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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the space of a week, I went to two excellent concerts featuring suites of pure Ellingtonia.
I heard Tracey’s band play this way back in the 80s, I’ve heard it (and recorded it) on the radio, and I bought the CD – it is one of my favourite peices of music. I probably heard it before I was into Ellington – certainly listening to Stan Tracey helped me make connections between the modern jazz I was listening to and the rich music of Ellington. The suite takes Ellingtonian forms and adds a modernist slant, creating wonderful music.
It wasn’t wholly successful as a Prom. Whilst the music was excellent, the sound was pretty lousy, and the audience diminuitive: only about 10% full, we rattled around the hall, largely devoid of atmosphere. I have been to several jazz Proms over the years – Loose Tubes, Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, a couple of others – and I am never sure that either the BBC or the Albert Hall know how to integrate jazz into the Proms. That the sound was so poor is frankly shocking: despite the big band being – well, big – it had no penetration: it sounded weak. The solists were properly miked and their sound came across, but frankly a band like that should have had a punch, and they didn’t.
And where was everyone? This was a chance to see and hear one of the grandees of British jazz performing a lively, complex, exciting piece of music. It should have sold out! As it was, the prommers were clustered around the stage and I had 15 empty stalls seats on each side of me. The audience was very appreciative, but we couldn’t fill the vast space.
The music though was excellent: it felt very exciting to hear the Genesis Suite live once more. Tracey played with passion and energy; and the band were good – the suite fits its musicians. But it didn’t really work in the Albert Hall.
Then on Friday I went to see Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra at another big concert hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. I only found out about the gig on Friday morning; it was part of a whole day of free activities that Tomorrow’s Warriors were doing on the South Bank. I caught a few minutes of a rehearsal by a band comprising young schoolchildren when I went to pick up a ticket for the evening show; at a very young age, these kids were frightenly good on their instruments – give them another 20 years and they’ll be the best of jazz.
The TWJO are the other end of the Tomorrow’s Warriors project – young musicians lead by old timer Gary Crosby. He played bass in the original Jazz Warriors – who I saw first around about the time I saw Stan Tracey’s big band, too. After the Jazz Warriors, Crosby set up Tomorrow’s Warriors to bring on the next generation of players. Crosby was made an OBE in the Queen’s 2009 birthday honours list. (That had passed me by too. And I see from Wikipedia that he is Ernest Ranglin’s nephew; I don’t think I knew that. I saw Ranglin play in 1965 at a party my parents threw – one of my earliest memories!)
What attracted me to the concert was the Queen’s Suite, a piece Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. After it was recorded in 1959, only a single vinyl LP was pressed, which was sent to the Queen. It was only released more widely after Eliington’s death. The concert on Friday commemorated the 50th anniversary of the recording, and it aptly marked the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the British Commonwealth. Plus, of course, it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall… (The Queen was invited, but she was on Commonwealth duties that night!)
The QEH was very busy – not quite sold out but nearly full. My first thought was, well, it’s free…
But actually, I think it’s because it was very, very good.
The music started with a trio number backing Lem Sissay reading from Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress – a section about Ellington’s passion for music. Personally, I wanted more music and less Sissay.
Then the band played pianist Peter Edwards‘ suite, Above and Beyond the Horizon. I’d not come across Edwards before, but his playing and composing were excellent. His suite was full of Ellingtonian flourishes and homage; it was simulatanously respectful and modern.
The band were very good, swinging when they needed to, creating mayhem in the free sections, and producing some great solos.
The second half was preceded by Lem Sissay and more of Ellington’s writing – his feelings on nature, this time – and then they played the Queen’s Suite. It was an immense pleasure to hear this music live, played by a full jazz orchestra. Edwards directed the orchestra – all fifteen of them – as well as playing piano, though they seemed to get by reading the dots pretty well… All sections of the band seemed really up for it – I loved the trumpets, lead by Abram Wilson – and the reeds were pretty good: there was some gorgeous, melliferous bass clarinet. Andy Chapman was excellent on drums. And Gary Crosby’s bass held it all together – though it was clearly his night (he got a roaring reception from the audience), his playing was subtle and understated.
The sound was excellent, filling the hall, and the audience responded very warmly – I think there were a lot of friends in on Friday night!
There was one other thing I noticed. When I used to see the Jazz Warriors back in the 80s – several times (including some of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to!) – all the band’s members were black. It had grown out of an education programme promoting back culture: this was the early 80s, there had been race riots around the country and Lord Scarman wrote long and worthy report about what should be done.
British jazz felt segregated: it was uncomfortable. There were the Jazz Warriors at the forefront of black jazz, and the very white, witty, intellectual Loose Tubes. There didn’t seem to be much mixing until the 90s, when, for instance, Andy Sheppard used members from both bands in his Soft on the Inside big band. The reborn Brotherhood of Breath did the same.
The Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra was neither black nor white: it wasn’t a black band, it wasn’t a white band: it was a band.
And a very good one. They said that they had a residency at the South Bank Centre in the autumn. I shall certainly be back. And I am very, very pleased I had the opportunity to see them play some wonderful music this week, too.
I was down in London for the first half of the London Jazz Festival, and I went to four gigs.
First up was Keith Tippett, in a variety of settings. First, he premiered a new piece for piano and string quartet; then he played some piano duets with Stan Tracey (whose quartet I saw in Edinburgh in July); and finally he played a set of improvised music with his wife, Julie Tippetts [sic].
The string quintet was energetic, but didn’t really grab me: it didn’t swing. True, I don’t think it was meant to – but it wasn’t really my kind of thing.
On the other hand, the piano duets were excellent: two of my favourite pianists playing together. They played a couple of extended numbers, pure improvisation as far as I could tell. They played almost as one – I have no idea if how much they rehearsed or planned, but it seemed seamless. I have no idea how they knew each piece was over – indeed, I’m not sure that they did – I think the audience applause in a space they’d left pre-empted the end of one piece!
The duet between piano and voice was interesting, although a little too out there for me. Keith Tippett was trying all sorts of things with the piano – putting stones and metal onto the strings, plucking the strings and so on. The wordless vocals were at times lovely, and there were moments of beauty, but I think I’d have preferred more of the Tippett/Tracey piano duet.
Next up was the Bill Frisell Trio. They were playing along to some silent movies – first up were some abstract, modern animations, then a couple of Buster Keaton movies. The animations I found distracting – I didn’t like the visuals – but the music was brilliant. With the two Keaton movies, the whole thing came together: the films and the music were made for each other. It was brilliant. The trio made some really lovely music – some of it rocking out, some of it country-tinged, some lovely trio jazz. It was an excellent gig!
On the Tuesday, we went to another trio and another audio-visual gig: Henri Texier on bass, Louis Sclavis on saxes and clarinets and Aldo Romano on drums, together with projected photographs by Guy Le Querrec. This was another wonderful, wonderful concert: the three player created such a beautiful sound, at times contemplative, at others energetic and forceful – this was really exciting music. Sclavis had a beautiful sound, particularly on bass clarinet. All in all, it was marvellous. The photos were interesting, too – though I am not sure what they added to the music.
On Sunday, we went to a free gig – kind of coals to the South Bank for me, since it was a couple of Scottish big bands playing: the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra; Tommy Smith directed the first and played tenor and directed the second.
I have seen the Youth Jazz Orchestra a couple of times before, and they never fail to amaze: these young people are brilliant musicians. They played a set of big band standards – Ellington’s Cottontail, Oliver Nelson’s Hoe-Down and so on. They were really good.
The Youth Orchestra were great; but the SNJO were steaming – they were on great form. I was surprised that they were playing of Steely Dan tunes – they toured Scotland with this set last year, and I chose not to go; and they have just been touring a new set, including a commission by Mario Caribe, which I’d wanted to see but missed (since I was in London at the Jazz Festival…): they were playing this in Glasgow the night before, so it was odd that they chose the Steely Dan.
Despite the repertoire, they were on fine form. It was the first time in a long while that I had seen Tommy Smith play in more than a trio setting, and in contrast to his northern European, contemplative sound in those gigs, he was on fire, blasting out really gutsy solos.
The leader set the standard for the band – Konrad Wiszniewski, Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow all played empassioned sax soles, and Ryan Quigley and Tom McNiven played some blistering trumpet. They were all steaming, pushed along by some really energetic drumming from Alyn Cosker. It was a really impressive set.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.