Tag Archives: Clark Tracey

The Clark Tracey Quintet

Chris Maddock
James Copus

In London for a weekend in March, I was able to catch the Clark Tracey Quintet at the Vortext. It’s several years since I last saw Tracey with his own band, though I’ve seen him play with others’ bands several times. This gig he was in full on hard-bop mode, immediately reminiscent of Art Blakey. And like Blakey, he filled his band with youngsters. Aside from Tracey, the only member of his band I’d seen before was bassist Daniel Casimir: the rest of the quintet were Harry Bolt on piano, Chris Maddock on tenor and James Copus on trumpet.

They blew up a storm, playing bop standards mostly, with a couple of “handpicked” ballads (a running gag, I think). A really enjoyable, fun gig.

I took some photos; I couldn’t get a clear view of Clark, nor Bolt.


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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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Some Recent Good – But Not Great – Jazz Gigs… London, May 2010.

I’ve been to several jazz gigs in the last month or so that I haven’t done anything with yet. I was going to write about one for LondonJazz, but by the time I got around to it, it didn’t make the cut. None of these gigs set the world on fire: they were good, but…

First up was Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Not Sun Ra himself – he died seven years ago; or, if you believe his mythology, he returned to Saturn; no, this was the Arkestra led by alto player Marshall Allen. They’ve played in London a fair bit over the last year, quickly selling out every gig: I only managed this one because it was part of a special, extended run which I noticed on Twitter: the Arkestra had been due to play a couple of gigs at Café Oto, and been unable to move on because of the volcanic ashcloud. So they played another gig, and then another, and another, hoping to pay their way – stuck in London, they had to eat and pay their hotel bills.

So I saw them on what was, I think, their fifth night at Café Oto in Dalston. I’d not been there before: apparently it has been described as one of the coolest places in London (or possibly Europe – I can’t find the reference!) but that isn’t how it appeared. No stage, a random selection of chairs, it had the air of a village hall. When I got there, most of the chairs had gone – I sat right at the back, on a bench – and people kept arriving. By the time the band came on, an hour later than advertised (perhaps they were still on Saturn-time), it was packed.

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This version of the Arkestra was a septet: a front line of four saxophonists/percussionists, and a trumpet player, drummer and guitarist/bassplayer. I was expecting great things – the Arkestra have a reputation for playing some formidable, funky space-jazz (true, not a crowded genre), but having seen two other superlative bands playing Sun Ra’s music in the last few months – Orphy Robinson’s Spontaneous Cosmic Rawxtra and Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra – the Arkestra seemed a bit flat. Maybe they were tired (I certainly was!), or homesick, or… Whatever, I’d say they were good but lacklustre: I expected more. I enjoyed the gig, particularly the humour they brought – these were serious musicians bringing some fun to the gig. But they weren’t great, whatever everyone else was saying.

The following night I went to see the Stan Tracey Octet. Tracey is one of the grand old men of British jazz: even his website describes him as the “godfather of British jazz”, an apt moniker and one of which he seems justly proud. His current octet features three generations of British players, with a front line featuring survivors from the 1980s jazz revival such as Guy Barker on trumpet and Dave O’Higgins on saxes as well as relative youngster Simon Allen on tenor sax.

Tracey plays in a variety of formats – in the past couple of years I have seen him play solo, in piano duet, in a quartet and leading his glorious big band. His octet fits right in the middle, producing a suitably rich sound for Tracey’s Ellingtonian compositions. These two nights at the Pizza Express – rapidly becoming one of my favourite London venues – saw the launch of Tracey’s latest CD, “The Later Works”, and all the numbers played were from the CD’s two suites. Guy Barker was on great form throughout, playing with verve and energy; Dave O’Higgins also played powerfully, with some great solos on soprano as well as tenor.

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Stan played some lovely, thoughtful solos, too, though he seemed to keep a fairly low profile. His long standing rhythm section of his son Clark on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass kept things swinging along, with a couple of energetic solos from Clark.

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Finally, last week saw guitarist John McLaughlin grace London. I’d not seen McLaughlin – one of electric jazz’s great – play before, so I thought I’d take the opportunity. His quartet featured Mark Mondesir on drums, another survivor of the 1980s jazz revival, and one of my favourite drummer: I hadn’t seen Mondesir play for many years, and he was the main draw. Multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband played (mostly) keyboards, and bassist Etienne Mbappé completed the quartet.

Once more, this gig was something of a disappointment. It was all a bit soulless, something I’d not expected from McLaughlin – much of his music has been rooted in eastern spirituality, though not this quartet. It was technically excellent, and went along at a cracking pace, but I found it very unconvincing.

Husband played some great piano, but he also made some electronic farting noises which added nothing. He sat down at the drum kit to play a couple of drum duets with Mondesir – and added less than nothing. His drumming was good, and the interplay between him and Mondesir was good, but frankly drum solos are boring, and drum duets doubly so. Mondesir is more than capable of holding his own, and Husband’s interventions didn’t add any more rhythmic interest – so why bother hauling an extra drum kit around? It just felt like showing off – good theatre, perhaps, but not great music.

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McLaughlin and Mbappé got a good groove going – Mbappé laying down some funky lines – and Mondesir was great, but all in all I felt the music lacked something.

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Clark Tracey Sextet. London, August 2009.

I went to Ronnie Scott’s last night – the first time in, oh, over thirty years. OK, I lived out of London for a lot of that time, but when I have been living in London, Ronnie’s just wasn’t that attractive: expensive and late.

It has changed hands and been refurbished recently, and for the past couple of weeks it has been hosting an all-British programme. I thought this might be to fill some empty nights during the quiet summer season; given the popularity of this series of gigs, I couldn’t have been more wrong: there were four gigs in the series that I wanted to see, and three of them were sold out before I was able to book tickets. This says a lot about the audience for British jazz: for British acts to be able to sell out two weeks at Ronnie’s suggests the music is in very rude health indeed.

Last night was the one gig I was able to make. Like most of the series, it was a double bill: Clark Tracey, who I really wanted to see, and Lee Gibson, who I hadn’t seen before (and didn’t even know what they played).

After an entertaining but rather strange jazz quiz (the set times were clearly stated on the Ronnie Scott’s website as starting at 7pm – so why didn’t the music start until after eight?), Lee Gibson opened the evening. She is a vocalist in classic “cocktail jazz” Broadway-style “All American songbook” fashion. I don’t really like vocalists – they get in the way of the real action, for me – and whilst the audience was appreciative, I could have done without this set. Gibson had a fine band though, including Martin Drew on drums (…who I first saw play thirty five years ago – he gave me some drum lessons!), Andy Panayi on flute and alto sax (sorry, I didn’t catch the names of the pianist and bassplayer…).

By chance, I was sitting at the bar next to Sylvia Rae Tracey, the London scion of the Edinburgh jazz clan and herself a jazz singer; in between gossiping about the Edinburgh jazz scene and finding out what her errant brother was up to, we talked about jazz singing and why I didn’t like it.

Clark Tracey – billed as a quartet but appearing as a sextet (which means a 50% bonus!) – was excellent. It was a young band, Tracey taking on the mantle of mentor much as Art Blakey did with the Jazz Messengers, and energetic with it. Aside from Tracey, I’d not seen any of the musicians before: this was essentially the band on his latest CD, Current Climate, but with Leon Greening on piano depping for Kit Downes. The other players joining Tracey were Paul Jordanous (trumpet), Piers Green (saxes), Lewis Wright (vibes), and Ryan Trebilcock (bass).

Tracey’s drumming was energetic and subtle, and the frontline of Jordanous, Green and Wright produced some excellent solos. (Jordanous was complaining during the interval that he wasn’t playing at all well; I thought he was playing pretty well – so I really look forward to hearing him when he thinks he’s on form!) The vibes particularly worked well, meshing rather conflicting with the piano.

They played a variety of numbers, many off Current Climate, but also going way back in Tracey’s catalogue with Sliperstones – it had aged well – as well as (I think) One by One, by Wayne Shorter.

This was a really good set – I couldn’t stay for the second half, which was a shame: like I said, I’d have preferred an earlier start and less of the quizzing…

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.