John Fordham The Guardian (2002) Jim Godbolt - JARS (2002)
Interview by John Eyles. AllAboutJazz.com (2006)
Sholto Byrnes meets the quiet man of British jazz - The Sunday Independent (2006)
John Fordham The Guardian - Stan Tracey Orchestra - Duke Ellington's Sacred Music (2006)
Bill Shoemaker - Downbeat Magazine (2007) Jim Gilchrist. The Scotsman - Stan Tracey, jazz legend (2010)
Stan Tracey interview from Rochester International Jazz Festival 2010
interviewed by Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Jazzwise interview by Duncan Heining
10th April. 2010
It was early last year in Hampstead. I was watching and listening to Stan Tracey playing a short solo set at a gig he was doing with poet Michael Horovitz. I was sitting opposite him and his head and shoulders were framed by the piano's lid, a study in concentration. It was one of those moments when what you are hearing and what you see become one total image, iconic in every sense of that word.
I suspect Stan would scoff at the suggestion but I realised then that, now in his eighties, he is not just one of our finest musicians but, also, that he represents so much more than his own place in jazz history. At 83, you'd forgive him for restricting himself to an occasional, polite recital but this year he has thrown himself into a hectic schedule of work. There are three albums already in the can and his gig diary is filling up nicely. The first record is Later Works, a double CD of two suites for his octet, and it will be followed later in the year by a piano trio set and a collection of improvised duets with his son and drummer, Clark.
Later Works features two suites, Amandla written in '93 for the newly-amalgamated Trades Union, Unison, and Hong Kong Suite commissioned by Lord Chris Patten to mark the handover of the city to China in '97. The performance of the latter was held in the governor's mansion. "Oh, yeah," he says laughing. "It was the last concert in Government House. I remarked at the time that it was one of the nicest places I'd ever closed."
I can't help commenting that Patten always seemed quite a decent bloke for a Tory. "We all formed that opinion," Stan replies. "He came across as a really nice guy." So, how did the commission come about? "I was working in a jazz club in Hong Kong," he says. "Somebody from his office invited him down to the club and at the end of the night we were introduced and he suggested to Chris that he should commission me to write a piece for Hong Kong. He just said, 'See to it!' That was It!" Oh, to have that power to do such good!
The Amandla Suite focuses on Unison's international links, in particular with the developing countries. Both suites are quite glorious, celebratory pieces and, as ever, Tracey succeeds in making his octet sound like a full big band. I ask him how he approaches writing these longer works. Does he seek to link the different sections or use recurring motifs or chord sequences? His response is down-to-earth and pragmatic but still informative about his working methods.
"I can't answer that," he says after a long pause. "They just are. How can I put this? I'm not academically trained and I'm not a schooled musician, so I can't talk to you in those terms. I just bumble along and hope for the best I guess." Stan laughs and continues. "I tend to start at point A and keep going until I reach a point in the alphabet I feel it is time to finish the piece. Sometimes, there's no repeating of harmonic sequences at all. Truth to tell, I find that boring. It's okay on a gig where you're just blowing but, if I'm writing, I try not to keep repeating the chord sequence. It just grows organically. Also, there's a matter where it's a commission and you decide to do five pieces, then you know that each piece has to last so many minutes. So that comes into it too."
It reminds me of what Bob Dylan said when someone asked him what his songs were about "Oh, some are about 10 minutes long, others five or six!" Stan is not unusual in this respect amongst musicians I've talked to they reflect extensively on the content and form of the thing they are producing but not on the process of its creation. So, when I ask him which he finds easier - writing for big band or octet, his reply is that it's the latter, simply because he's had more experience in that area.
It struck me long ago that those who play with him seem to sound at their very best in his company, as if he brings out something special in them. Stan's not exactly dismissive of the suggestion but I can tell he's not entirely comfortable with it. "First of all, I don't know if that's true," he says, "and I haven't really had the chance to make the comparison. You have to work with somebody to have knowledge of their playing." He pauses for a moment, "I really have no comment to make about that. If they do play better with me (laughing), that's a real boost for my ego."
It's the first time, I've spoken with Stan face to face and I'm struck by a gentleness about him. It's not modesty exactly that makes him appear reluctant to accept such compliments but more a kind of old world good manners. It's very refreshing. They said about F. Scott Fitzgerald, that while most writers lived for their writing, Fitzgerald wrote for a living. Tracey has that same quality.
His bands often feature a fine blend of mature and young talent. It's a balance of experience and youthful vitality that adds a special dynamic to his music. Clark has been part of the family firm from his teens. Guy Barker has been playing with Tracey from a very young age and the same is true of Gerard Presencer. It is, he says, an aspect of his work that he really enjoys.
"Yes, with the help of my son Clark because I don't get the opportunity to hear who's playing amongst the new players and he lets me know who's playing well. For instance, he suggested I might ask (trumpeter) Henry Armberg-Jennings to do a gig with me at the Bull's Head with me. I have absolute confidence in what Clark suggests. So, Henry's playing with me in a couple of months time. I like working with all players of all ages but it is nice to work with the younger players."
Bassist Andy Cleyndert is another who's been with Stan for years. As well as featuring in the octet and big band, Andy plays all of Stan's trio and quartet gigs. In fact listen to him on the forthcoming trio set or the quartet session from 2009, Senior Moment, and you'll hear how young players can retain that youth and vitality thing and yet underpin that with maturity and experience. Saxophonist, Simon Allen, who features both in the octet and on Senior Moment, is another - still young musician - who keeps growing in stature in Stan's company.
Obviously, for any composer, the more they work with particular musicians the more it aids the process of composition and arranging. Having the right mix of players certainly helps in one sense at least, as Stan points out, "It does help when I'm familiar with what a player does I can feature that player in certain parts of an arrangement because I know that's what he does well. So, in that regard, yeah, it does work."
Readers may already be aware that Stan's wife and life partner, Jackie, died last summer. Jackie was, like so many jazz wives, so much more than even that word of a thousand tasks might convey and Jackie had made her own contribution in so many ways to jazz in Britain. The idea of a duo album just Stan and Clark was hers, as Stan explains. "It was something that Jackie was always pushing for and I'm sorry that she didn't get the chance to hear us doing it. That was a big wish of hers that we do that and we finally did. It's totally improvised there was no preparation. Clark went into his booth I went into mine and we just started playing."
It was probably one of the most important recordings for Stan, for reasons that should be clear. He admits that he was nervous. "I thought I was going to have a paucity of ideas but came the moment I thought Phew!'", and his shoulders actually relax, as he says this. "Clark is a tremendous person to work with the things that come from him that I can relate to and I suppose the other way round. It came easier than I thought it was going to from my point of view."
But don't expect an album of atonal free improvisations. Stan had, of course, recorded in that style in the seventies with John Surman, Keith Tippett and Mike Osborne - and more recently with Evan Parker. But, as he tells me, this was more about the creation of instant compositions, he tells me. "The stuff I did with Keith it was totally atonal. It was 90% atonal with John and 100% atonal with Mike and I knew that I wasn't going to be doing that with Clark. There's one track that gets a bit atonal but for the most part it's regular harmonies."
I ask, which approach he finds easier. "I find using regular harmonies and composing on the spot easier because that's the bulk of what I've been doing all my life. The atonal thing, I don't do all that often, so I do find that more difficult." He's actually slightly dismissive of his own efforts with Surman, Osborne and Tippett. I'll just say, his opinion isn't one I - or anyone I know who's heard those records - would share. Hopefully, these duets with Clark will come out soon or at least as soon as the Traceys have the bread to do so because the music is a delight. Jackie would be proud of her guys.
It's amazing to say it but Tracey's own playing seems, if anything, to improve with age. He rejects instantly my suggestion that this, and the impression that he is now more relaxed on stage, might come from the sense that he now has nothing to prove. "No, no! Not from that angle," he says, "I'm too aware of my shortcomings to be that laid-back about it. I guess it just comes with age. I am more relaxed with the audience. After all these years, I would have to be. I used not to be, I know." There was a time when a Tracey gig could be an edgy affair - for the audience, that is. You kind of felt you had to be on your best behaviour. But as he says, for all the drugs he once took, his favourite buzz is playing live.
An intensely private man, I'm loath in any way to intrude on his grief. I do, however, get the impression that Stan is throwing himself into work this year, with the encouragement of Clark and daughter-in-law Sylvia, as a means of honouring everything he and Jackie had worked for over the years. We honour the dead best by living to the full, after all. And when the Tracey standard remains so high, what better way of doing just that could there be?
Nonetheless, this year's work schedule might frighten much younger souls. Umpteen UK festival gigs are already set up. The new CD will be launched at the Sage, as part of the Gateshead International Festival on March 26th and is followed by gigs in Bury St. Edmunds (May), Glasgow (June), Swanage and Wigan (both July) and Marsden in October. Even more intriguing is a gig on April 10th at London's Jazz Cafι let's hope the club starts making a habit of it.
Then there are some US dates with his trio in June, including the Rochester Festival and, most intriguingly, on 14th June at Lincoln Center in Dizzy's Club - one of our jazz icons appearing in a room named after one of theirs! Back in the fifties and sixties, when Stan was still learning the trade that might've been considered a case of coals to Newcastle. These days it's more a matter of Matthew Chapter 7, Verse 6!