Stan Tracey, jazz legend
Published Date: 17 June 2010
By Jim Gilchrist
THE term "grand old man" generally implies a certain degree of licence to sit back and savour one's patriarchal status at leisure.
Not so for Stan Tracey, who at 83 can be fairly described as the grand old man of British jazz, yet boasts a continuing succession of new recordings and a busy schedule which saw him playing three nights in the United States earlier this week then returning for London's Vortex Jazz Festival, before heading north for the Glasgow Jazz Festival, which kicks off on Friday, as well as concerts in Haddington and Livingston.
The word "retirement" evidently does not exist in the Tracey lexicon, I suggested to him on Sunday. "Not with the size of my state pension it doesn't," was the laconic reply. "Apart from that, though, it's what I do." He was speaking to me from Baltimore, in the United States, where he was to take the stage with his trio plus the Washington DC tenor saxophonist Ron Holloway.
Tracey recently released an octet double CD, The Later Works (reSteamed) including The Amandla Suite he was commissioned to write in 1993 for the trade union Unison and The Hong Kong Suite he was asked to write by Chris Patten, outgoing governor of Hong Kong, to mark the colony's hand-over to China. The band he brings to Scotland, however, is his quartet, featuring regular side men Andy Cleyndert on double bass and his son, Clark Tracey, on drums, joined by the fiery young saxophonist Simon Allen.
It's the line-up which he recorded last year's Senior Moment, an album which suggests advancing years in title only. Listen to Tracey and Allen re-visiting Duffy's Circus, from the pianist's Poets' Suite of 1984, and the sense of exhilaration suggests that the half-century age gap between them only serves to keep the older man fresh. "I like playing with (young musicians]," he agrees. "They've got that youthful energy and they bring new ideas."
Could he have seen himself still playing and composing at this age back in the lean days of the early 1970s when, following his formative but debilitating stint as resident pianist at Ronnie Scott's, to use his own words, "the phone never started ringing" and he contemplated giving up music to become a postman? "I never thought about the future during that period of my life. All I thought about was now, with no thoughts for the future."
Four decades, an OBE, CBE and innumerable other honours along the line, Tracey, routinely referred to as the Godfather of British jazz, seems as vigorously creative as ever. His Glasgow gig will feature guest appearances by two of Scottish jazz's current leading lights, trumpeter Ryan Quigley and saxophonist Martin Kershaw, although Tracey is characteristically vague as to how the meeting might pan out: "I don't think about things like that, really. I just wait for the day and deal with it."
On this Glasgow visit he won't be playing with his old sparring partner, Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins, another seemingly tireless jazz veteran, whose playing association with Tracey goes right back to the pianist's wondrous Under Milk Wood suite of 1965, now regarded as a jazz classic. The original recording was recently re-issued by Clark Tracey's reSteamed label, giving fresh audiences a chance to savour the nocturne-like Starless And Bible Black, with Wellins's sax calling hauntingly above Tracey's sonorous piano. Tracey reprised the suite with Wellins at the Glasgow Jazz festival some years ago, and the pair meet up again for a concert in Amsterdam in August.
He agrees that the jazz piano trio format appears to be burgeoning internationally at the moment, but isn't entirely impressed. "Some of these trios, from Scandinavia or elsewhere… they're clever and technically brilliant, but they just don't make me tap my foot."
• The Glasgow Jazz Festival runs from 18-27 June. Stan Tracey plays at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on 23 June, St Mary's Parish church, Haddington, on 24 June and the Howden Park Centre, Livingston, on 25 June.