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Clark Tracey Quintet

Clark Tracey Quintet, The Hive Music and Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 12/04/2014.

by Ian Mann

April 14, 2014


A hugely enjoyable evening of unpretentious, hard swinging and grooving jazz with some excellent playing by Tracey, the keeper of the flame, and his young protégés.

Clark Tracey Quintet, The Hive Music and Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 12/04/2014.

I’ve been an admirer of Clark Tracey’s playing since I first saw him perform at Brecon Jazz Festival in the late 1980s as part of his late father’s sextet, Hexad. I’ve followed the careers of both pianist Stan (1926-2013) and drummer Clark ever since and seen the younger Tracey (born 1961)  develop into an experienced and accomplished composer and band-leader with an impressive list of solo recordings to his credit.

Tracey’s music is rooted in the bebop and hard bop traditions and he has led a number of groups in the classic quintet format of saxophone/trumpet/piano/bass/drums. As Tracey has graduated towards comparative “elder statesman” status he has often been found adopting an “Art Blakey” role by filling his bands with promising young players. Pianists Zoe Rahman and Kit Downes plus Empirical vibraphonist Lewis Wright are just three of the young musicians to have passed through the ranks of Tracey’s UK version of the Jazz Messengers.

I’ve seen a number of Tracey’s bands, quartets and quintets and once a sextet, over the years at both club and festival sessions and his groups always deliver, the soloists, whether young or old, consistently inspired by Tracey’s crisp, propulsive, hard driving drumming. Although less prolific than his father he’s also a more than useful writer and his sets typically include a couple of originals alongside the jazz standards and bop classics.

Clark has continued to be a regular member of Stan’s bands throughout his career and both father and son have been cornerstones of the Titley Jazz Festival in my native Herefordshire which emerged phoenix like, albeit several hundred miles away, in 2010 from the ashes of the former Appleby Jazz Festival. But Titley has been a great success with Clark and Stan very much at the heart of it. Clark will be returning to Titley in late July to lead a quintet of more mature players but tonight at Shrewsbury he revealed a group of frighteningly talented, and frighteningly young, musicians. 

Following the full house for Jean Toussaint’s quartet in March The Hive was again full to capacity to see Tracey leading his latest pride of young lions. This edition of the classic quintet featured the horns of Henry Armburg-Jennings (trumpet & flugelhorn)  and Chris Maddock (alto & tenor saxes) together with Harry Bolt at the piano and Daniel Casimir on double bass. Bolt replaced the advertised Reuben James, the young rising star who has featured several times on these web pages. As Tracey explained to me later “I had to let Reuben go, he’s just too busy”. Initially I was a little disappointed by James’ absence but any doubts were quickly quashed by the playing of Bolt who acquitted himself admirably throughout, both as a soloist and as an accompanist. He was playing an electric keyboard with an acoustic piano setting which fitted in well with the overall group sound even though it couldn’t quite compete in terms of quality with the sound of the acoustic pianos hired for the appearances of Liam Noble (leading his own band) and Andrew McCormack (with the Toussaint group).

The material was mainly drawn from outside sources, with just one Tracey original appearing in the second set. However the selection was well chosen with many of Tracey’s favourite jazz composers being represented, none more so than the late Cedar Walton whose tunes featured twice. Tracey is a consummate professional, his group’s performance started right on the scheduled time and the quintet delivered two value for money one hour sets with Tracey’s succinct announcing style giving just the right amount of information about each tune without lapsing into whimsy or general “rambling on”, a trait that can affect other leaders who shall remain nameless.

The first set kicked off in invigorating fashion with “A Pint Of Bitter”, a piece written by Tracey’s namesake the American trumpeter Clark Terry as a tribute to the late, great British saxophonist Tubby Hayes. The unison horn lines and keyboard fills of the theme providing the jumping off point for authoritative opening solos from Maddock on tenor sax and Armburg-Jennings on trumpet, the latter impressing firstly with his purity of tone and later with his sustained single notes. This young man is already a formidable technician on his chosen instrument. Bolt quickly established himself as a more than adequate replacement for the in demand James and Tracey confirmed that it is Bolt who will feature on the quintet’s imminent new album. Casimir was the last of the young musicians to take the limelight with solo that included some distinctive pizzicato work up around the bridge and a welcome sense of humour as he duetted with his leader. Finally Maddock and Armburg- Jennings re-entered from the wings to reiterate the theme and wrap up an impressive opening group statement.

Announcing Cedar Walton’s “Ojos De Rojo” (translation “Red Eyes” !) Tracey recalled seeing the great pianist and composer at Ronnie Scott’s in the late 70s / early 80’s and becoming a long term admirer of his music. This Latin flavoured example of Walton’s compositional ability was well served by Tracey’s quintet and saw a change in the front line instrumentation as Maddock switched to alto and Armburg-Jennings to flugelhorn. Tracey’s crisp and nimble drumming inspired sinuous solos from Armburg-Jennings and Maddock, the two horn men followed by Bolt at the piano and finally by Tracey himself, his feature beginning with the inclusion some dramatically impressive hand drumming, progressing through a dialogue with Casimir and finishing with some typically explosive stick work.

If Walton is something of a compositional hero for Tracey then Tony Williams represents his all time drum idol. Williams’ “Lawra” began where Walton’s piece had left off with a barrage of explosive drumming, this time over an insistent piano vamp. Remaining on alto and flugel respectively the horns of Maddock and Armburg-Jennings dovetailed effectively but it was Bolt who took the first solo, his playing an effective amalgam of inventive left hand rhythms and darting right hand runs. The opening keyboard motif returned for a typically powerful Tracey drum feature before the horns again emerged from the shadows to re-state the theme. This was a curiously structured tune but an effective and absorbing one, proof of Tracey’s ability to select good and interesting material, and not always the most obvious pieces.

A quartet version of Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now” was a feature for Maddock on alto, sympathetically supported by Bolt on piano, Casimir on bass and Tracey on delicately brushed drums, proof that the leader can also be a supremely sensitive player when required. The piece also offered evidence that there’s more to Monk than the routinely churned out “quirky”, “humorous” and “enigmatic” epithets. There was a genuine tenderness about this piece that helped to bring out the emotion in Maddock’s playing. Casimir’s solo combined lyricism, resonance and dexterity, all key attributes of the bassist’s art. Casimir may have a huge tone but he is also capable of playing with great sensitivity. Bolt’s solo also revealed his lyrical side before Maddock returned for a second alto solo.

A glance at Tracey’s watch revealed that the quintet had played for seven minutes short of an hour. It therefore seemed appropriate that the first half should end with the quintet’s version of Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps To Heaven”. Tracey briefly related the tale of how Feldman, the London born multi instrumentalist, emigrated to New York where he worked with Miles Davis and other big American names, Davis famously recording this very tune. It’s a piece that Tracey has also committed to disc himself on the quartet album “Given Time” (2007), his second collection celebrating the work of British born jazz composers. Tonight Feldman’s tricky bebop theme proved the ideal vehicle for fluent solos from Armburg-Jennings on flugel, Maddock on alto and Bolt on piano before the horns traded choruses with Tracey to bring the first set to a rousing climax. 

The lights were dimmed for the second set, adding to an already expectant atmosphere as the quintet kicked off with a second Cedar Walton tune, this time “Bolivia” another Latin flavoured piece recorded by Tracey on his 2008 album “Current Climate”. Here the front line consisted of flugel and alto with Armburg-Jennings taking the first solo followed by Bolt on piano, then Maddock,  and finally Casimir at the bass.

Tracey revealed that during the interval he had sold all the CD’s he had brought with him (“Current Climate”, “The Calling” and “Stability”), testament to the quality of the music we had heard thus far ( although the knock-down price of a fiver each may have helped!). Half time also saw Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s Allan Dickie reminded me that Maddock had played this venue before as part of drummer JJ Wheeler’s group back in 2012, a fact that I’d contrived to forget despite having reviewed the concert! Sorry Chris.
I did recall seeing Casimir play previously when he impressed as part of a student ensemble led by American sax giant Chris Potter at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival - Casimir is a graduate of the famed Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz Course.
Armburg-Jennings and Bolt were definite new sightings but both represented exciting new discoveries and will be names to keep an eye on. I’ve read about the young trumpeter before and there seems to be something of a buzz about his playing among my fellow jazz critics. He’s undoubtedly a talent we’ll be hearing a lot more of.

Casimir’s bass introduced Wynton Marsalis’ episodic “Twilight”, an atmospheric piece featuring deep grooves and long melodic lines, the overall effect often ominous and foreboding. Armburg-Jennings took the first solo on trumpet followed by Maddock on increasingly impassioned tenor. The young saxophonist obviously regards himself as primarily being an alto player but I think I actually preferred him on the larger horn. It’s something of a rarity to see a musician doubling on these two members of the saxophone family, it’s far more common to see players alternating one or the other with the soprano or even the baritone. A passage of almost free playing morphed into Bolt’s solo before the sinister opening grooves returned. This was a complex piece that Tracey seemed pleased to have negotiated successfully, playfully chiding Maddock for not memorising his parts.

“Elvin’s Hug”, Tracey’s tribute to another of his drum heroes, the late, great Elvin Jones was the only original tune of the evening and saw the return of the flugel/alto combination with Maddock opening the soloing followed by Armburg-Jennings, Bolt and Casimir. Appropriately Tracey’s drumming was at the centre of the music,  his playing so often the pulse or heartbeat of the ensemble sound.

Armburg-Jennings’ precocious talents were superbly illustrated on his ballad feature, the jazz standard “It Never Entered My Mind” written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Sympathetically supported by piano, bass and drums, with Tracey again on brushes, Armburg-Jennings gave a stunningly fluent and mature performance on flugel horn, exhibiting remarkable control and purity of tone in the exposed context of an extended solo passage. Thunderous applause came not only from the audience but also from the watching Maddock.

The quintet closed with “Suddenly Last Tuesday”, the rousing old warhorse written by the late Scottish trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar and a piece that served as the title track of Tracey’s very first album as a leader way back in 1986 and released on the late John Jack’s Cadillac label. I still have a vinyl copy purchased in the wake of that Hexad gig at Brecon all those years ago. Tracey has never stopped playing Deuchar’s rip-roaring tune and surmised that he must have played it when he last performed in Shrewsbury in 1989! A quick enquiry addressed to his band mates revealed that none of them had actually been born then. Your correspondent, and probably many other audience members, suddenly felt very old. However I digress, as Tracey and his young charges brought the tune bang up to date with barnstorming tenor from Maddock, blazing trumpet from Armburg-Jennings, rollicking piano from Bolt and a thrilling series of rapid fire exchanges between the volcanic Tracey and the horns.

Not surprisingly this final salvo of energy generated tumultuous applause with SJN’s Hilary Hannaford leading the shouts for an encore. Such was her enthusiasm that it drew a drily delivered quip from Tracey. “Blimey that’s all a bit Delia Smith” he said, his observation as well timed as his drumming and greeted with general hilarity. Sorry Hilary, I couldn’t resist mentioning this, but it is a reminder of what a wonderfully human music jazz is, and how rooted it is in spontaneity and improvisation. Can you imagine an off the cuff remark like that at your average stadium rock concert?

The deserved encore proved to be Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s blues “One For Daddy-O” with a series of short, pithy solo episodes for each member of the band. This was a great way to round off a hugely enjoyable evening of unpretentious, hard swinging and grooving jazz with some excellent playing by Tracey, the keeper of the flame, and his young protégés.

If one were being hyper-critical one could criticise the lack of original material and the over reliance on the head/solos/head format but whenever Tracey takes the helm his bands tend to rise above such considerations. Tonight was just such an occasion, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable capacity audience helped to turn what could have been a routine “meat ‘n’ potatoes” gig into an EVENT and the fact that we knew we were witnessing some of the stars of the future made it all the more enjoyable. Under Tracey’s assured guidance the young musicians performed brilliantly demonstrating levels of fluency, maturity and technical ability that greatly belied their tender years.
Tracey revealed that the album by this quintet will be released very shortly. Anyone who was here tonight will be sure to want to hear it.   

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