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.