The Stan Tracey Quartet: A Child’s Christmas Jazz Suite

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Stan Tracey has been saying for some years now that his composing days are a thing of the past. Thankfully, we now have tangible proof that this no longer holds true: he has just released a CD with his quartet, full of new tunes. And if that wasn’t enough, like his classic Under Milk Wood – surely one of the very greatest of British jazz albums – this latest CD is a suite inspired by Dylan Thomas.

With A Child’s Christmas Jazz Suite we can hear how this 84 year old youngster’s compositional abilities, like his remarkable piano playing skills, remain undiminished. The new tunes are as memorable and witty as always; and they have that Tracey magic – a mysterious combination of familiarity and unexpectedness, smoothness and angularity. The more you listen, the more you discover the tiny melodic and harmonic twists that add that extra sparkle to the music. Here are tunes destined to be labelled as Tracey classics: have a listen to the joyfully inspired Prothero’s Dilemma, or Jinks, or Pudding and Mince, or Trolls.

Stan’s regular quartet are on hand to bring the new pieces to life. There is the man himself – as energetic, impudent and inspirational as ever. At one moment he is hammering out dissonant chords as if the piano needs to be taught a lesson; at another he is delicately sketching a beautiful musical idea, a little unexpected present. If there is one person who embodies the magnificent amalgamation of musical rigour and experimentation that marks out great jazz then it is surely Stan Tracey.

The quartet has Simon Allen on saxophones, a talented young player who has great technical dexterity matched by an equally impressive musical intelligence and sensitivity. Just listen to how he constructs and builds his solo on Pudding and Mince. On bass is Andy Cleyndert, providing faultless support throughout and giving us solos which sing. On drums is the formidable Clark Tracey, a drummer who instinctively anticipates phrases and finds the perfect complement to them.

This album is also rather special for another reason: as well as Stan’s son Clark playing drums, his grandson Ben also has a key role. For unlike the original Under Milk Wood album, this latest Thomas inspired suite includes sections of narration where Ben reads the poet’s joyful, funny, sing-song prose. Ben has a rich, authoritative voice which does full justice to Dylan’s dense, winding sentences. What I particularly like is how Ben manages to convey all the drama and exuberance of the prose while avoiding the melodramatics which the author himself was rather prone to. It’s a powerful yet nicely understated performance.

This is a hugely satisfying album and a very welcome addition to the Tracey catalogue. I look forward to hearing the music played live at Herts Jazz in November.

Cambridge Film Festival 2011

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One of the real highlights of my year is the Cambridge Film Festival. After the funding difficulties of last year (due to external factors) it was especially thrilling to see it back in 2011 with just as bold and ambitious a programme as ever.

This year’s festival experience started for me with a couple of outdoor events in advance of the core 11 day extravaganza. I can’t think of a better way of getting into the spirit of things than relaxing on Granchester Meadows, drink in hand, with an enthusiastic audience watching Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s classic comedy Some Like It Hot. And I can’t think of a better way to experience the 1922 silent film Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks than in the middle of Rendlesham Forrest, complete with live accompaniment from Neil Brand and his small band of merry musicians. It was a truly magical evening.

The main festival consisted of 11 days of imaginatively programmed films and events, including a wide range of individual features and a number of themed strands. This year the strands included Contemporary German Cinema; revivals of classics such An American in Paris (in a new print); a selection of features from Tartan Films; the Family Film Festival; a special programme of films by Dutch director Jos Stelling; a celebration of the Romanian New Wave ten years on; a series of films about newspaper journalism with, as its centrepiece, a screening of the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times; and a number of short film programmes.  I managed to see examples from most of these, but concentrated in the main on the Jos Stelling and Romanian New Wave strands.

Jos Stelling is a director who is not well known in the UK, indeed none of his films have been distributed here. Thankfully programmer Bill Lawrence has long recognised the special talents of this filmmaker and the festival provided the perfect platform to screen some of Stelling’s major features. Watching these films was a revelation: here is a filmmaker of immense imagination who has developed a unique style: dialogue is stripped back to a bare minimum so that the viewer is asked to pay greater attention to the subtleties of unspoken communication and is encouraged to closely observe the interactions between characters. It is a methodology that can only be entirely successful when combined with an economy and precision of storytelling: here yet again Stelling is a master. The films are also full of humour and are richly expressive. Not only were we able to see these marvellous films, but we were given the chance to meet the director himself, as Stelling visited the festival to give a fascinating talk on his career and his approach to cinema.

Humour, often of a dark and surreal nature, was also a strong component in the Romanian New Wave strand. As a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the emergence of some exciting new films from a new generation of directors, the strand was cleverly divided into two parts. Firstly, there was a selection of films by Lucien Pintilie (chosen by the filmmaker himself), a director who has been a major inspiration to the New Wave filmmakers. Pintilie’s eye for the darkly-comic was well illustrated in the chosen films, with his most recent – Niki and Flo (2003) – showing how his style has developed and matured, so that he achieves a real subtlety of observation and understated comedy while building to a quite unexpected and devastating conclusion. In the second part we had films from the New Wave directors themselves, all of whom are now internationally recognised. It was interesting to see a common thread in some of the films: a realist, observational approach, dialogue heavy, where a simple story involving the accumulation of small events is cleverly developed into something thought provoking and deeply affecting. Then in a very different, much more overtly comically film – Cristian Mungiu’s Occident – we had a brilliant example of a popular accessible film which is beautifully plotted, with well drawn characters, while also being observational and insightful.

Of the other films and events I attended, some of the stand-out ones were:-

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: an excellent choice of opening film. Tomas Alfredson’s follow-up to Let The Right One In is a brilliantly atmospheric, subtle adaptation, with superb performances from Oldman, Hurt, etc. The attendance of the director, writer, and both Gary Oldman and John Hurt certainly helped make this a very special screening.

Tomboy: a beautifully told story with a delicate, sensitive touch to the direction. Celine Sciamma gets terrific performances from child actors.

Jess + Moss: I was entranced by the strange charms of this impressionistic, multi-textured film.

Tabloid: Errol Morris’ documentary is fabulous: a mischievous dance around the elusive truth of an astonishing story.

Drive: Nicolas Winding Refn delivers another good film – Drive is an excellent film noir with European sensibilities. The Q&A with the director began strangely but was full of interesting observations.

Neil Brand gave an illuminating talk on the music of the great Bernard Herrmann. I particularly liked the analysis of the Psycho score, and the use of tension/resolution in the score of Vertigo.

Page One: Inside The New York Times: this was a thought provoking analysis of the changing face of print news media. An impressive line-up for the Q&A.

Tyrannosaur: another festival highlight, this is an incredibly powerful & moving film. The performances of Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman are simply magnificent, while Considine’s direction is inspired. It is unbelievable that this is Considine’s first feature – what an achievement.

There was a very special event in which Peter Bradshaw interviewed the ‘Tartan Terror’ himself – one of the prime movers in Tartan film, Hamish McAlpine. This was a fantastic event, another one of the highlights of the festival.

Various shorts programmes: I managed to see four programmes, and all the shorts were of a consistently good quality, with quite a few exceptional ones.

I managed to go to quite a few films/events,but there was still so much more on offer that I was sadly unable to fit into my schedule. There were the open air screenings on Magdelene Street, the special discussions and training events, and much more. This is a festival that is certainly packed with cinematic treats. There was something in the programme to suit all tastes, and there was also the opportunity to really delve into particular strands and learn something new and unexpected.

The festival is very lucky to have at its helm Festival Director Tony Jones, someone who is passionate about film and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the art-form. It is thanks to him and his commitment to bringing great cinema to Cambridge that the festival remains ambitious and fresh in its approach. He has also assembled an excellent Festival Team who work tirelessly to make the festival a great success. Then there are the many volunteers who give freely of their time, as well as the friendly and knowledgeable Picturehouse staff: they all help to make the festival a warm, friendly, and welcoming event.

For me 2011 has been another good festival year, one that has been full of new discoveries, of enjoyable events, and meeting lots of interesting film enthusiasts. Can’t wait for 2012!