Jazz Professional               



Alice in Jazzland

A British Legend
Alice in Jazzland
Stan Tracey’s Suite for Big Band

A Les Tomkins Feature

Reeds: Alan Branscombe, Ronnie Baker, Ronnie Scott, Bobby Wellins, Harry Klein.
Trumpets: Kenny Baker, Ian Hamer, Les Condon, Eddie Blair. Trombones: Keith Christie, Chris Smith, Wally Smith. Bass: Jeff Clyne. Drums: Ronnie Stephenson. Stan Tracey, piano, leader. [N.B.–Tubby Hayes and Kenny Wheeler replaced Wellins and Blair on the final session.]

It’s a gratifying thing when recognition reaches a cause you have championed. You feel a proprietary glow, somehow. As I did when Stan Tracey achieved a 2,000–selling album with his suite for Quartet based on the Dylan Thomas play, Under Milk Wood. I even had a fragmentary hand in it, since a private tape I made of a piano improvisation by Stan suggested one of the themes, A.M. Mayhem, to him.  To see a record of all–British jazz doing so well was in itself very heartening.

 Then came further good news: EMI decided to do a second LP under Stan’s name—this time with a big band. The Tracey Big Band had come into being when BBC producer Bryant Marriott had invited him to assemble a large line–up for a Jazz Club broadcast. On this occasion Stan expanded several of his originals, including some from the Milk Wood set.

 Now, with the new recording prospect, says Stan: ‘I just sort of looked around for a peg to hang it on, and I came up with the idea of writing some things around characters or situations in Alice In Wonderland.’ The album, recently recorded by a top–talent aggregation and scheduled for June release, has the inevitable title: Alice In Jazzland.

 Watching Stan at the keyboard, the impression is one of a man intensely absorbed, pouring the last drain of his energy into the music (and, in up–tempo Rollins marathons, that’s about what he does), Talking to him, the impression is of a gentle, unassuming man, with a subtle sense of humour, sometimes self–directed. The combination of these factors makes a vitally individual player and composer.

 With a kind of a built–in resignation to the insensitive carping of critics about his ‘hammering’ and ‘pounding’, Stan seemed amusedly reconciled to being sadly under–rated by all except his fellow–musicians. So, when Milk Wood happened: ‘I was very, very surprised. I didn’t expect it to be much. The only drag is: when you’re doing the second one, you half feel that you’ve got to try and live up to the success of the first. There’s enough to worry about, without all that. Though big band is a completely different medium. To be quite honest, I don’t really care what happens. If it flops, I shall still be what I am, doing what I’m doing. So it makes no difference, really. It’s nice if it does click!’   How does he enjoy big band work? ‘I like it when all the writing’s over. But while it’s going on, it’s murder. I never get anything prepared unless I’ve got a definite commission to do by a set date. For this session, I had the composition and arranging of eight tunes to do. If it was just a matter of theme and blow, it would be easy—but there’s quite a bit of background writing, a lot of bridge things.’ Stan answered my question as to the average time he spends on a score. ‘It takes me ages. I’m in the process of doing one for Tubby now. Honest to God, I’m the slowest arranger in the world. It’s painful, really, how long it takes me. It’s not lack of ideas—it’s just that it’s a long time before I feel satisfied with an idea—you know, as the arrangement proceeds.

 ‘I think my attitude is wrong, because I should just go ahead and write what I feel is there, instead of pondering over each bar, which I’m prone to do. Once I’ve decided, that’s fine–I don’t shift from that. But it’s the initial decision.’ All this well–considered creation had to be fitted in between Stan’s other creative flights—on his nightly 9 p.m.–3 a.m. stint at Ronnie Scott’s club. ‘Yes, that’s a hold–up as well. It’s always the same scene–writing when I get home, about four o’clock in the morning. Then a little bit in the afternoon when I get up.

 ‘I usually get up about mid–day and it takes a good two hours for the mist to clear, before I can start doing anything. Then all of a sudden it’s time for the evening meal–and off to work again. Sunday I’m usually too exhausted to do much, anyway. So it’s all bits and pieces.’   His arranging activities started about fifteen years ago with a chart for a Victor Feldman date on Melodisc, using an eight–piece group. He commenced composing a couple of years before that for one of the ‘bop’ groups of the time—Laurie Morgan’s Elevated Music, A trip to Israel with a Tony Crombie band furthered his writing ability.

 Stan shuddered at the realisation that he has been a practising musician for twenty–seven years, having taken up accordion at the age of twelve. At sixteen he was performing in ENSA; at nineteen with the RAF Gang Show. Two and a half years later he resumed civilian life and played some ‘weird little gigs’ around town. His first regular job was at the Paramount Ballroom, Tottenham Court Road, as a member of something called the Melfi Trio. Work with a variety of bands, including those of Roy Fox and Kenny Baker, culminated in a two–year stay—‘57 to ‘59—with the Ted Heath Orchestra. where he was featured on piano, vibes and arranging. Then, when Ronnie Scott and Pete King opened their jazz night club, they engaged Stan to lead the house rhythm section. And there, as they say, he has remained to this day.

Over the years. in the best of company. Stan has given a musical answer to anyone who said he was unmusical, has demonstrated his scope to all who called him limited. His general conception has grown, and with greater assurance has come a positive authority.

Would he agree with this? ‘Yes, I think my playing has developed. I know it has, when I hear my old records. It hasn’t gone the way I would like it to have done, really, But I suppose it just boils down to the fact that you’re never satisfied with the way you play.’ ‘What effect,’ I asked, ‘do you feel that the years you’ve spent at Ronnie’s have had on you?’ ‘Physically or musically?’ said Stan, grinning. ‘Musically—yes, it’s been good for me—working with all those different guys. You find out various things as you go along. It’s interesting from the point of view of adapting, compromising and all the rest of it. When you do that sort of thing, you learn. I don’t mean actual notes or chords or anything. It simply helps you to broaden musically. Physically, I suppose it’s been as damaging as it’s been musically helpful.’ The visiting American jazz greats have been pretty well unanimous in their unqualified praise for Stan,’ both as a person and as an accompanist. He singles out four of them as having been especially worth–while and memorable to him: Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Stan Getz.

 ‘I found Getz very exhilarating to work with. With someone like Getz, you become aware of the value of light and shade in the playing–instead of the usual same level. Of the singers who have appeared at the club, the two that Stan has enjoyed working with most—and sounded happiest with—are Jimmv Witherspoon and Ernestine Anderson.

‘It needs a great deal more discipline when you’re accompanying a vocalist. It’s a matter, again, of adapting. Some singers you can’t adapt to, though—if they’re not in sympathy with you.’ Actually, I’d love an eye–opener of some sort!’ You get terribly blasé in a gig like this—when you’ve been there a few years.’ Have there been many eye–openers for him? ‘No. not really.

‘After a while, it gets that you can judge pretty well before you meet the person, even, what they’re like. It’s very strange, but you can. You build up a picture. Before I played with Don Byas, I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to like working with him. And I didn’t.’ We returned to the subject of Stan’s writing, with my query as to whether he thought any other big band writers had influenced him. ‘Ellington, I think. Yes, I think it’s safe to say. Though I don’t consciously try and do it his way. It just comes out that way.’

I had two more questions to put to Stan. One concerned his compositions—are there certain ones that he is specially satisfied with? He named two that have not been commercially recorded as yet—a ballad called Dream Of Many Colours and a catchy tune with the title Let Them Crevulate—and three from the new Alice album: Fantasies In Bloom, Teatime Gavotte and Afro–Charlie.

The other concerned his arrangements. Why did he suppose that some of the musicians, on first sight of his music, say: ‘That’s impossible’? Said Stan: ‘Probably because they’ve never seen it before. I mean, maybe they haven’t played that type of thing before. I’m used to that. It’s only a matter of getting used to it. You know, I’ve reacted like that to other people’s writing—looked at it, and I say: “Impossible”. Then you play it—and it’s possible.’ 

Copyright © 1966 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved