CD AMSC739 (5022810179320)
One for Gil
Piano: Stan Tracey
Alto Sax: Pete King
Tenor Sax: Don Weller
Tenor & Soprano Sax: Art Themen
Trombone: Guy Barker
Bass: Dave Green
Drums: Clark Tracey
That telltale exclamatory clang of Stan Tracey's chord playing, the jagged wheels-over-the-precipice phrasing, the unpredictable timing and knowing use of space tell you about a very special kind of keyboard player, but that's not all. Those were the singular sounds that led to Tracey being conveniently bagged as the British Thelonious Monk for years, a well-meaning tribute accurate only as a measure of his stature and the pungent independence of his work. But they're manifestations of an attitude to music-making that permeates everything Tracey does, in or out of partnerships.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Stan Tracey and his work knows he has never sought to clone himself off anybody, and wouldn't know where to begin concealing his idiosyncrasies if he were asked. He was a forces entertainer during the latter years of World War 2, became a full-time professional in the 1940's and then pianist with one of Britain's best known dance bands - the Ted Heath Orchestra. In the 1960's he was the house pianist at Ronnie Scott's Club, partnering jazz stars like Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims and Sonny Rollins. During that frenetic period Tracey's suite based on Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" was released, including a slow improvisation on "Starless and Bible Black" with the Scottish tenorist Bobby Wellins that's one of the great recorded jazz performances. Tracey has nevertheless felt that all this rich history has made it even more appropriate that his faintly ironic debut appearance on a major international jazz label at a still indefatigably youthful 65 should be an opportunity to say thanks to some special people in his life - the four 'Portraits' are devoted to the music of Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans and Duke Ellington. It should be said that this has been a far from one-way process. Finding himself accompanied by Tracey during a season at Ronnie Scott's in the Sixties, Sonny Rollins asked the British music press: 'does anybody here know how good he really is?'
The opener of 'Portraits','Newk's Fluke', is dedicated to Rollins, and it bristles with Tracey compositional trademarks, like the ability to splice apparently dislocated moods and idioms into a single theme with such offhand expertise as to make them seem lifelong friends. The pulse immediately suggests the Latin and Caribbean music Rollins loves, the raucous, barn dance hoot of the main theme recalls a mischievous fondness for drawing unlikely, even downright outlandish, materials into jazz that Tracey and the great saxophonist share, and the bridge is relaxed down-the-line swing. The typical Tracey piano solo that follows is a striking reminder that for all its apparent exclamatory quirkiness, a Tracey improvisation is almost always a series of subtle variations on the voicings of the chords, and fashionable pyrotechnical post-bop sweeps through scales and modes interest him hardly at all.
There's a creative tension between organisation and freedom on this session that's also been a Tracey speciality since the 1970's when working with a younger generation of musicians opened him up to the jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and the soloists in this octet embrace many methods of jazz making. Altoist Peter King, one of the European scene's most enthralling and accomplished soloists since the 1960's, is the closest to bop. Tenorist Art Themen's mixture of bent, sidelong phrases, truculent slurs, split notes and guttural, whirring figures comes from music of waywardness that even Thelonious Monk - the inspiration for 'Rocky Mount' with its skewed, Monkish spinning wheel of a theme - didn't envisage. Themen balances the more measured and majestic gait of Don Weller, whose sound you hear on 'One for Gil', shifting from a breathy sumptuous opening to effortless, mahogany-toned double-time and back, and young trumpet virtuoso Guy Barker plays a delectable high-register solo toward the close.
'Clinkscales', with its headlong treble clamour over Dave Green's racing bass walk, is Tracey's tribute to Ellington (Mrs Clinkscales was, believe it or not, the Duke's piano teacher), the man he probably holds in more esteem than anyone. It features beautiful solos by Peter King (growing even more inflamed as the ensemble emerges to flank him halfway through), Barker and Weller. 'Spectrum Number 2' and 'Mainframe' are older pieces reinvigorated by this exuberant and unruly octet. The first is made atmospherically Moorish by Themen's sweet-and-sour soprano, but becomes a soulful blues via Barker's high trills and Peter King's soaring, violin-like top notes at the finale. 'Mainframe', the most brusque and abrupt vehicle for improvisors, lets the tenors and trumpet swagger and swoop, but with a piece of traditional Tracey effrontery it slams to an abrupt halt for trombonist Malcolm Griffiths to play a sidelong mix of muted orthodox trombone and garrulous abstraction. Drummer Clark Tracey, a man with a lifetime's exposure to Tracey Senior's methods but close to a decade as a powerful post-bop bandleader on his own account, gets the chance to exchange some crisp epithets with his partners in the chorus-swapping here. 'Hot Jazz' wrote Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note records in 1939, 'is expression and communication . . . not its sensational and commercial adornments' - Lion's sentiments could, of course, have described wonderful work by the remarkable musicians who subsequently worked for his label - Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and many others. But 'Portraits' perfectly fits the description too. 'Expression and communication' are exactly what it's all about