Thursday 15 May 2008

Stan Tracey & Bobby Wellins, national treasures

Last month Stan Tracey's quartet with Bobby Wellins, Andrew Cleyndert & Clark Tracey played a Leicester Jazz House gig at the YTheatre. It was the usual mix: some Monk tunes- Bright Mississippi, In Walked Bud, the inevitable Blue Monk as an encore, some Ellingtonia, some standards- including I Want to be Happy(!) -and a single original whose name I missed (& the only time a piece of manuscript paper was seen on the bandstand.) The many compositions which form the bulk of Tracey's recorded output seldom get an outing at gigs. (Stan expresses incomprehension at the continuing popularity of the Under Milk Wood music, but I'd pay a bonus to hear a reworking of 'Starless & Bible Black'.)

Spike Wells (Wellins' drummer) wrote in 1978 : 'first and unforgettably there is the unique sound, pinched and fragile with an occasional slow vibrato which conveys a remarkable range of feeling from pathos to meanness, to mockery. Then there is the oblique approach to harmony: a strange choice of route through one progression, a seemingly naive negotiation of the next, sending the horn snaking around the changes on starkly original lines with a sardonic interspersing of earthy blues licks. Thirdly, one is struck by the total rhythmic facility, leading to outrageously witty displaced accents and the transplantation of whole phrases across the bar line.' I can't better that.

And Tracey's rich chording, sudden darting percussive runs, dramatic tremolos, bottom-end rumblings and Monkish stabs combine in a unique piano style- synthesising elements of Monk & Ellington to be sure- but unmistakably 100% Tracey.

Hear them live if you can; failing that add the 1965 Under Milk Wood recording to your collection, plus the more recent Tracey & Wellins Play Monk, and, if you can find it, the New Departures album, where Wellins' Culloden Moor conjures a bleak landscape as beautifully as Jimmy Knepper on Gil Evans' Where Flamingos Fly (on Out of the Cool.)

The combination of Tracey & Wellins is a classic, but my favourite single Tracey album remains Captain Adventure, with Art Themen, Dave Green and Bryan Spring, recorded live at the 100 Club in London, 10 years after Under Milk Wood. Themen is a more restless ballad player than Wellins, and the band is driven hard by the magnificent Bryan Spring- listen to the moment on Cee Meenah, after Tracey's barrelhouse introduction and Themen's soprano entry when Spring unleashes a clattering fill that raises the hairs on my arms and propels Themen into some of his most abstract playing. The 45 minutes of the lp issue pass too quickly, leaving you wanting more- and now there is more, because Tentoten Records has released The Return of Captain Adventure, a 2 cd set comprising the original album and the rest of that November night's gig. And miraculously, it's all killer, no filler.

The photos are by Chris Maughan, used with permission