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Artist Profiles

Stan Tracey: True-Grit Brit

By Published: April 19, 2006
A magical period, but tough on the system. Tracey took a two-year break when it ended, detoxing from booze, pills and worse. It nearly killed him, but those punishing years of dancing with giants, two sets a night, six nights a week, were an inspiration. After the late sets he would totter out into the Soho dawn, physically drained and hurting for sleep, but with his brain still buzzing with music. He started carrying manuscript sheets in his pockets and, as the all-night bus to Streatham trundled across the Thames, Tracey crouched up there on the top deck, getting those ideas down on paper. Some of the compositions sketched out that way became Under Milk Wood, a quartet suite based on poet Dylan Thomas' classic verse-portrait of a Welsh village. It featured bassist Jeff Clyne, drummer Jackie Dougan and Bobby Wellins, a lyrical tenorist from Glasgow whose mournful sound was ideal for the music's Celtic mood. Recorded in 1965, it's still in print and remains the best-known and biggest-selling of Tracey's 40 albums.

During the '70s, that long-hair decade of economic crisis for acoustic jazz stars, Tracey flirted tentatively with free jazz. While Miles and Weather Report were filling stadiums with post-Hendrix electronic jazz rock, Tracey was cutting abstract duo albums with altoist Mike Osborne (Original, 1972; Tandem,1976), reedman John Surman (Sonatinas, 1978) and fellow pianist Keith Tippett (TNT, 1974). He enjoyed some of these sessions, but later admitted: "To be honest there was always a little part of me that was not confident about what I was doing. Friends told him that the night before Paul Gonsalves died, the great Ellington tenorist had watched Tracey free-associating on TV and remarked that he was disappointed to find him playing that kind of music.

So eventually Tracey returned to the mainstream fold and wider recognition started to come his way. In 1986 the Queen pinned the OBE (Order of the British Empire) ribbon on his chest. The British Council arranged for him to tour mainland China, the first jazz star to do so, and in 1997 he played in Hong Kong on the night the colony was handed back to the Chinese. An hour-long TV special about him was screened in 2004, the same year that BBC-TV made Jazz Britannia, a two-part documentary about postwar jazz in the UK. Its main purpose was to chart the influence of immigrants from former colonies in India, Pakistan, Africa and the Caribbean, but jazz-starved young viewers also showed unexpected interest in London's original modernists. Tracey was suddenly hip again, back onstage with Wellins to revisit Under Milk Wood, neo-bopping with the amazing Peter King, for 50 years a world-class altoist, or leading a big band through his own expert arrangements. Right now he's busier than ever. After this month's New York concert, he has major shows lined up in Vicenza, Italy, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and English summer festivals in Brecon and Appleby.

Behind every successful jazzman, of course, is a remarkable woman, in this case Stan's wife, Jackie. Since the day they met in his agent's office, she has singlehandledly kept his career on course, steering it through the shallows when jazz was crowded out by rock and pop. She found him gigs and founded the record company Steam that marketed his albums. Not least, she presented him with a son Clark, who grew up to become his favorite drummer. No doubt mindful of all this, Stan recently dedicated a lifetime-career award to her, ending his speech with the memorable line: "And she also bakes a fish pie to die for.

Recommended Listening:

· Stan Tracey - Jazz Suite: Under Milk Wood (Columbia - Steam/Jazzizit, 1965)

· Mike Osborne/Stan Tracey - Original (Cadillac, 1972)

· Stan Tracey - (Return of) Captain Adventure (Steam-Ten to Ten, 1975)

· Stan Tracey - Genesis and More... (Steam, 1989)

· Stan Tracey - The Last Time I Saw You (Trio, 2004)

· Stan Tracey/Evan Parker - Crevulations (Psi-Emanem, 2004)

Jack Massarik is Jazz Critic for the London Evening Standard newspaper

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Photo Credit
Bottom: Russ Escritt

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