with the demise of Steam – victim of the increasingly standardization of retailing – Stan didn’t meet the criteria. Our defensive rationalization didn’t quite manage to overcome a sense of shock that one of the most important figures, and arguably the most important composer, in British jazz should be unrepresented on record. The situation has improved steadily since, and the steady resuscitation of the back catalogue on ReSteamed has begun to bring the story back into focus, though so extensive is the lost archive that even those who were aware of it first time round are struggling to keep pace.

Stan lost his wife and main supporter Jackie in 2009, but his son Clark remains his drummer of choice even while sustaining his own career as leader. One has learned – after watching various imaginative misfires over, say, Joshua Redman’s “debt” to his father Dewey, or Kenny Drew Jr’s “family” resemblance to his dad, both of which proved wishful thinking in the first instance at least – not to search for too many connections between dad and kid. Though evidently steeped in music of all sorts from the start, Clark has forged a highly independent approach to hard bop that is both stylistically younger and more conservative than his father’s, which to my ears at least has skirted the be-/hard-/post-bop continuum to a large extent, picking up its cues from the swing era, and from the kind of advanced swing language one associates with Mary Lou Williams and from a percussionist like Kenny Clarke, and developing them in an entirely individual direction. Clark’s role in the Tracey set-up might be more readily likened to that of Denardo Coleman – only that denigrates his technique somewhat.

Stan’s first taste of America was relatively unhappy, being put on for brief warm-up sets while patrons were still wrestling out of their coats and ordering drinks. One senses that that experience still rankles a little, particularly when compounded with the absurd Musicians’ Union regulations that stipulated one-for-one parity in transatlantic visits, but with no guarantee that for every jazz musician to reach Britain, an exponent of some other form – pop or classical – might not make the opposite journey. If living well is the best revenge, Stan Tracey might not always have felt that he could ever be quits, so sustained has neglect been in his homeland, and without the kind of overseas adulation some prophets-without-honor enjoy in compensation. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of Tracey’s career – and it might seem perverse to point this out as he tucks an American visa into his passport – is that he has remained stubbornly home-based. That he is our finest jazz piano player is confirmed by longevity and work-rate. That he is our most distinguished jazz composer might be contested by proponents of Mike Westbrook or John Surman or Michael Garrick, but returning to a body of work that now stretches back half a century makes that conclusion inescapable. He is our Monk, solitary, resolutely cross-grained, relatively uninterested in populist acclaim or in the treacherous mediation of critical endorsement. One senses that Tracey’s career was laid out when he turned professional at 16 and that the work which has emerged has been the product of some ineluctable evolution, which proceeds in biological time, resistant to fashion, as contemptuous of high praise as of the inevitable backlash and the equally predictable revisionism. There have been times when Stan Tracey has been hard to detect in the wider culture, simply because he wasn’t in the browsing bins or on the radio, but his presence has been continuous and profoundly influential. Enjoy him as if he were 38 and not 83, because he’ll be playing with the energy of a younger man as well as the wisdom of many decades, and try – I speak from experience – not to ask him any dumb questions.

Brian Morton©2010

Friday the 11th: Rochester, New York
Rochester Jazz Festival
Christ Church
141 East Ave., Rochester, NY
Telephone: 585.454.3878

Sunday the 13th:  Baltimore, Maryland (Ron Holloway, Guest Artist)
Mt. Vernon Place Methodist Church
10 East Mt. Vernon Place, Baltimore MD
Telephone: 1.800.838.3006

Monday the 14th:  New York City
Dizzy's Club
33 W. 60th St.; 11th Floor; New York, NY
Telephone: 212.258.9595

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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