Stan Tracey albums
Little Klunk/Showcase
Little Klunk / Showcase
Stan Tracey Trio & Quartet
Notes: © SIMON SPILLETT June 2003 The timely reissue of these, Stan Tracey's first two albums as a leader in his own right, restores to splendour two key pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is the patchily documented British Modern Jazz scene of the 1950s. It also serves as a reminder of the long road which Stan Tracey has travelled in order to reach his current position of venerated elder statesman of the music.
The original Vogue LPs, Showcase and Little Klunk have achieved legendary, even mythic, status, Little Klunk especially. Last issued on Decca's budget line Ace Of Clubs imprint in the late 1960s, vinyl copies have since become much sought after collectors items. Now, finally on CD, its reappearance enables us to examine Stan's work in its earlier years, in much the same way as JASMINE's reissue programme of Tubby Hayes "forgotten" TEMPO sessions has done.
Recorded during his two year tenure with Ted Heath's orchestra, it is tempting to describe the music contained on these two sessions as the initial stirrings of Tracey's creative genius, or a glimpse of his skills in their incubative period, were it not for the fact that throughout them it is remarkable just how the Stan Tracey of the late 1950s sounds uncannily like the Stan Tracey of today.
Both as a composer and an improviser his style, then as now, builds upon a stark economy, now romantic now dramatic, pointillistic deliberation, and a general disregard of vacuous virtuosity, all the more notable for coming at a time when most jazz outside the U.S.A. (and a great deal within it) relied upon the failsafe formula of hard and fast delivery. Tracey's was already a mature talent by the dawn of the 1960s. All it required was a wider triumphing, something it could never realistically expect among the ranks of a commercial dance band.
This opportunity was uniquely afforded to him in the ensuing decade, during which Stan, as house pianist at Ronnie Scott's club, (he preferred the description 'resident idiot'), accompanied the likes of Sonny Stitt, Roland Kirk, Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz, Donald Byrd, J.J.Johnson and Sonny Rollins, the latter famously enquiring "Does anybody here really know how good he is?"
Little Klunk stands as Exhibit A in the argument that Tracey's critical neglect was not absolute, thanks in this instance to the indefatigable Tony Hall, mastermind behind so much of the recording of British modernists. What makes this album so unique is its generous and respectful nod to Tracey, the composer. Comprising eight of his own compositions, it was a rarity during the days when most British jazz composers trod an awkward line between vapid emulation of American models and the kind of originality that is based solely on ignorance.
Kenny Graham's original sleeve note on the LP also raises the question of Tracey's influences, without resorting, as has so often been the case, to the simple Ellington-Monk comparisons frequently hung around the pianists neck. On the earlier Showcase notes, Tracey name-checks Herbie Nichols, another maverick whose approach couldn't be pigeonholed, as well as the crystalline brilliance of Wynton Kelly, indicating a far wider trawl for inspiration and influence.
Lil' Ol' Pottsville is Tracey's evocation of a town seen from a speeding train on a U.S. tour with the Heath band, and was recorded again a year later in a nonet arrangement on drummer Tony Crombie's Jazz Inc. TEMPO LP, as was the alliterative Boo-Bah. (Both can be heard on JASMINE JASCD612) Recognition of Tracey's quality came when Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney recorded his Baby Blue, a composition which made its trio debut on Little Klunk, whilst Dream of Many Colours - once named as a theme with which Stan was truly satisfied is a reminder to those who think that Tracey's creation of brooding, stately ballads started with Under Milk Wood. The title cut is yet another of those Tracey tunes which sounds, with childlike simplicity, identical to its name, but which reveals a wealth of sophisticated care upon close inspection.
Tracey's rhythm partners throughout Little Klunk, and on some of the earlier Showcase material, are the bassist Kenny Napper, and the drummer Phil Seamen, both also deserving another moment in the sun. Napper, as Kenny Graham notes, is nothing short of a great bassist, as his subsequent work with Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis and others attests. Hear his rare Arco accompaniment on the duo performance of Dream Of Many Colours.
Seamen was one of Tracey's ideal and favourite partners. In a 1983 radio documentary, he recalled the drummers positive musical qualities; "He just had tremendous drive. His time was beautiful, and he would under-line what was going on out front, and in the rhythm section. He was like the perfect accompanist". To this he added that he considered Seamen to rank with the finest American drum legends.
In those pre-P.C. days, Seamen was frequently described as being the only English drummer who, in John Fordham's words, "sounded black". Indeed, if there is anyone he reminds one of on Little Klunk then it is Art Blakey, with his incessant ride cymbal and clip-clopping accents on Lil' 0l' Pottsville as a prime example. Free is a stunning feature for Seamen.
1959 was early in the day for British musicians to be looking with anything more than superficial scrutiny at more eclectic musical influences, but Tracey has spoken of his and Seamen's fascination with African music, a fascination shared in three-way conversations and listening sessions with Little Klunk's sleeve note writer, the tenorist and arranger Kenny Graham. Free is certainly a result of these investigations, and reminds this writer of some of Art Blakey's more deliberately Africa-evoking drum ensemble work of the period. Just as Tracey had done with Monk, Seamen, unlike most British drummers, not only understood the technical implications of Blakey's stupendous polyrhythmic skills, but was able to deliver back with interest.
These sessions are also valuable in that they document Tracey's rarely heard work on the vibraphone, an instrument on which he doubled whilst with Ted Heath.
Showcase in particular reveals how the pretty sound of the vibes seemed to soften Tracey's hard-edge. Certainly, his individuality is less marked when playing them.
Over The Rainbow is a case in point, wherein it is possible to hear as much of fellow Brit-jazz vibesmen Tubby Hayes and Vic Feldman as it is Tracey. This earlier album, with its entirely standards oriented programme, is actually something of a revelation, in some ways even more so than Little Klunk. During its course, the dichotomous musical worlds in which Stan Tracey operated in the late 1950s collide head-on.
The smooth urbanity of I Can't Give You Anything But Love will surprise anyone expecting to hear Tracey's legendary ability to turn even the most innocuous of material into one of his knotty twisted transformations. The mood here is the hamstrung one found in a lot of British Modern Jazz of the period, teetering awkwardly
between a kind of lounge dance combo music, and the more respectable side of contemporary jazz. The other side of Tracey comes to the fore in Rodgers and Hart's I've Got Five Dollars, appended with a Bud Powell 'Tempus Fugit' intro and tag.
A word too needs to be spoken for Stan's Heath-band colleagues, bassist Johnny Hawksworth and drummer Ronnie Verrell, who are present on most of the 1958 material. Hawksworth's comic persona (Leonard Feather once compared him both physically and temperamentally to the young Alec Guinness) tended to obscure his committed musical brilliance, whilst Verrell, long thought of as solely a big band dynamo, reveals on Showcase a sensitivity with brushes that was rarely called upon in his show-stopping career.
Kenny Graham's post-script on the Ace Of Clubs reissue of Little Klunk now seems ironic with its positive short term predictions for Tracey's career, post-Ronnie Scott's, Stan's life was blighted by what he called a severe case of 'Jazz strain', brought on by long nights, temperamental guest artists, permanent adjustment to the body clock of a zombie, and by what he later, somewhat drolly, recalled as 'certain substances'. For a while it threatened to eclipse him.
Twenty years on, he received the O.B.E. for his services to British music. Back in 1959,when Little Klunk was recorded, such a situation would have been unimaginable. Even Ronnie Scott, Tracey's future employer, and a man who liked a bet, would have laid very long odds on just such an investiture ever reaching that deep into the jazz cognoscenti. For Scott, who also received the accolade, O.B.E. stood for 'Other Bastards Efforts'. For Tracey, the efforts were undeniably his own, resolutely individual and painstakingly delivered even when he thought no-one was listening.
"Listen and listen well; this is not music to chatter to" wrote Kenny Graham at the close of his original sleeve note for Little Klunk. Now, we thankfully have the chance to listen again.