Friday 18 January 2019

Clark Tracey and Friends

As well as visiting me regularly to help improve the accuracy of my database, my friend Mike Goldsmith books the bands for the Harborough Jazz monthly Sunday lunchtime gigs held at the Angel Hotel in Market Harborough, a small largely white middle class market town in Leicestershire. It's a pleasant sun-lit room with comfortable seating and needing little or no amplification. Reasonably-priced food and drink are available. There's no stage or piano; the former is scarcely missed, the latter means that regrettably pianists have to bring their own- and some pianists just won't play on electric keyboards- I can't blame them. The club, which holds 75 people, has a membership (and a waiting list!) and many gigs sell out. It receives no subsidy.

Mike claims he just books the bands the committee tell him to but the quality of the programming reflects his wide knowledge of the current scene as well as an understanding of his audience (who are shall we say no longer in the full flush of youth.) That doesn't mean there are no risks taken- they booked Paul McCandless last season and have Asaf Sirkis later this year.

Last year Mike approached Clark Tracey; Clark of course wanted to bring his current quintet, but Mike had other plans. He wanted a gig to celebrate Clark's 40 years in jazz and asked him to put together an all-star band of friends. The possiblities were many- Clark's bands have included Guy Barker, Jamie Talbot, Steve Melling, Alec Dankworth, Nigel Hitchcock, Dave O'Higgins, John Donaldson, Zoe Rahman - you get the idea.

In the event he chose Mark Nightingale (trombone), Art Themen (tenor/ soprano)- who was on Clark's very first gig with Stan, Simon Allen (alto), Gareth Williams (piano), Arnie Somogyi (bass) plus Alexandra Ridout (trumpet) from Clark's current band. 'I'll have to write some new music' - he did no such thing!

Journalists love labels: Clark's father suffered as 'The Godfather of British Jazz' for far too long, and Clark has been labeled 'the British Art Blakey'- ie a drummer who nurtures new jazz talent. True perhaps in everything but leadership style. Cedar Walton told me that Blakey's leadership was 'military'; aside from his insistance that his bands learn the heads by heart- no manuscript paper on the bandstand- Clark appears notably laid-back.

At this gig he announced the tunes, set the tempos and left the band to sort themselves out. Art, as the senior musician present, did the minimum necessary to order the routines, ie he nodded to indicate solo order and devised the occasional background figure behind soloists, quickly picked up by his colleagues. They played Tenor Madness, Tangerine and Four (written by Eddie Vinson, not Miles Davis we were reminded). You don't get many tunes per set when a sextet all want to solo! The second set comprised Seven Steps to Heaven, All Blues, Night and Day, then Clark announced they'd do rhythm changes for the last number. Art immediately suggested Squatty Roo but was outvoted- it was Anthropology.

Some of the band had played together previously of course but for others it was a first encounter; in other words it was a jam session- untidy at times but an exhilerating and good-natured display by superb musicians.

Art's fiery serpentine melodies were exceptionally fine, contrasting with the smooth sophistication of Mark Nightingale. Gareth Williams- who'd arrived late carrying his keyboard looking very disgruntled- played like he had something to prove, with delightfully surprising piano lines. Simon Allen played with a hot tone and endearing fluency, Arnie Somogyi did just what you need in a gig like this- grounded the band beautifully and played solos of real melodic interest. Alex Ridout is a real find- she plays with a Dorham-esque tone, easily justifying her BBC young jazz musician of the year award. And Clark?- Clark doesn't smile much on the bandstand but seemed to be having a good time. We certainly were- the audience responded enthusiastically to what was a great example of relaxed masterly improvisation by some of the UK's best, and a tribute not only to Clark Tracey but also to the imagination courage and dedication of a group of unpaid jazz enthusiasts - the people who keep the UK scene alive.