As premises for an entertaining listen go the idea of a jazz record inspired by the First World War is not the easiest sell, even for a musician as respected as the late Stan Tracey. Yet on this fantastic collection, his final release prior to his December 2013 death, Tracey has somehow managed to pull it off by shifting his creative focus from the horrors of the Great War to the indefatigable spirit and humour of the soldiers caught up in it. So rather than a self consciously 'difficult' or maudlin work Tracey's Flying Pig sweeps you along in its exuberant melodies and off kilter rhythms nodding to the late 1950s jazz stylings of, for example, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Eric Dolphy to name but three.
It may be that the reason this works so well is because Tracey's inspiration was drawn from deep personal connections. The initial impetus for the pieces collected here was a visit to the Loos WW1 battlefield where his father was wounded and captured in 1915, aged just eighteen, with his son and grandson. Where this steps beyond a simple commemoration of the bravery of the fallen is in the secondary source of a collection of the 'Wipers Times' kept by Tracey's father. 'Wipers' was a corruption of Ypres, an infamous WW1 battleground, and the Times was an outlet for the sort of dark humour designed to help those facing death daily keep going. So, for example, four of the six pieces are named after the artillery or shells that either bombarded or were used by the British Tommies.
While this background provides the listener with some useful and interesting context, it is more than possible to enjoy the contents of this excellent album on purely musical terms. "Bouncing Bertha" may well refer to German artillery but musically it's far more Monk than militarism. The highlight of this piece is the excellent conversational interplay between Simon Allen on saxophone and Mark Armstrong's trumpet. Tracey's piano solo on the bluesier title track "The Flying Pig" is fabulous, balancing an instinctive, rhythmic, style with well judged inventions that coax the listener further and further from his original starting point, until the original horn-led theme snaps back to close the piece off.
There's also considerable versatility shown by the Quintet as a unit, enabling it to tackle a wide range of material from the light latin influenced rhythm of "Narpoo Rum" to the delicate "Ballad for Loos" that is the collection's penultimate track. The latter in particular sees Tracey's talent for creating musical space in his initial solo built upon by a wonderful, near luminous, trumpet contribution from Mark Armstrong that feels as if it is cut adrift and floating away in a reverie of its own.
If we needed to be reminded of the immense talent that the jazz world lost when Stan Tracey passed away on 6th December 2013, then this exuberant collection showcases his talents as well as any. It's tempting to speculate whether he found resonance in the life affirming gallows humour of the 'Wipers Times,' but ultimately it doesn't matter. What we have here is an excellent album, in the classic style, that deserves to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience drawn from all of us who love jazz.
Tracks: Bouncing Bertha; Weary Willie; Narpoo Rum; The Flying Pig;
Ballad for Loos; Silent Percy.
Personnel: Stan Tracey: piano, composer; Mark Armstrong: trumpet,
flugelhorn; Simon Allen: saxophones; Andy Cleyndert: bass; Clark