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Posts tagged ‘Stan Tracey’

Old and new gospel

Among the many projects initiated by the inspirational drummer and educator John Stevens between the creation of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 and his early death in 1994, the most unexpected was a septet called Splinters, convened in 1972 to bring together musicians spanning the bebop and avant-garde sectors. From the older generation came the tenorist Tubby Hayes, the drummer Phil Seaman and the pianist Stan Tracey. Representing the newer thing were Stevens himself and the altoist Trevor Watts, his SME co-founder. Straddling the eras were the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the bassist Jeff Clyne, both of whom had played with the SME but were equally comfortable with the music of Hayes, Seaman and Tracey.

I remember the excitement of their debut at the 100 Club in May that year, and the realisation that it was working much better than might have been imagined, thanks to the commitment of all the musicians involved. About 80 minutes of music from that night was released a dozen years ago by Reel Records on a CD titled Split the Difference, long unavailable. Now the whole 100 minutes is to be found on a handsome three-CD package issued by the Jazz in Britain label, along with just over an hour from a gig by the same line-up at the Grass Roots club in Stockwell, South London four months later, both performances taped by Watts on a cassette machine with a couple of decent microphones.

Hayes, the giant of British modern jazz, stood at the pinnacle of a virtuosic tradition, and had only recently recovered from serious illness, but he was able to throw himself into the collaboration with great generosity, finding a place for himself in a music that operated according to very different parameters. For Tracey, who came from the language of Monk rather than that of Bud Powell, assimilation was also possible. And Stevens’ boundless admiration for the greatness of Seaman helped to ensure that the two of them found a common vernacular founded in a kind of swing falling somewhere between Max Roach and Ed Blackwell.

For Watts and Wheeler, this kind of time-based free improvisation, rooted in the discoveries of Ornette Coleman, was home territory, and both play with great distinction, but the success of the project was really ensured by the presence of Clyne, a bassist with all the necessary instincts and virtues honed to the highest degree. He had made his reputation alongside Hayes and Ronnie Scott in the Jazz Couriers, but listening to him with this band, you can easily believe that he could have depped for Charlie Haden with Coleman at the Five Spot in 1959 or for Reggie Workman or Jimmy Garrison with John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard a couple of years later without any appreciable loss of quality. He was a remarkable musician and his death in 2009, aged 72, left a big hole.

Although full of vigour and substance, the music Splinters played at the 100 Club gig sounds almost tentative by comparison with the Grass Roots set. By the time of the later gig they seem to have relaxed into the format, producing the kind of uninhibited, exuberant shout-up which characterised that era, and which had its roots in the influence of Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes as well as of Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension. Hayes plays a superlative solo, Clyne is phenomenal, and the wildly exciting stuff Seaman and Stevens get up to towards the end could give drum battles a good name.

Historically speaking, this is an important release. Seaman died four weeks after the Grass Roots gig, aged 46. Hayes died the following June, aged 38. It’s interesting that these two should have chosen to plunge into an environment offering such a different sort of test. In a lengthy essay contained within the beautifully produced 12″x12″ hardbacked sleeve, Simon Spillett describes the background to the project, sketching in the histories of the Jazz Centre Society, which organised the Monday-night series at the 100 Club, and the Musicians’ Action Group, which ran Grass Roots, and the crosscurrents of the London jazz scene at the time, using material from archive interviews and fresh testimony from Watts, now the only survivor of a fascinating experiment.

* Splinters’ Inclusivity is on the Jazz in Britain label, available as a digital download as well as the three-CD set (www.jazzinbritain.co.uk). The photographs are from the album’s cover, and were taken by Jak Kilby. Clockwise from top left: Phil Seaman, Jeff Clyne, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler and Tubby Hayes. Centre: Stan Tracey.

Roland Kirk and friends

Roland Kirk poster

I found this flyer the other day in a box of old stuff. It’s from 1963, and it reminds me of a few things. The first is that this Roland Kirk concert was in Nottingham and not in Leicester, as I wrote in an earlier piece (now corrected). The second is that his tour was organised by Ronnie Scott’s, where he had been performing. The third is that there were some interesting musicians to be seen and heard that night.

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie’s, then still located in Gerrard Street, from 1960 to 1967, by which time it had moved to Frith Street. After a sticky patch in the ’70s he went on to a long and distinguished career as a composer and bandleader, leading to the award of an CBE in 2008, five years before his death at 86.

Malcolm Cecil was an excellent bassist (and early member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) who migrated to the USA, took an interest in synthesisers, and palled up with Bob Margouleff, a man of similar instincts. Together, as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released Zero Time in 1971 before going on to provide the crucial synthesiser expertise on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, thus helping to shape the direction of music in the 1970s and beyond.

Johnny Butts was a very fine drummer who played with the Emcee Five in Newcastle (alongside Ian and Mike Carr) before moving to London and contributing to the groups of Ronnie Ross, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tony Coe, Dick Morrissey and Gordon Beck, and the Tubby Hayes Big Band. He died in a road accident in Bermuda in 1966, aged 25.

Brian Auger was a useful young bebop pianist with Tommy Whittle and others before switching to the Hammond organ in the year he made this tour with Kirk. In 1965 the Brian Auger Trinity was joined by Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry to form the Steam Packet, a very fine live band who never had a proper recording session. The Driscoll/Auger version of “This Wheel’s on Fire”, a Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition circulated on the original Basement Tapes publisher’s acetates, is on anyone’s list of great ’60 singles. Later Auger formed Oblivion Express and moved to California, where he still lives, aged 80.

Irish-born Rick Laird had left Australia for London in 1962 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and quickly became a first-choice bass player on the London scene, playing with many visiting Americans at the Scott Club. In 1966 he won a scholarship to the Berklee School in Boston, played with Buddy Rich’s big band, and switched to bass guitar. In 1971 he was recruited by John McLaughlin to help form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he toured and recorded. Later he toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea. More recently he has taught bass and pursued a second career as a photographer.

Phil Kinorra was a 20-year-old drummer whose nom de batterie was made up, in a touching display of hero-worship, of bits of the names of three of London’s finest modern jazz drummers of the time: Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Bobby Orr. His real name was Robert Anson, he was born in Nottingham (so this gig was a return home), and he also appeared alongside Graham Bond and Johnny Burch on Don Rendell’s wildly exciting 1963 Jazzland LP, Roarin’. In the mid-’60s he adopted a new identity and led a mod-soul band called Julian Covey and the Machine, who recorded “A Little Bit Hurt” for Island in 1967 and whose constantly shifting personnel included the organist Vincent Crane (later of Arthur Brown’s band and Atomic Rooster), the guitarists Jim Cregan, Dave Mason and John Morshead, the ill-fated bassist Cliff Barton and the definitely not ill-fated bassist John McVie, and the saxophonist and flautist Bob Downes. When psychedelia beckoned, Anson/Kinorra/Covey metamorphosed into Philamore Lincoln, writing “Temma Harbour”, recorded by Mary Hopkin as the second follow-up to “Those Were the Days” in 1969, and releasing The North Wind Blew South, an album of what would now be called Sunshine Pop, on Epic in 1970. He left the music business later in that decade and seems never to have returned.

Quite a lot of history for one tatty bit of paper, which I stuck up on my bedroom wall as a 16-year-old and then carried around from place to place, from one life to another, for almost six decades.

In Flanders fields the jazzmen blow

Stan Tracey 2

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below…

Those lines, the opening of the much loved poem written in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and physician who had fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, came to mind while I was listening to The Flying Pig, Stan Tracey’s new album. Those who know about such things will recognise Tracey’s chosen title as an allusion to a particular type of gun used by British forces during the Great War. Indeed the titles of all the six original compositions on the CD, played by the pianist’s current quintet, make such references, either to wartime weapons or places or soldiers’ sayings. The inspiration is the experience of Stan’s father, who served in the East Kent Regiment and, still only 18, was wounded on a Flanders battlefield in the year McCrae wrote the poem (he survived capture and imprisonment by the enemy and died in 1957, aged 60).

For those uncertain about the most suitable way to acknowledge next year’s centenary of the start of the war to end all wars, and perhaps ambivalent about the British government’s apparent determination to turn the event into a great patriotic celebration, here’s a solution: buy a poppy, by all means, but also spend some time listening to The Flying Pig.

There is nothing programmatic, overtly descriptive or propagandist about the music. This is not a jazz version of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War, but simply a very fine contemporary version of the sort of post-bop jazz associated with the Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There are no pretensions, no extraneous flourishes: just music of real substance, played by Tracey with his son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass, Mark Armstrong on trumpet and flugelhorn and Simon Allen on saxophones.

Given that the two Traceys and Cleyndert have formed a regular trio for several years, it’s not unexpected to find that the rhythm section runs on well lubricated ball-bearings. The surprise for me is Armstrong, whose solos evoke the best work of the young Freddie Hubbard, characterised by a gloriously burnished tone and a relaxed intensity but without Hubbard’s occasional tendency to get hung up on repeated phrases. He and Allen (whose alto saxophone solos are particularly enjoyable) combine to create the kind of lean front-line blend that is ideal for this material.

One of the pieces is called “Ballad for Loos”: a reference to the particular battlefield in northern France where Stan’s father was wounded. That’s the location of the photograph above, which shows Stan (centre) and Clark (right) with Ben Tracey, Stan’s grandson. (A couple of years ago Ben contributed the narration to an album of Stan’s inspired by and titled after Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.)

In an interview with Alyn Shipton in the latest issue of Jazzwise, Stan says that nowadays he prefers working with the trio or his quartet; those line-ups, he says, offer him more space to play. But no sense of restraint or restriction afflicts The Flying Pig, which is released on the pianist’s own Resteamed label and surely deserves a place among the most satisfying products of a recording career that is now in its seventh decade. At 86, Stan is three years older than Ahmad Jamal, whose longevity is held to be a thing of wonder; just listen to the long piano solos on the title track or “Silent Percy”, as full of character, wisdom and sharply focused energy as ever.