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Starless and bible black

Dylan Thomas by Alfred Janes, 1953, Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas at Austin © estate of Alfred Janes

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless

and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,

courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the

sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

That’s how Dylan Thomas opened Under Milk Wood at his first readings of the drama in 1953. They were presented at venues from the Poetry Centre in the 92nd Street Y in New York City — with a full cast before an audience numbering 1,000 — to a solo performance for a local arts club at the Salad Bowl Café in Tenby on the south-west Wales coast. His health was deteriorating fast and he had died, aged 39, while back in New York for further performances — staying at the Chelsea Hotel, drinking at the White Horse Tavern — by the time Richard Burton read those words the following year in a famous BBC Radio production. Two years later the Caedmon label, which specialised in spoken-word recordings, issued a vinyl double-album of the Poetry Centre production, recorded using a single microphone.

The British pianist and composer Stan Tracey was so impressed by Under Milk Wood that he made it the inspiration for a suite recorded with his quartet in London in 1965. He started by jotting down some titles while listening to the play, then wrote the music to go with them. The producer Denis Preston supervised the recording at his Lansdowne Studios in Notting Hill, and it was released on EMI’s Columbia label the following year, to great acclaim. As an example of jazz arising directly from a literary or dramatic source, it has seldom been equalled.

More specifically, the album contains a track which has sometimes been called the greatest recording in the history of British jazz. That’s a big claim, and probably an absurdly unrealistic one, but the fact remains that “Starless and Bible Black”, the track in question, is a thing of unearthly and profound beauty, its simplicity of means and its relatively brevity (three minutes and 45 seconds) serving only to highlight its extraordinary nature and the intensity of its mood, preserved in a misty penumbra of reverb by the engineer Adrian Kerridge.

Tracey’s gentle outlining of the modal structure (the chords strummed almost as if by a harp), Bobby Wellins’s hushed tenor saxophone, Jeff Clyne’s bowed bass, and Jackie Dougan’s mallets on his tom-toms immediately recall the only possible model for this piece: John Coltrane’s immortal “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. But whereas Coltrane’s sombre threnody was recorded in response to the murder of four schoolgirls in the racist bombing of a church, Tracey’s tone poem issues from very different emotional source. It’s the sound of a small Welsh cockle-fishing village at night, the silence of its dark streets penetrated only by the dreams of its inhabitants — Captain Cat, Rosie Probert, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Dai Bread, the Reverend Eli Jenkins, Organ Morgan and the rest of Thomas’s motley cast.

The remainder of the album consists of seven rather more conventional but still very worthwhile pieces, their titles, including “No Good Boyo”, “Llareggub” and “Cockle Row”, referencing Thomas’s play. Full of spirit and inventiveness, they display Tracey’s creative response to the stimulus of his two primary musical influences, Ellington and Monk. This particular quartet was one of the finest groups of the pianist’s long and illustrious career, affording a particularly welcome chance to listen at length to the marvellous Wellins, who was among the greatest of Scotland’s many distinguished jazz musicians.

Next Sunday, 14 May, is International Dylan Thomas Day, marking the anniversary — the 70th, on this occasion — of the first performance of Under Milk Wood in New York. I was reminded of this by Hilly Janes, an old colleague at The Times whose artist father, Alfred Janes, was a friend of Dylan’s and painted his portrait at various stages of his career — including, in 1953, the one above. It appears on the cover of Hilly’s excellent and warmly received biography of Thomas, first published in 2014, now in paperback, and containing a vivid description of the poet’s final year. Happily coinciding with the anniversary is the first vinyl reissue of Tracey’s album since 1976, remastered and with a new sleeve note by his son, the drummer and bandleader Clark Tracey.

Hilly also sent me someone’s playlist of other records inspired by Dylan, including John Cale’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “Dylan & Caitlin” by the Manic Street Preachers, “Eli Jenkins’ Prayer” by the Morriston Orpheus Choir, Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Simple Desultory Philippic” and, of course, King Crimson’s very different idea of “Starless and Bible Black”. But on Sunday, to accompany the remembrance of a genius, the Stan Tracey Quartet’s album will be all the soundtrack you need.

* The vinyl reissue of Stan Tracey’s Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is on Resteamed Records. Hilly Janes’s The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas is published by Parthian Books. The portrait of Thomas by Alfred Janes is reproduced by permission of the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas at Austin, and is the copyright of the artist’s estate.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lucky to have caught the great Bobby Wellins alongside pianist Kate Williams at Luton’s Bear Club a few years back. I was with Tina May, Tony Coe and the wonderful Enrico Pieranunzi, after just finishing the recording of Tina’s beautiful album ‘Home is Where The Heart Is’. Days just don’t get much better than that !!

    May 8, 2023
  2. Many thanks for this timely reminder of two great pieces and actually not one but two great albums. I grew up with Stan Tracey’s second recording of ‘Under Milk Wood’ the one with his superb quartet of Art Themen, Dave Green and Bryan Spring. I don’t wish in any way to demean Tracey’s original recording or this re-release, but I think the addition of Donald Houston’s narration and the re-ordering of the compositions makes for a better narrative. The closing ‘Under Milk Wood’ on this second version creates a beautifully constructed and very satisfying ending to the suite, just as memorable as ‘Starless and Bible Black’. That version also deserves a reissue.

    As an aside, two films were made of ‘Under Milk Wood’, both shot in Pembrokeshire where part of my family is from. The 1972 version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, filmed in Fishguard, is awful. Burton looks bored throughout and Taylor is totally miscast. The 2015 Kevin Allen version with Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church, filmed in Solva, is a visual romp, an utter delight and worth viewing.

    May 8, 2023
  3. Paul Crowe #

    Thank you, Richard, both for the wonderful article and the reminder. My favourite play !

    May 8, 2023
  4. Enjoyed this , any chance of a Spotify playlist?

    May 8, 2023
  5. I suggested the album recording when I viewed some early reels of the Vincent motorcycle documentary film ‘Speed is Expensive’ as the soundtrack the filmmaker was using suggested to me Bobby Wellins. I saw him at Alexanders in Chester when I was expecting Don Weller. So i got to see him just the once.

    May 8, 2023
    • Tim Adkin #

      Strangely enough I once went to Cheltenham Jazz Club circa 2010 expecting to see Bobby Wellins and Don Weller turned up instead!
      Whilst here: honourable mention in dispatches for The Unthanks’ wonderful take on the Crimson song

      May 8, 2023
  6. Thanks Richard – I’d not made the connection before between ‘Starless’ and ‘Alabama’

    May 8, 2023
  7. Mick Steels #

    Interesting topic Scottish jazz musicians, I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who suggested Wellins was, indeed, the finest.
    But there was a whole clutch of players who all had their individual voice, I can think of those two idiosyncratic clarinetists Sandy Brown and Archie Semple and, of course, George Chisholm. Players of a more modern persuasion would have to include Pat Smythe and Ron Mathewson, not forgetting the wonderful Maggie Nichols

    May 8, 2023
  8. Peter Bevan #

    I enjoyed your piece on Dylan Thomas and Stan Tracey.
    Quite by chance I’d just come across the Michael Garrick Jazz Orchestra’s recording of Starless and bible black on his album Some other spring (Jazz Academy JAZA 15).
    According to the sleeve notes this is Mike’s tribute to Stan on his 80th birthday as Stan “was his piano teacher at Ivor Mairant’s Central School of Dance Music in 1953/54…Garrick wrote this arrangement as a tribute to his tenacity and achievements.”
    It’s an interesting arrangement with thoughtful solos by Bob McKay on bass clarinet, Robin Finker tenor saxophone, Steve Waterman trumpet, Paul Moylan bass and, very briefly, Mike on piano.

    May 8, 2023
  9. I was not aware of this piece, probably because I’m US-based. Agree, beautiful.

    May 14, 2023

    Apologies, Richard, for the belated response to your piece on Stan Tracey’s classic 1965 ‘Under Milk Wood’ album. I have only just caught up with it but, prompted by Paul Kelly’s mention of a second recording of this suite, I hope it’s not too late to highlight yet another fine recording, from Hamburg in 1966, featuring the original quartet but with the addition of Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, and released last year as ‘Under Milk Wood in Hamburg’. Simon Spillett reminds us in his CD booklet notes that Kenny Wheeler and Bobby Wellins had played together in the 1950s in the band of the baritonist Buddy Featherstonehaugh.

    May 30, 2023

    Sorry – spelling mistake in my comment above about ‘Under Milk Wood in Hamburg’; ‘Buddy Featherstonhaugh’, not ‘Featherstonehaugh’.

    May 31, 2023

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