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Clark Tracey Quintet

Clark Tracey Quintet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/01/2024.

by Ian Mann

February 03, 2024


Ian Mann enjoys an immersive live experience featuring full length performances of Stan Tracey's two Dylan Thomas inspired suites "Under Milk Wood" and "A Child's Christmas".

Clark Tracey Quintet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/01/2024.

Clark Tracey – drums, Simon Allen – alto & tenor saxophones, Bruce Boardman – piano, Al Swainger – double bass, Ben Tracey – narrator

The visit of drummer Clark Tracey and his band represented a major coup for Black Mountain Jazz and the Club was rewarded with a genuine sell out, there literally wasn’t a spare seat in the house.

This keenly anticipated performance represented a genuinely special event with the band delivering a full performance of the 1965 work “Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood”, composed by Clark’s late father, the esteemed pianist and composer Stan Tracey CBE (1926 – 2013).

Stan’s “Under Milk Wood Suite” is rightly regarded as one of THE classic British jazz recordings and remains the most popular and best known of the fifty plus recordings that he released over the course of a lengthy and productive career. The original recording featured saxophonist Bobby Wellins, bassist Jeff Clyne, and drummer Jackie Dougan. A live performance of the Suite recorded for German radio saw this quartet augmented by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and this equally excellent version of “Under Milk Wood” was eventually released on CD many years later.

The inspiration behind BMJ’s decision to invite Clark Tracey to visit Abergavenny to perform his father’s most famous work was the 70th anniversary of the first radio broadcast of “Under Milk Wood”,  Thomas’ ‘Play for Voices’, which took place in January 1954 and featured the voice of Richard Burton.

Although Stan’s suite was entirely instrumental it represented his personal music responses to Thomas’ words and subsequent live performances of the music have sometimes featured a narrator reading Thomas’ prose and poetry. A 1976 live recording of the work released by RCA Records featured the voice of the Welsh actor Donald Houston. The role of narrator has also been filled by another Welsh thespian, Philip Madoc.

Tonight’s performance was a real family affair with Clark’s son, Ben Tracey, fulfilling the role of narrator, a task he undertook with considerable aplomb. Ben may be the only member of the Tracey family who isn’t a professional musician, his day job is as a chef, but he has acted as a narrator before and clearly relishes the role.

With Ben on board the Abergavenny audience were also treated to a full length performance of Stan Tracey’s second Dylan Thomas inspired suite, “A Child’s Christmas”, which was released on Clark’s ReSteamed record label, an imprint dedicated to Stan’s music, in 2011. Inspired by Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” the recording features Stan on piano, Clark on drums, Simon Allen on tenor sax and Andrew Cleyndert on double bass. Unlike the “Under Milk Wood” album this recording also features passages of narration, with the voice of Ben Tracey augmenting the music.

The idea for Stan to write a second Thomas inspired work initially came from Clark (born 1961), who had drummed for his father’s groups since 1980, appearing on more than twenty of Stan’s albums. Clark also leads his own bands and made the first of many recordings under his own name in 1986. He has earned a deserved reputation for nurturing young talent and many of today’s stars of UK jazz have passed through the ranks of Clark’s various groups. It’s tempting to think of him as a kind of British Art Blakey.

Tonight’s line up included saxophonist Simon Allen, a long time associate of both Stan and Clark Tracey, with the experienced pianist Bruce Boardman rising to the challenge of filling Stan’s shoes. There was a late change in the bass chair with Bristol based Al Swainger deputising for the advertised Andrew Cleyndert, the latter the victim of a car breakdown. Recommended by saxophonist Alan Barnes Swainger did an absolutely brilliant job, seamlessly linking up with Clark in the ‘engine room’.

With full performances of both suites, plus extended spoken word passages, this was a lengthy, value for money performance that quite clearly delighted the Abergavenny audience.

The “A Child’s Christmas Jazz Suite” represents a most worthy ‘follow up’ to “Under Milk Wood” and it was the later work that was performed in the first half. Interestingly Allen performed this first set entirely on alto sax, despite being credited with tenor on the recording.

The performance of the suite was unbroken, with no tune announcements, the only words spoken being those of Dylan Thomas. “We’ll see you on the other side” promised Tracey as he briefly addressed the audience prior to the performance.

The brief instrumental “Overture To Times Past” was followed by the first passage of narration with Ben reading Thomas’ words, his well enunciated speaking voice fully bringing to life the qualities of irreverent humour, evocative imagery and affectionate nostalgia inherent in Thomas’ prose.

We all have our own memories of Christmas, so this was a work that all the members of the audience could readily identify with and the combination of words and music was little short of magical, a complete ‘live experience’ made all the more immersive by the intimate environs of the Melville Theatre.

The tune “Prothero’s Dilemma”, named for two of Thomas’ characters, offered a fuller introduction to the instrumental voices of the quintet. Allen proved to be a fluent and often passionate alto sax soloist while Boardman, “in the hot seat”, as Clark put it, did a fine approximation of Stan’s distinctive piano style, chunky and percussive and drawing inspiration from both Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk,  but ultimately all Stan’s own. On bass Swainger stepped up to the plate magnificently while Clark drove things along from the kit, his playing crisp, propulsive and authoritative.

Words and music continued to interweave, with passages of narration alternating with musical performances. Ben impressed with his comic timing as he continued to delight in Thomas’ playful and witty wordplay.

Similarly the playing of the band continued to sparkle with Stan’s arresting themes continuing to act as the platform for the accomplished soloing of both Allen and Boardman. A fiercely swinging “Wagging The Bag” also included a double bass solo from the impressive Swainger, who combined a huge tone with great dexterity and a real sense of swing.

Ben’s spoken passages saw him continuing to hold the audience in the palm of his hand. I haven’t attempted to paraphrase Thomas, his words are best read or heard in themselves, but Ben’s narration really brought them to life. He was an integral part of the performance, hence my decision to bill tonight’s band as a ‘quintet’.

“Easy for Leonardo” was more relaxed and lyrical than the earlier musical pieces, with Allen and Boardman continuing to impress with their solos as Swainger and Clark provided gently swinging support.

“Jinks” featured Allen’s impassioned alto soloing and Boardman’s Stan-styled pianism and was also notable for a series of fiery drum breaks from Clark.

“Pudding and Mince” included an Allen solo with double bass accompaniment only, a particularly impressive episode followed by Boardman’s solo on the Melville’s upright acoustic piano.

The fast paced “Trolls” was imparted with an unstoppable momentum courtesy of Swainger’s rapid bass walk and Clark’s sizzling cymbals, these fuelling the percussive piano soloing of Boardman and the urgent alto sax pyrotechnics of Allen. A brief free jazz style ‘coda’ featuring Allen’s saxophone multiphonics evolved into a dynamic extended drum feature from Tracey, asserting his leadership from behind the traps.

The work chronicles the course of a Christmas Day in the Swansea of Thomas’ youth and as the last passage of narration concluded with the words “and then I slept” the band followed this with a more expansive reprise of the opening “Overture To Times Past” that incorporated typically fluent solos from Allen and Boardman, followed by a series of highly musical and sophisticated bass and drum exchanges.

Although they had primarily come to see “Under Milk Wood” the audience loved this performance of the less familiar “A Child’s Christmas” and the quintet were awarded with a rapturous reception that boded well for the second half.

With Clark manning the CD stall interval sales were brisk. I’ve got two copies of “Under Milk Wood”, a Blue Note re-issue of the original 1965 recording, plus the version with Kenny Wheeler. I’ve also got numerous other recordings by both Stan and Clark but I have to admit that prior to tonight I wasn’t aware of the existence of the “Child’s Christmas” album, so naturally I treated myself to a copy of that. A nice souvenir of tonight’s event.

The second set featured the performance of the music from the “Under Milk Wood” album interspersed with Ben Tracey’s readings from Thomas’s work.  The latter featured the poet’s magical and evocative descriptions of the landscapes, townscapes and seascapes of the fictional small Welsh town of Llareggub (famously ‘bugger all’ spelt backwards and based on the real life settlements of New Quay and Laugharne, both of which were lived in at various by Thomas). We were also introduced to Thomas’ cast of colourful and enduringly popular characters -  Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Captain Cat,  Nogood Boyo, Organ Morgan. Polly Garter, the Rev. Eli Jenkins, Mog Edwards, Myfanwy Price and many more.

For this set saxophonist Simon Allen, specialising on tenor throughout, was the man in the ‘hot seat’, filling the role played by the late, great Scots tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins (1936-2016, whose brilliant playing on the original recording has been lauded ever since.

The performance began atmospherically, with Ben’s narration underscored by music for the first time this evening. This proved to be remarkably successful, a welcome contrast to some of the previous efforts I’ve seen in other contexts,  where the sounds of the instruments have too often drowned out the words. Tonight the perfect synthesis was achieved, a tribute both to the sensitivity of the musicians and also to the skill and expertise of BMJ’s sound engineer Mark Viveash and his team. The music was “Starless and Bible Black”, actually the second track on the original recording and notable for Wellins’ iconic tenor sax solo. Tonight Clark’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers set the scene, with Allen stepping lightly into Wellins’ shoes.

Tonight the “Under Milk Wood Suite” wasn’t performed strictly in the album running order. Next up was “I Lost My Step in Nantucket”, a punchy piano trio performance, with Allen temporarily standing aside. Boardman’s percussive piano playing, with its strong left hand figures channelled Stan’s unique style, his solo fuelled by Swainger’s rapid bass walk and Clark’s crisp drum and cymbal work. Very much a trio showcase this piece also featured impressive double bass and drum solos.

Allen returned for “No Good Boyo”, stating the theme on tenor sax and taking the first solo, followed by the increasingly impressive Boardman at the piano. A gently swinging performance also included features for Clark and Swainger. Similar qualities also informed the blues inflected “Penpals” with its solos from Allen, Boardman and Swainger.

Stan’s accessible themes and hooks represent an excellent launch pad for soloists, particularly on fast paced pieces such as album opener “Cockle Row”, played here out of sequence and introduced here by Clark’s brushed drums. Solos followed from Allen and Boardman, with Clark rounding things off with a series of brushed drum breaks, as he traded ideas with Boardman and Allen.

Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano the even more rapid “Llareggub” offered further opportunities for Boardman and Allen to impress as soloists, with Swainger and Clark providing suitably propulsive support.

The blues tinged ballad “Under Milk Wood” was another piece to feature Ben’s narrative underscored by music and also included lyrical instrumental solos from Boardman and Allen, plus some exquisite brush work from Clark.

As Ben’s words and the quartet’s music brought the day in the fictional Llareggub to a close there was still one more treat to come as the instrumentalists romped through the rousing “A.M. Mayhem”, signalling the coming of morning, and the dawning of a new day which will doubtless see Thomas’ characters repeating their follies.
I’ve just realised that I have no notes for this, having become fully immersed in the performance, but I do recall barnstorming solos from Allen and Boardman, a bass feature from super-sub Swainger and a dynamic extended drum feature from leader Clark, who had played with great authority, steering the band from the kit with his crisp, intelligent, whip-start drumming. At the close he stepped out from behind the drums to thank the rapturous audience, many of whom had got to their feet.

This evening’s performance represented a major triumph for Black Mountain Jazz, a unique event that had featured a seamless blend of words and music, performed in front of a capacity audience in Wales, Thomas’ own country and the source of his inspiration. His wonderful words were flawlessly recited by Ben Tracey and the instrumental performances were similarly faultless, with some inspired playing by all four musicians. Particular praise is due due to Al Swainger who had filled in brilliantly at such short notice. Thanks are also due to Mark Viveash and his team for the quality of the sound and to BMJ’s Debs Hancock, who had been inspired to invite the band to perform these works in the first place.

This immersive performance was a genuine EXPERIENCE, one that was totally absorbing from start to finish, despite its length, and which represented great value for money. This unique set of circumstances sees me giving the five star review that BMJ supremo Mike Skilton has always craved.

During the writing of this review I have been listening to both the “Under Milk Wood” and “A Child’s Christmas” albums. The former is timeless and still sounds startlingly fresh and contemporary. The latter includes more fine writing and playing from Stan and the quartet and also features Ben’s narration. I’ve played in its entirety, relishing both the music and the words, but I suspect that in future, with all respect to Ben, that I may begin to start hitting the ‘skip’ button and just concentrating on the music. I’ve never found musical works featuring featuring a spoken narrative quite so successful in the home listening environment (I blame Rick Wakeman, and to a lesser extent Procol Harum).

My thanks to Clark and Ben for speaking with me after the show. I was surprised to hear from Ben that Stan actually hated composing. Given the both the volume and the quality of his output I found that quite surprising. It would seem that Stan was a perfectionist, and as a consequence his own worst critic. But as keyboard player Dave Stewart (the Egg /  Hatfield & The North/ National Health one) pointed out it’s because of perfectionist attitudes like Stan’s that any music gets to sound half decent in the first place.

Stan Tracey remains one of the giants of British music and tonight’s performance of his work, performed by a quintet featuring his son and grandson, was a fitting tribute to his genius. It was also an unforgettable experience for those of us lucky enough to have been there.


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