Stan Tracey albums

Notes: © Peter Clayton

There's a well substantiated story that tells how a pianist who happened to be in the audience at Ronnie Scott's old club one night was invited (some say challenged) to sit in. As the guest slid onto the bench to take over from the regular pianist, Stan Tracey, he was rather disconcerted to hear Stan, indicating what looked in the dark to be about an octave and a half of keyboard, whisper warningly: 'From here to here they don't work'.
According to who's telling it, the implication is either that it was Stan Tracey's own eccentric attack that had brought the instrument to this condition. or that Stan's strikingly original style, including those jagged leaps and those gaptoothed runs, had evolved as a result of a lifetime spent trying to camouflage the deficiencies of orphaned club pianos. The fact is that they are simply two ways of making the same observation: that in the generally trim herbaceous border of British semi-modern jazz, the prickly figure of Stan Tracey stands out like a cactus. For many this rogue growth too closely resembles Thelonious Monk for comfort. Tracey himself vehemently denies any such influence; the only influence he's consciously aware of is Duke Ellington, and this begins to make sense if you refer to some of Duke's recorded solos, particularly those on two LPs featuring himself and Johnny Hodges. There you can hear the striking resemblance that exists between Duke and Monk and, therefore, between Duke and Monk and Stan Tracey. And I suspect that any further likeness between Monk and Tracey is due to a similarity in the way they think. In both of them I hear a brooding. quirky, puzzled mind at work, wrestling with much the same problems.
The most interesting thing in recent years has been Stan Tracey's development as a composer. Right from Li'l ol' Pottsville, one of the most attractive jazz themes ever written this side of the Atlantic, his writing has always had at least as much individuality as his playing. It may have been the literary association that did it, but this was brought home to a much wider public with the issue in 1965 of Stan's quartet masterpiece Jazz Suite--Under Milk Wood. (It's painfully significant of something, though, that in spite of all the acclaim that brought him, remarkably little writing work has been offered him since.)
Milk Wood was followed by the suite Alice in Jazzland, and if this was less successfull and less satisfying it is almost certainly because, being for a big band, it had to do without the weirdly sympathetic sound of Bobby Wellins' tenor saxophone. which glided or leaped or keened so effectively through the earlier work. On the present record, a series of pieces springing from Tracey's compassionate, cynical examination of the tragi-comedy of human love, the unique voice is back.
Bobby Wellins belongs to that rare breed of jazz musicians who are recognisable within two or three notes. His tone is thinnish but steely; he employs not a vibrato so much as a slow, undulating effect a little like wow on a gramophone. And his conception of melody is a sensitive extension of Stan Tracey's own.
The titles here all have that wry Tracey touch. Amoroso - only more so is a fine ballad with a few bars of celeste at the beginning to set the mood. The blues Lovers' Freeway, Stan explains is 'an updated lovers' lane; there's no stopping on a freeway'. Two part intention is 'self-explanatory', So is Love now, Weep later, except that Stan used the word 'weep' in preference to the more expected 'pay' because 'weeping's a little harder even than paying'.
Three time loser, Three times blueser has Stan on vibes, and the improvisation here is all on the pentatonic scale. In fact it's 'treated as a semi-African thing. rather like Free, done on the album "Little Klunk" years ago'; extra percussion and a whistle were dubbed in later. Everywhere derriere is a blues inspired by sights to be seen in a mini-skirted London in the summer of 1967. Undercover Lover he explains as the expression of a universal male ambition. Musically, however.there's more to it than that. It's actually based on a progression created on the 'black notes' of the vibes in Stan's front room by young Clark Tracey, Stan's six-year-old son. Clark takes his vibes playing very seriously, and one afternoon I watched him demonstrate the principle involved in this particular number. Stan had worked out a series of downward·moving chords which would fit whatever 'black' notes Clark decided to strike, and they were away.
The whole LP forms a kind of bitter suite which I believe is at least as evocative as Milk Wood was. Freed from the literary hook it could even. on closer acquaintance, prove a more satisfying work still.
Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins are backed throughout by Dave Green (bass) and Jackie Dougan (drums), except on one track, when Lennie Bush and Ronnie Stephenson take over..

Notes Reissue - © Andrew Cleyndert, May 2005

Stan Tracey's ‘Under Milk Wood’ is understandably hailed as one of the most important recordings in the history of jazz in Britain, getting recognition well beyond the shores of these Isles. Through his original composition and unique, uncompromising voice on the piano Stan established himself as an artist of international stature.

Two years after that recording was made and coinciding with the year that he left behind his stint as house pianist at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, Stan made another album ‘With Love From Jazz’ which came out virtually un-noticed mainly because it received no promotion at the time. However, amongst Stan's many loyal fans this album did not pass by un-noticed and is regarded in those circles as at least as good as the earlier ‘Under Milk Wood’ recording. ‘With Love From Jazz’ again featured a suite composed by Stan, this time based on the tragi-comedy of human love. The titles alone reveal that this was a fertile ground of inspiration for Stan's compositional skills. Each tune is a timeless masterpiece. The ballads especially illustrate Stan's skill in producing a melody that is both poignant and compassionate, but just as with his playing never tips over into self-indulgent sentimentality.

The result is music of the highest order. The compositions here are perhaps far more personal than the earlier suite and clearly portray Stan's dry cynical wit on the one side and his evident understanding and compassion for the human condition on the other. It is not only the compositional element that makes this album so special. As with ‘Under Milk Wood’ this album also features a very special musical partnership between Stan and the saxophonist Bobby Wellins. Bobby is one of the few players on his horn that can be unfailingly recognised by his playing of just one note. In an environment where most of the jazz scene appeared to be trying to 'play catch up' with what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic Bobby appeared with his own unique voice and approach to improvisation which, whilst steeped in the jazz tradition of the great voices on his instrument, stole nothing from them and seemingly made no attempt to incorporate others into his own approach.

In an art form where lines of influence can easily be drawn back from many of even the greatest of jazz musicians, there are few that appear with such a unique voice from the start. It is hard to imagine any other horn player bringing out the beauty of Stan's writing as well as offsetting Stan's piano playing so perfectly. The mix of Bobby's fragile haunting tone against Stan's highly subtle but more robust piano playing is a very special partnership. Finally, there is one more aspect that sets this album apart from the earlier quartet album. On ‘Under Milk Wood’ Jeff Clyne on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums take a more supportive accompanying role. On ‘With Love From Jazz’ the quartet becomes a far more inclusive co-operative unit. A young Dave Green makes his presence felt with an authority that is going to make him the most popular bassist on the UK scene to this day. Jackie Dougan is equally impressive on drums and his playing here is fiery but never overbearing. Sparks are constantly flying between the musicians. It is a recording of a working quartet that has managed to capture the evasive quality that makes jazz such a special art form, both the expression of individuality and the special communication between all the participants. Special mention should also be made of the contributions of the late Ronnie Stephenson and Lennie Bush on the final track. Lennie Bush in particular reveals a maturity and command on his instrument and contributes a great bass solo.

All these elements drawn together make this a very special album that has far more than just stood the test of time.

Perhaps another specialised choice, but an irresistible one for unstoppable veteran pianist Tracey's many admirers. Tracey's Under Milk Wood suite is very well known, but this 1967 recording features a similar band centred on the laconically eloquent partnership with saxophonist Bobby Wellins, and another set of Tracey originals every bit as good as Milk Wood's. Two Part Intention is fast and Monkish, and features a superbly indignant solo from Wellins, who sounds freer and bolder here than on the preceding disc.

A poignant tenor ballad follows Tracey's celeste intro to Amoroso Only Moreso, Everywhere Derriere is a frantic ascending melody powered by Tracey's stabbing chords, and Love Now Weep Later is a drily boppish theme. The leader's unsentimentally haunting handling of a piano ballad is beautifully caught in tandem with Wellins on Sweet Used to Be. The set is probably on its way to becoming another Tracey classic.

John Fordham
Friday July 1, 2005 - Guardian
For those still living in the afterglow of Tracey's wonderful Radio 2 broadcast from London's Mermaid Theatre a few weeks ago, this will be a treat. Recorded in 1967, two years after Under Milk Wood, it features the same inimitable partnership of Tracey's piano and the tenor saxophone of Bobby Wellins.

Whenever these two are together, the sparks fly, not in a competitive sense, but because they both have devious musical imaginations and because the warm, melting saxophone and the purposeful piano create an eloquent contrast. The slow ballad 'Amoroso, Only Moreso' is almost unbearably poignant. Everything about these eight Tracey originals is so sharp and inventive that it's hard to believe that they are almost 40 years old. Tracey and Wellins remain among the most creative figures in European jazz.

Dave Gelly - Sunday July 17, 2005
The Observer