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Michael Wilkins / Martin Pickett / Steve Kershaw / Mike Goff / Siân Goff / Tom Neill

Stan Tracey’s Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood”,  Alan Cornish Theatre, Oakwood Centre, Woodley, Reading, Berkshire, 17/02/2024.

by Trevor Bannister

February 23, 2024


Not only do they pay tribute to the spirit and legacy of Thomas & Tracey, but their accomplished skills, originality & love of the subject bring a fresh perspective to the 70th anniversary of ‘UMW'.

STAN TRACEY’S Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ UNDER MILK WOOD

Alan Cornish Theatre, Oakwood Centre, Woodley, Reading, Berkshire.

Saturday 17 February 2024

Michael Wilkins – saxophone, Martin Pickett – piano, Steve Kershaw – bass, Mike Goff – drums
Siân Goff and Tom Neill - narrators

The magic of Dylan Thomas’ poetry combined with Stan Tracey’s timeless jazz to hold a sell-out audience spellbound by a magnificent presentation of ‘Stan Tracey’s Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’ at Woodley’s Alan Cornish Theatre on Saturday 17 February.

‘Under Milk Wood’, Thomas’ radio play for voices was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece on its first broadcast by the BBC in January 1954, with a young Richard Burton making an indelible impression in the narrator’s role of 1st Voice. Eleven years later, British jazz pianist and composer, Stan Tracey, having listened to an American production of the play, used it as a source of inspiration for what proved to be a landmark recording session. Released in the autumn of 1965, ‘Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’, affirmed Stan Tracey, along with his front-line partner, tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, as musicians of world class stature; a rare accolade for British jazz in the 1960s.

At various times in his lengthy career, Stan Tracey toured with the Jazz Suite, sometimes with the addition of a narrator to read extracts from Dylan Thomas’ inimitable text. This writer had the good fortune to attend one such concert. Impressive as I remember it being, I don’t recall that it achieved the depths of emotion or unity of text and music that stood out as highlights in this production.

The four musicians – saxophonist Michael Wilkins, pianist Martin Pickett, Steve Kershaw on bass and Mike Goff on drums, together with narrators Siân Goff and Tom Neill – have clearly immersed themselves in the dreamlike world of ‘Llareggub’ (‘bugger all’ spelt backwards), Thomas’ fictional Welsh fishing town, to create a hugely entertaining work of exceptional beauty. Not only do they pay tribute to the spirit and legacy of Thomas and Tracey, but their accomplished skills, originality and love of the subject bring a fresh perspective to the 70th anniversary of ‘Under Milk Wood’.

The quartet swing with the best on the opening shot, ‘In the Beginning’, but nothing quite prepares you for the sublime beauty of ‘Starless and Bible Black’. Played here as the beguilingly atmospheric background to the introductory narration, but later reprised in its full expressive glory, it sets the scene of nighttime descending on Llareggub. As the Jazz Suite unfolds, we glimpse into the inner-most dreams and secret lives of the town’s sleeping inhabitant, the music embellished through Thomas’s text by the two brilliant narrators. How could anyone resist Mrs Ogmore Pritchard’s classic line, delivered to perfection by Siân Goff, ‘And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes’.

We visit the cobbled street of ‘Cockle Row’, encounter Captain Cat as he recounts how, ‘I Lost My Step in Nantucket’ and meet the village wastrel ‘No Good Boyo’. Passionate secrets are revealed in ‘Pen Pals’, while the quirky swing of ‘Llareggub’ captures all the peculiarities of Llareggub itself as depicted in the officialese of the town Guide Book.

And yet, as the title track, ‘Under Milk Wood’ reminds us that for all its oddities Llareggub is a place of warmth and human affection – home.

Rapturous applause followed the grand finale, ‘A.M. Mayhem’, which as the title suggests, conjured a scene of chaos and confusion as Llareggub stirs from its slumbers to face a new day.

But wait, no jazz gig would be complete without an encore and the musicians duly cut-loose on a scorching interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s idiosyncratic ‘Well You Needn’t’ – Monk would have fitted in well in Llareggub - to bring a truly memorable evening to a close.

As a final comment on this production may I add that each and every fine detail of text and score counts towards its excellence, right down to a barely discernible tap on a cymbal that punctuates the end of ‘Pen Pals’.

To date, a friend of mine has not missed a single presentation of ‘Under Milk Wood’, having attended the previous four at Goring, Oxford, Marlow and Bracknell. He finds new treasures to enjoy on each occasion. So will you. This is not to be missed when it appears at a venue near you.


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