Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Seminal Jazz Players in the UK

Today, I want to begin with a nod to today's edition (Jan 3, 2012) of Marc Myers' JazzWax blog (http://jazzwax.com/) and its feature on  British Jazz.

In keeping with my mission statement in my first blog, I too am interested in bringing to light some of the outstanding players and recordings I have in my collection from the UK, both those of past masters as well as today's stars. I had begun a piece on some of the seminal figures in British jazz, particularly with an emphasis on those masters who are still active on the scene, thus teaching both by example as well as in the classroom.

American listeners have always heard and appreciated British players, for the most part concentrating on those who appeared frequently in the U.S. or are on major labels -- players like those noted in JazzWax, and other current notables like Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler, or John Taylor, to name just three who appear on more readily acessible labels like ECM and CamJazz. Some folks will also recognize the name Ronnie Scott, but perhaps as a club owner and location for some great live disks by Johnny Griffin, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and other Americans, and not as a tenor saxophonist.
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This blog highlights a few players and recordings of those who are not as well known, but have both the talent, discography, and gravitas to measure up as seminal figures to British artists, much as today in the U.S. we have our own octogenarians like Sonny Rollins or Roy Haynes.

Stan Tracey (born 1926) is perhaps the biggest name among those still active today. Tracey is a pianist who began recording in the 1950s and is still active today at age 85, having recorded a Child's Christmas Suite in 2011, a recording that made many of the British top 10 charts for the year. Not only an outstanding pianist, leader and composer, Tracey is also the father of Clark Tracey, a recognized drummer on the British scene, and a respected teacher to many fine young talents (who will be featured in subseqeunt blogs). The five outstanding recordings in my collection of Tracey's work include:
  • Ben Webster and Stan Tracey, "Soho Nights Volume 1", 2008 Resteamed Records, recorded 1968 with Tony Crombie on drums and Dave Green on bass.  This is one of those recordings at Ronnie Scott's and is just magnificent to hear, with the big round tones of Ben's tenor coupled with the smooth comping and soloing of Tracey. Note too that Crombie is one of the long-standing names in British jazz and is a frequent contributor to many fine recordings over the decades.
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  • "Comme d"Habitude", Jazzizit 1999, is a Sinatra tribute, played with Bobby Wellins, another seminal figure discussed below, and also with another long-standing player still on the scene, bassist Andrew Cleyndert. Stan's son Clark Tracey is on drums. These are nice extended takes on some of Frank's best known songs, with a great deal of improvisation and tempo changes compared to the originals.
  • "Senior Moment", 2009, Resteamed Records, is a personal favorite, a very subtle, relaxed trio in the groove.
  • Product Details"Tracey and Wellins play Monk",  2007, Resteamed Records. These two have played together for over 40 years and it shows in the wonderful by-play between them. Granted Monk's tunes may be overplayed in tributes by now, but these two make you not care in the least.
Tubby Hayes (1935-1973) was a true original, a fast playing tenor sax player who unfortunately was here and gone too soon. His stylish melodies and intense improvisations helped introduce hard bop and its new direction to the UK. Here are a few of his outstanding recordings that demonstrate the best of this energetic, freewheeling, and passionate player:
  • Product Details"Tubby's New Groove" 2011 Candid.  Recorded in 1959 but released last year, this disk features Tubby with a piano trio playing through some outstanding compositions. It was picked as the outstanding historic disk by many reviewers.
  • "Commonwealth Blues", 2005, Art of Life Records, contains recordings from 1965 from BBC radio, with Hayes playing on all three of his instruments -- tenor, vibes, flute. It also features a very young Gordon Beck (see below).  
  • Product Details"Live in London", Harkit Records, 2004. This disk has performances from 1964-65 at Ronnie Scott's.
Bobby Wellins (born 1936) is a Scottish tenorist who began his career with Big Bands, including the Tony Crombie Band, which also featured Stan Tracey, among others. Still active today, he began recording in the late 1950s, and on some recordings worked with a young Kenny Wheeler. His work as a leader began in the 1970's and continues today.
  • Product Details"Time Gentlmen Please", 2011 Trio Records, was a personal favorite of the past year. Among his support is Andrew Cleyndert on bass. Listen to the soft, carressing tones of "In the Wee Small Hours" or the bluesy "St. Louis Blues" to feel the range and lovely tone of this master of the sax
  • Product Details"Snapshot", 2008, Trio Records, is another outstanding mainstream effort by Wellins, backed by Cleyndert on bass, Spike Wells on drums, and Mark Edwards on piano.
Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was a tenor saxophonist but is far better known as club owner and host of the club that still bears his name today. He too began with the Tony Crombie Band after World War II, played two years in the Jazz Couriers with Tubby Hayes, and in 1959 founded Ronnie Scott's, which he modelled after the Manhattan clubs in which he had played. Generally backed by the house band, Ronnie Scott's was a stop for any American playing in Europe -- Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Dexter Gordon and others all have recordings from the club. Some selected recordings of Scott worth hearing:  
  • Product Details"Boppin' With Scott", Proper Box, released 2007. These are recordings from 1946-56 on 4 disks with support from house and other  UK players.   
  • Product Details"Ronnie Scott and His American Friends", Candid, 2010. This recording includes sessions with Donald Byrd, Sonny Stitt, and Stan Tracey among others, and is very well recorded.
Gordon Beck  (1936 - 2011) Sadly, Beck passed away this fall. His piano work in trios, with vocalists, or in other settings was lovely, with a light touch and expressive tunes and improvisations. His disks are readily available on Art of Life records, and are well worth listening to.
  • Product Details"Experiments with Pops", 1968, Art of Life Records, was one of his earliest efforts and a fascinating one at that. All of the songs were from the pop favorites of the time, played within a jazz context. One of the fascinations is that this was the first recording of guitarist John McLaughlin. Listen to the fine work on Norwegian Wood and I Can See for Miles to get a sense of the music.  
  • "Not the Last Waltz", 2004, Art of Life Records is a lovely piano trio disk with moods that range from upbeat bop to beautifully carressed ballads.
  • Product DetailsProduct Details"Seven Steps to Heaven", 2005. Another trio setting, but with the addition of French alto Pierrick Pedron on four of seven songs. Mainstream jazz in a modern setting, beautifully rendered. [Note: Pierrick Pedron's first disk, "Deep in a Dream" on Nocture, 2007, is a wonderful disk, with a supporting cast of Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash, among others]
I hope any readers out there will try to listen to some of these British founding fathers, and marvel at their skills and contributions to the jazz scene today. In future blogs, I want to highlight at least two players from the next generation -- Alan Barnes and Dave O'Higgins -- as well as the latest generation of players who have taken the music and run in multiple directions.  

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