Tag Archives: Bobby Wellins

Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2013.

July’s Jazz Festival was understandably busy. Ten gigs in ten days, with a couple of extra, excellent outdoor events, too. It was a fun time.

I tried to balance newer and old music, musicians I knew (and knew I liked) with people I’d not heard before; and a range of styles and groups. I won’t cover every gig I went to, but I’d like to cover those that worked well, or didn’t.

The festival opened fire with the Brian Kellock Copenhagen Trio. Kellock is a great pianist, with a chimeric skill in mixing genres and styles whilst presenting an engaging whole. His music twists and turns as he moves from stride to Monk and references more modern, keeping the bass and drums in their toes – and there was clearly a fair bit of joshing going on between the three of them.

Kellock filled some very big shoes when, a few days later, he took the place of Stan Tracey, who had pulled out of his quartet gig with Bobby Wellins due to illness. So it became the Wellins Quartet, with Clark Tracey on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass. This was a fun gig, but Kellock seemed subdued – at least compared to his form earlier in the festival – and it felt a bit as if the band were going through the motions. Good, but not outstanding.

The festival was beset with illness, losing the last night headliner Pharoah Sanders as well as Tracey. This was a big disappointment, since Sanders is one of the remaining firebrands from the 1960s avant garde, and not having seen him live for many years I had been looking forward to seeing how he had settled into life as an elder statesman.

The Italian/Sardinian-Scottish connection in Stone Islands had been forged at last year’s festival, when Scots trumpet Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan teamed up with reedsman Enzo Favata. That was one of the surprise hits last year, and their return with an extended band this year was eagerly awaited. My expectations worked against them, since I thought they were excellent, but I was still disappointed! Tinged with a folk feel and featuring saxophonists Martin Kershaw and Konrad Wisniewzski, this ten piece had some of the anarchy of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. They made a great sound, but didn’t quite capture the magic or excitement of last year’s debut.

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Despite the familiarity of a band I had seen four or five times in the last year, the Neil Cowley Trio put on such a high energy show that they couldn’t fail to excite. Very much a band, each member is integral to the sound, from Evan Jenkins’ powerhouse drumming, through metronomic Rex Horan’s bass playing to Cowley’s passionate piano. Their tunes move from subtle to intense to loud, and they do it all very well. This was just a superb gig, the power of a rock band with the intricacy and emotion of – well, a jazz trio.

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They were just beaten as highlight of the festival by the Festival Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music. I had mixed feelings ahead of this gig. It was a must-see because it was a rare opportunity to here this music played live; but I was worried it would just be played note for note. And the involvement of a classical choir meant it might not sound like jazz at all. The Ellington recordings of his sacred music can feel like a missed opportunity, a little bit too sacred. This gig was, however, a joy from beginning to end. Directed by Clark Tracey, the band and choir swung like the clappers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus clearly enjoying the added freedom from their more usual classical constraints. Joined for several numbers by dancer Junior Laniyan, whose own percussive take added to the driving drums of Tom Gordon, the band were magnificent. The whole gig was like a hymn to Ellington and an earlier age. Absolutely wonderful.

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The Stan Tracey Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2008.

The second gig was the Stan Tracey Quartet – another band with just saxophone as the solo horn. I love Stan Tracey: when I was discovering jazz, it was hearing Tracey playing in London that helped me make sense of Monk: it was as if Tracey was the missing link between Ellington and Monk, because he sounded like both, simultaneously. (It was only a good while later when I heard the absolutely essential Money Jungle that I realised that, actually, Ellington himself was the missing link between Ellington and Monk: in a trio with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach, Ellington sounds like the most modern of the modernists.) Tracey’s website calls him the “the godfather of British jazz”, and they got that about right.

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So I was really looking forward to this gig, although I must admit there was a somewhat morbid reason for going, too: Tracey is now in his eighties, and I simply had to take the opportunity to see him play whilst I could.

The quartet featured Bobby Wellins on tenor; Tracey and Wellins have been playing together for more than forty years. It was themed around Monk, and they covered the repertoire – all one’s favourites. There was a great solo version of Round Midnight; they played In Walked Bud, the onomatopoeic I Mean You; Well You Needn’t; and they finished with a fine version of Rhythm-A-Ning. Wellins led a great version of Monk’s Mood.

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Monk’s music is jagged and angular; it sounds like it shouldn’t work – still, after all this time – but it does: the notes fit together and the rhythm somehow meshes. These tunes used to be avant-garde; now they are standards.

The quartet was made up with Stan’s son Clark on drums and bassist Andrew Cleyndart.

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Thing is, it was a good set, but it lacked fire. It sounded like they’d been playing the tunes for thirty years, and they knew what was going to happen next. This is hardly surprising – because Tracey and Wellins have been playing these tunes for fifty years. And it did sound good; just not great. It was wonderful to hear the tunes, but there was almost too much familiarity to them now – they have lost the ability to surprise and shock.

It was great to see Tracey and Wellins venture back north, though.

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Stan Tracey in Glasgow. July 2006.

Across to Glasgow to see the Stan Tracey Quartet, one of the concerts in the Glasgow Jazz Festival. I got there early to pick up the ticket and then off to the Babbity Bowster for supper: stovies and a pint of Guinness. If you seem to think I always go to the Babbity Bowster when I am in Glasgow, you are probably right: it is near the City Halls, which is where I seem to go for concerts, I know where to park and it is a very reliable pub.

That said, it was heaving last Wednesday – busy and very loud. I was by myself, and I felt a bit self conscious as I sat reading Granta, supping my pint; so I didn’t linger. I went for a walk around the Merchant City, kicking myself for not bringing a camera: there some interesting buildings in the evening light.

The concert was good though not brilliant: Stan Tracey is a seminal figure in British jazz, and he must be in his seventies. (I have just checked: he is eighty this year. Wow – to still be touring at eighty? Jeez.) He used to be the house piano player at Ronnie Scott’s in the 1960s, and played – and was recognised as great – by many of the stars who played there. I have seen him many times, in various bands – he lead a glorious big band in the 80s and early 90s.

The gig itself seemed a bit low key; it may have been me, too – I was feeling tired, and the concert wasn’t very full. It was in a large, hanger-like venue called the Old Fruitmarket; in case you are wondering, it was once the old fruit market, and has a lot of ornate Victorian ironwork; the names of the fruit wholesalers are still painted on panels beneath the balcony. The floor is tarmac – since the structure is basically a covered road; there used to be double yellow lines painted (and there is also pavement and kerb stones, carefully positioned so that you trip in the dark as you return carrying drinks back from the bar), but the place has been done up as part of the rebuilding of Glasgow City Halls, and when it reopened in May, they seem to have removed the yellow lines. Although cavernous, it has a lot of character, but the way they had it set up – with “cabaret” tables and a lot of space in between – made it feel a bit empty; perhaps a smaller, more intimate venue would have helped the band to really shine.

The music was good but not as intense as I have seen him play; it seemed a little formulaic, though it is a good formula. He had Bobby Wellins on tenor, Alec Dankworth on bass and Clark Tracey – most certainly a relation – on drums. Most of the set was bebop or Monk – “I Mean You” featured – with a couple of Ellington tunes in there, too. Dankworth’s bass was excellent – it is a while since I have seen him play (there was a while in the late 80s and early 90s when he seemed to be in every band I saw, but he rarely makes it north of the border). Wellins was good, too – it was a good band – but maybe lacking in passion. A native of Glasgow – and the audience was clearly pleased to see him play – he has been part of Tracey’s bands on and off for four decades – he played on the historic recording of Tracey’s “Under Milkwood” suite in 1965. Tracey jnr (who was, erm, four when Under Milkwood was recorded; he wasn’t in the band) was effective and controlled; he’s a good drummer. They weren’t allowed to play an encore, despite braying demands from the audience. So it was a good, not great, evening.