A day after the death of Nelson Mandela, and already feeling emotional because if the media onslaught that followed, I learned of the death of pianist Stan Tracey, the news of which made me even sadder.
Stan Tracey has been part of my aural world since I started listening to jazz as an adult. Whilst I certainly heard some of his records as a child – my father was a fan – listening to Tracey’s music helped this nascent jazz fan make sense of much of the music. He provided me with the missing link between the accessible sounds of mainstream jazz – particularly Ellington – and the burgeoning avant garde. At once, he sounded like Ellington and like Monk, and he created the context fit me to explore the links between them. (Through listening to Tracey, I realised that Monk sounded like Ellington, too – if you really listened!)
The first time I’m aware of seeing Tracey live was at the Bracknell Jazz Festival in 1987. I can’t remember what band he had with him, although it featured Art Themen on tenor. Other the next twenty five years, I saw Stan Tracey play many, many times in his big bands, octets, quintets, quarters, trios – notably improvising with Evan Parker at the Vortex a couple of years ago – and, once, in a duo with fellow pianist Keith Tippett. Tracy’s bands always had the cream of the British jazz scene, and his big band was a melting pot of cross generational talent.
Tracey was eminently adaptable, sounding suited to whatever situation he was in – and always sounding like himself. It might be this trait that lead to him being the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s in the 1960s, where he was famously praised by Sonny Rollins.