Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stan Tracey: Two Masterful CDs

Back in January I wrote that Stan Tracey is one of the seminal jazz players in the U.K.  and discussed a few of his CDs, one of which was Ben Webster and Stan Tracey, "Soho Nights Volume 1" (Resteamed Records 2008).  At the time I said "This is one of many 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." We are forunate to have another Tracey collaboration with Ben Webster, "Soho Nights Volume 2 (Resteamed Records 2012). 
Under Milkwood

Before talking about that recording, I want to talk about Tracey's "Under Milkwood: Jazz Suite" (Resteamed Records 2008), which was originally released in 1965 and is even considered today to be one ofTracey's crowning achievements. On that recording, Tracey is joined by Bobby Wellins on tenor saxophone, Jeff Clyne on bass, and Jackie Dougan on drums. It is the incredible interplay between Tracey's piano and the tenor saxophone of Bobby Wellins that really stands out on the recording, and many consider this to be Wellins' crowning achievement as well. Tracey's roots were in Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, but he was beginning, with other U.K. players, to find his own voice, shifting from imitations of American bop and swing to original material. "Under Milkwood: Jazz Suite"  was really distinctive, writing by Tracey with its lean beauty and respect for the spirit of the play by Dylan Thomas. Wellins was often criticized at the time as a player slavishly copying the U.S. masters like Charley Parker, but in fact demonstrates here his originality and style to great effect. It is his restraint from over blowing, his lovely tone, his use of silences in his solos, and his ability to create variations of lightness and shade that distinguish him here. There are no endless streams of blowing, no rambling; the music is concise and demonstrates clearly the close relationship between Wellins and Tracey. 

"Cockle Row" opens the suite with a drum solo, a bouncing tenor line, and then the whole band playing a rather nice mid-tempo romp. Everyone solos, and everyone also supports each other when the entire group is playing. Wellins gets the opening lead, as he does for much of this CD, and demonstrates why he is still active and revered in the U.K. today as one of the pioneers of U.K. jazz. He demonstrate a light touch, round sound, and comfortable play. Tracey matches it with his solo and an equally nice touch and bounce. The drum set is omnipresent but not overbearing, and keeps everyone on tempo. Wellins is absolutely brilliant in his concept for "Starless and Black Bible" as his quiet tone floats above subdued piano chords to evoke the timelessness and atmosphere of Dylan Thomas' work.   This is the most restrained piece; otherwise, there are many solid boppish tunes worthy of any of the great combos, U.K. or U.S., of the time. There is a very nice opening piano line to "I Lost it in Nantucket", played in a lower octave and at first sounding like the start of the Adams family theme.  From there the song is Tracey's to play with, in an almost Monkish way, with simple touches, pauses, and openings for others to join in. "LLareggub" sees Wellins jumping into a nice uptempo song that is his feature until Tracy takes over midway with his own lively blues sound. "Under Milkwood" is a slow ballad for Tracey and Wellins to shine on with lovely long passages. It features lush playing, with nice restrained drum support tracing the tempo and adding little pops of coloring here and there. "A.M. Mayhem" has a lovely opening solo and then the entire group enters and takes a swinging approach to the song, with solid drum play and a moving bass line to give it its punch, its bounce. It is all Wellins to start, with Tracey comping nicely in support. Only after four minutes of swinging sax does Tracey takes over and then trades off to the drums and bass before the entire group takes it out.

Tracey's pianism varies in touch and tone with great virtuosity, and as with Wellins, he knows how to keep his solos short and concise even as he is creating great impressionistic swaths of sound. This is absolutely first rate, and should be a part of anyone's collection. It is not well-known to U.S. listeners so I hope those who are reading this will give it a try.

Ben Webster / Stan Tracey  - Soho Nights Vol 2Recorded live at Ronnie Scott's in 1964, "Soho Nights Volume 2" (Resteamed Records 2008) is a second set from tenor giant Ben Webster's appearances at the club, backed by Stan Tracey's 'in-house' trio. The quality of the sound captures the atmosphere of the club nicely, and the introduction and good night from Ronnie Scott add to the live feeling of the set. This is Vol 2, but it was actually recorded three years earlier than Vol 1, in 1964. 

The set is great. "Night in Tunisia" shows the high spirits and hijinks of the group, with Webster's sound more wailing than usual to match the original swinging upbeat feel of the song. The drumming and bass lines are equally forceful and rapidly advance the tempo and maintain the high spirited romp. The band demonstrates its flexibility as it switches over to the next piece "Chelsea Bridge", which is played as tenderly and richly as one has ever heard it. Webster sounds lovely and the band is quietly supportive of his play. Rarely does one hear a more sensitive backing by the piano as Tracey supplies here. The two play like they have been together for years, not as if they had just met, as is the case. "Over the Rainbow" is similarly beautiful, with Webster's legendary sound putting the longing and romance into the song that matches the original from a young Judy Garland in the movie. The band goes back to cooking with "Cotton Tail" and "The Theme", and clearly leaves the crowd in an upbeat mood.

Volume 2 is an exhuberent outing full of great play and unrestrained joy. Webster demonstrates his unerring sense for concise but beautiful improvisations, Tracey and his trio are terrific accompanists, and the whole thing must have been an incredible night for the club's patrons. Another winning CD.

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