Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Stan Tracey: 1926-2013 - R.I.P.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Every time I heard pianist Stan Tracey play, I wondered why I didn't listen to him more often.

His playing was so inventive; so different. In its originality, he reminded me quite a bit of pianist Gordon Beck, who like Stan, had served for a number of years as a member of Ronnie Scott's Jazz club's house rhythm section that would accompany Jazz musicians visiting from the USA and Europe.

Actually, it was Gordon Beck who first hipped me to Stan during his long engagement at Shelly's Manne Hole with the Phil Woods European Rhythm Machine [Ron Mathewson was the bassist and Daniel Humair was the drummer].

Gordon said: "He's a cat you should look out for."

The problem was where?

Stan was in London and I was in Los Angeles.

I finally located some records he had made with tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Charlie Rouse and after listening to them it didn't take me long to realize what all the fuss was about.

Stan Tracey passed away on December 6, 2013, and we wanted to remember him on these pages with the following obituary as published in The Times of London on Tuesday, December 8, 2013.

"One of the best-known musicians in British jazz, the pianist Stan Tracey led groups of all sizes from a trio to a big band, and managed to stamp his distinctive musical personality on them all. He was one of the first musicians to create convincing jazz using British sources of inspiration, and his suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood remains his most enduring legacy. 

Seldom out of print from its first appearance on disc in 1965, the romance, humour and darker underside of Thomas’s Llareggub were perfectly reflected in Tracey’s writing, and further enhanced by the brilliance of the recorded performance by his quartet, which included the saxophonist Bobby Wellins.
A pianist whose style was rooted in the angular phrasing of Thelonious Monk, coupled with the subtle chord voicings of Duke Ellington, Tracey brought a spiky individuality to his sound, and was a stimulating accompanist as well as a strikingly unorthodox soloist.

His terse conversational style, laconic humour, chippy personality and self-deprecating manner tended to play down the breadth of his achievements, not least his prolific recording career, which began in the 1950s and continued into the early part of this year.

Stanley William Tracey was a Londoner, born in 1926, and he started out by playing the accordion, although he transferred his main attention to the piano at the age of 13. Nevertheless much of his early professional work was as an accordionist, first in various ENSA entertainment groups, then (during his National Service from 1945-48) in the RAF Gang Show, and finally in the early 1950s in the quintet led by the blind pianist Eddie Thompson. He also began to make a name for himself as a pianist in the world of postwar professional dance bands which harboured many a would-be jazz musician. As a result he met several of those who became formative influences on the British modern jazz scene, including Ronnie Scott and the pianist-cum-percussionist Laurie Morgan, who both encouraged him to develop his talent for playing jazz.

In common with many jazz-struck musicians of his generation, he found a job playing in the ships’ bands for Cunard (known after their bandleader-booking agent as “Geraldo’s Navy”). During the brief spells when the Queen Mary or the Caronia docked in New York, he was able to hear all the great names of American jazz in person, including his great influences Ellington and Monk, not to mention the innovative Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, whose music made an equally strong impact. Back in Britain, he continued to make his living in the dance band world, playing with Roy Fox, Malcolm Mitchell and Basil and Ivor Kirchin. He also played briefly with the veteran American bandleader Cab Calloway on a flying visit to Britain. Later he was reunited with Calloway in the 1980s for a BBC television special filmed at the Ritz Hotel. Then, during rehearsals for I Get the Blues When It Rains, Tracey played a particularly jagged avant-garde break that thundered from top to bottom of the keyboard. Calloway stopped the band, and asked “What the hell was that?” Tracey calmly replied: “The pissingest rain I could manage.”

In the 1950s he found every opportunity to escape the dance band routine and play jazz, notably with Kenny Baker, the drummer Tony Crombie and Ronnie Scott, with whom he toured the United States in early 1957. That same year, he joined Ted Heath’s orchestra, by far the jazziest of British dance bands, for whom he played both piano and vibraphone.

It was the seven years that Tracey subsequently spent as the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s club from 1960 that cemented his reputation and also gave him the experience, unparalleled by any other British pianist of the time, of working night after night with such American stars as Don Byas, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Roland Kirk, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster and — particularly — Sonny Rollins, with whom he performed on the original soundtrack of the film Alfie. Rollins said at the time that few Britons realised just how good Tracey was, although he was much liked by the majority of American visitors to Scott’s who immediately recognised him as an authentic and individual jazz voice.

As Tracey explained in the 2003 Channel 4 documentary on his life The Godfather of British Jazz, playing night after night at the club, running his own quartet, writing and recording new music, and starting a family took their toll, and what with the readily available drink and drugs that pervaded the nocturnal Soho jazz scene, his health broke down. He left Scott’s in late 1966, but not before he had written and recorded both Under Milk Wood and his first big band suite Alice in Jazz Land based loosely on the writings of Lewis Carroll.
He now had a recording contract with Columbia, and, as well as producing some excellent small band successors to his Dylan Thomas suite, he also made some first rate albums with a studio big band, notably a tribute to Ellington, We Love You Madly, which featured such soloists as the saxophonist Tony Coe and trumpeter Ian Carr in Tracey’s muscular arrangements. Carr (who became well-known as a critic and broadcaster) was particularly effusive about Tracey’s writing on a follow-up Ellington album that featured, of all people, Acker Bilk. Pieces such as Mood Indigo, Carr wrote, “seem to have inspired Stan Tracey to write arrangements which go beyond mere craftsmanship: each one is a small masterpiece, developing organically all the way to the end. A very slow number is a real test for any band, but the poise and lazy attack of his brass ensemble on Mood Indigo is about the nearest thing to perfection I’ve heard.”

Yet in contrast to the structure of his big band work, Tracey was also exploring free improvisation, not only in duos with such players as Mike Osborne, but on his album Free an’One in which the alto saxophonist Peter King joined his regular trio with the bassist Dave Green and drummer Bryan Spring. Humphrey Lyttelton wrote at the time that it revealed “how little Stan Tracey’s creative range is inhibited by the established conventions of set theme, set key and set chorus length”.

The beginning of the 1970s was an altogether bleaker time for Tracey, with little work about for freelance jazzmen, but his wife Jackie set to with Hazel Miller (the wife of the South African bassist Harry Miller) to create playing opportunities, summer schools, and recording dates. Before long, Tracey was every bit as productive as he had been in the 1960s, playing in a bewildering variety of contexts with such groups as Splinters and Tentacles, as well as his piano duo with Keith Tippett, T’n’T. Much of his work was documented on his own record label Steam, which he founded in 1975. Partnerships with John Surman, Trevor Watts and Mike Osborne were developed that showed him well able to keep pace with a younger generation of improvisers. From 1978 his son Clark (then aged 17) joined him as the drummer in all his bands, from trio to full size orchestra, a working relationship that continued thereafter until the end of his life. For much of that time, the saxophonist Art Themen was an equally consistent colleague.

As the 1980s began, Tracey was a well-respected figure, having been the subject of a BBC Omnibus documentary, and the recipient of British Council touring grants that took his band to Central and South America, Greece and the Middle East. Yet despite this growing recognition and numerous awards, culminating in his appointment as OBE in 1986, he still found himself working as hard at finding work as actually performing, although his compositional talents were fostered by commissions from Bolton, Ulster and Durham.

This last became one of Tracey’s most enduring large-scale pieces, when he was asked to create a Sacred Concert based on Ellington’s work for the 900th anniversary of Durham Cathedral in 1990. Tracey transcribed and arranged an extremely effective sequence drawn from Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts, involving choir, solo singers, narrator and his big band. It has been performed many times since, not only in other cathedrals and churches, but also at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. That was also the site of a 1993 concert marking his 50th year in jazz, drawing together musicians from all his various ensembles, for a Radio 3 broadcast which was subsequently released by Blue Note Records.

In his latter years, Tracey was seldom absent from one or other of the annual award ceremonies for British jazz musicians, and in 1997 he was also invited to give the final concert at the Governor’s Residence in Hong Kong, followed by additional performances of a newly commissioned suite in mainland China, making him the first British jazz musician to perform there.

As he approached his eighties, he announced his intention to give up composing and arranging, and play music that was either “already in the cupboard” or improvised in performance. One of his final large compositions was Continental Shift for a sizeable band, which he and his son Clark wrote together in 2002 for the Arts Council. However, the urge to compose, coupled with the financial inducement of the occasional commission brought him back to writing in his last years, and his final album, The Flying Pig, was written and recorded earlier this year. It brought the younger musicians Mark Armstrong on the trumpet and Simon Allen on saxophones together with his regular trio, in a set of pieces that looked back at the laconic humour and horrifying experiences of Tracey’s own father in the trenches of the First World War.

The 2003 Channel 4 documentary, and the subsequent Jazz Britannia series on BBC Television cemented Tracey’s reputation as a senior figure in the British jazz establishment. Yet he continued to perform regularly, mainly winning accolades for new work, and fresh recordings such as those by his quartet with Peter King, and a newly-formed duo with the experimental improviser Evan Parker. He seldom lived on past successes, save for putting Under Milk Wood back on the road from time to time, with his original colleague Bobby Wellins still playing the saxophone parts, but with his grandson Ben Tracey as narrator. He was to have performed the piece at this year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival, but had to withdraw owing to the onset of the cancer that killed him.
He is widely regarded as a mentor by those who have worked for him, such as the trumpeters Guy Barker and Gerard Presencer, and the saxophonist Mornington Lockett.

He is survived by his son Clark and his grandson Ben, both of whom continue to perform his works. Clark in particular has continued to lead the Stan Tracey Octet this year to fulfill engagements that his father was too unwell to attend.

Stan Tracey, OBE, jazz pianist, bandleader and composer, was born on December 30, 1926. He died on December 6, 2013, aged 86"

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