Stan Tracey albums
7 Ages of ManSeven Ages of Man - STAN TRACEY and his BIG BAND
EMI/Columbia SCX 641
Notes: © Peter Clayton

Lack of encouragement and the frustration that follows (often enough aggravated by an ironic abundance of critical lip-service) is a recurring theme in the jazz life. And the individual case of Stan Tracey is, I suppose, an axe I've been grinding until there's not much left of it but the handle. But consider the facts: here's a man who in the mid-1960s was suddenly found to be a jazz composer of uncommon merit and originality. He'd been that for some years, of course, but it was only then that enough people noticed it, and said so loudly enough to be heard. Even his piano style, which had always been so personal that he was often put down either as an eccentric or as an 'English Thelonious Monk', was belatedly recognised as a true means of expression rather than a series of disconnected gestures.
He won jazz polls. This fact alone immediately put him on his guard, for there are two strongly held ideas about the popularity polls run by the musical press and Stan subscribes to both of them. One is that a win is a set-back few careers can stand, since it appears to convey to the world that the musician in question is so popular that his datebook is straining under the pressure of engagements. "The phone never starts ringing", as Tracey puts it.
The other is that the polls are in any event a device for getting the winners to take advertising space in which to thank their loyal supporters. That's not entirely fair, but you've only to look through a poll results issue to see how the belief could start.
Whatever your own views on the matter, Stan Tracey's fears seem to have been well founded. Under Milk Wood, the album that started it all, sold well - for a jazz LP. But if anyone is to support himself on the proceeds of a jazz album in this country he needs to be a hermit of austere tastes living rent-free in an upturned boat.
The quantities involved are relatively small, so what should happen is that a highly thought-of record of that kind leads to further work in the composing and arranging fields - areas which need musical originality and daring and can pay well for such qualities.
For some reason, this hasn't happened. Between albums for Denis Preston (all of which, incidentally, are warmly received and much written about) Stan Tracey almost virtually languishes. This may surprise you, as it will the next ten jazz fans you meet, eight of whom will tell you what a fine composer and pianist Stan Tracey is; it certainly surprises me. It seems to surprise Stan himself at times, though at 43 he says he "can't get worked up about the indignities any more". I go into all this because here is another excellent album - Free An' One (SCX 6385); In Person; With Love From Jazz have been some of the others - which I have enjoyed enormously, and which plenty of other people are going to find interesting and important.
I should hate to think that all it's going to do is get the same group of heads nodding in approval while the music world as a whole continues to pretend Tracey's not there!
This is the first indignant sleevenote I've ever written, and I vow it's the last. I must now allow a cooling-off period while I wait and see if the piano quintet Stan has been working on for some time will reach effective maturity without the adrenaline-producing pressure of a firm deadline to propel it along. Meanwhile there's "The Seven Ages of Man" to be going on with…
It was never originally intended to be another go at nailing some Traceyisms to a literary framework. The use of the 'seven ages' motif arose out of an idle wondering about the exact origin of the familiar quote, and what the whole passage was. In its complete form it struck the composer as an ideal basis for a suite of music, especially as it was a kind of double simile in that while the ages marked the progression of a man through life, life itself was likened by Shakespeare to a complex set of stage performances. In Tracey's version, therefore, the stage equivalents are given, in their titles, a further twist.
The opening movement simply uses the first line of that famous passage from Act 2 of "As You Like It". All the World's A Stage it says, and Stan begins with typical out-of-tempo, spiky piano, soon ingeniously sidling into the brisk pulse of this vigorous blues which, besides featuring Alan Skidmore on tenor and Hank Shaw on trumpet, lays down the overall style of the writing - plenty of 'shout' and much sensitive handling of reeds.
Overture and Beginners is more of a ballad in feel, one of those climbing-frame melodies Stan Tracey delights in, clambering up and down with great agility. Chris Pyne's trombone is the chief solo instrument here, but don't miss also the remarkable reed passage just after Bryan Spring's brief drum interlude. So much for the "mewling and puking" of Shakespeare's infant.
The schoolboy, "creeping like snail unwillingly to school" rather surprisingly turns up as Tony Coe, absolutely superb on clarinet, in Matinee Days. Already the sardonic humour of Tracey, bard of Streatham, is beginning to take over from our man in Stratford.
For the lover, Tony Coe switches to tenor, not exactly "sighing like furnace" because, heated and urgent though Tony's sound is, it always has the suggestion more of steam about it, a kind of humidity. And Shakespeare's lover had a 'woeful ballad'; this is a ballad all right, but its general swagger robs Enter Romeo of woe.
Principal Centre Stage may or may not be one of those phrases stagey people toss back and forth over their dry martinis. For the soldier ('full of strange oaths'), presumably a man at the top of his form, "it just seemed right" Stan tells me. Peter King, on alton, certainly blazes into it as if he's "sudden and quick to quarrel".
There's an impressively ripe authority about the lawyer movement, which has nevertheless been named Wisdom In the Wings. "I picture this", says Tracey with that curious irony he manages into any speech of more than five words, "as the point in life you get to when you haven't become detached so much as had detachment thrust upon you." It could apply to Stan Tracey himself, but the soloist is in fact drummer Bryan Spring.
In Panto' Panta' the method of doubling upon Shakespeare's reference is used again, the pantaloon of the quote being extended to cover the Pantaloon character of traditional pantomime. By a further quirk, that's Frank Ricotti, almost certainly the youngest member of the band, on vibes.
Whether the comics of Shakespeare's day had actually devised the formula "Kindly Leave The Stage" is a matter for conjecture, but it was a good choice for the final movement of the suite, which begins with the biggest ration of the composer's solo piano, a ruminative, somewhat wistful excursion which only later gives way to the band and to Ronnie Ross' wonderfully grumbling baritone. The original quotation, you remember, ends: "- sans teeth, sans eyes, sans tastes, sans everything". This out of pure cussedness, is sans nothing - or, as they began to say at a later date, it has everything.