The shadow of a smile: a personal reflection on Stan T

What to say?

How to say it?

Ever since the sad news of his death at the end of last year, I’ve wanted to set down my thoughts about Stan Tracey. It has proved impossible. How do you find adequate expression for the beauty of his music and the quality of his character, when so many have already written such moving and eloquent tributes?

A particular image kept nudging itself into my consciousness, demanding attention. Curiously, it didn’t promise any obvious connection to Stan, but still felt somehow relevant.

The image? Simply a smile.

A very particular and special smile…

In a recent Sight and Sound article, Philip Concannon wrote about the last scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s extravagant epic film Magnolia. It contains a single moment that never fails to take my breath away: after three hours of infectious cinematic flamboyance the film ends in the most wonderfully surprising way – a fleetingly brief tiny gesture; restrained, delicate, somehow poised, challenging in its honesty, tender enough to melt the hardest of hearts. Concannon explains:-

Magnolia has a dozen main characters vying for our attention, but the beating heart of the film is in the relationship between Officer Jim Kurring and Claudia Wilson Gator…While many of the central figures … are characterised by selfishness, bitterness, cruelty or an inability to recognise their own flaws until it’s too late, Jim and Claudia are essentially good people, and it’s no surprise that Anderson’s humane instincts lead him to give these lost souls a second chance. In the film’s final scene, we see a tearful Claudia sitting on her bed…as Jim arrives to make one final plea. Anderson lets us hear parts of Jim’s heartfelt speech…, but most is drowned out by Aimee Mann’s ‘Save Me’, indicating that the key to the scene is not Jim’s words but Claudia’s reaction to them. As the camera creeps slowly forward, the look on her face suggests that she is genuinely taking his words to heart… As Jim reaches the end of his speech, and the camera moves in for a close-up, she momentarily casts her eyes downwards, and then she looks up directly at the camera, and smiles…The impact of this tiny gesture is all the greater for coming at the end of a bombastic film. Claudia’s smile tells us that she might just be OK, and provides us with one of the most surprising and emotionally satisfying endings in cinema.

Stan Tracey seemed a reserved, private, even shy man, with no interest whatsoever in seeking fame and adulation; he just wanted to play the music which he loved with every fibre of his being. He would get up on the bandstand with a minimum of fuss, sit in front of the piano (what he once called his Old Adversary), and create magic. At the end, he would politely, quietly make his exit as quickly as possible.

He was not given to verbosity, yet when he did say something, he was always ready with the perfect, pithy word or phrase; and he had an endearing, mischievous, self-deprecatory sense of humour. Stan was the master of the deadpan one liner. His music had that same mix of crafted phrasing, sharp wit, and no frills directness. It was a language of seemingly endless inventiveness, bursting with energy, imagination, and beautifully clashing contradictions. The hard edges of those punched chords – with their ‘brilliant corners’ (as Thelonious Monk might have said), ‘stabbing chords into the rhythm like somebody trying to swat flies with a sledgehammer’ as John Fordham affectionately put it – were balanced by delicate, subtle counter phrases and embellishments. The harmonic journeys were open, exploratory, sometimes joyously unexpected, always a delight.

The music was honest, direct, intelligent, heartfelt, uncompromising, devoid of bullshit, and simply brilliant! Like its creator, it had integrity. Or rather, has integrity, since there are a wealth of inspirational recordings through which the music lives on, as well as fine musicians who will continue to interpret his body of work.

But what of that image: a fragile smile emerging through tears? I can imagine Stan’s firm dismissal of anything so potentially sentimental being associated with his music. Yet, in the context of the film, that smile is far from sentimental. Like Stan’s music, it looks you straight in the eye and says life may be full of shit, but this is a moment of hard edged but tender beauty; free from cynicism, without cheap consolation, it will lift the spirits and warm the heart.

All I can say is, so long Stan. Your music will continue to bring a smile to our faces; but, to paraphrase one of your albums, we’ll still miss you madly.

Stan Tracey: 1926-2013