Stan Tracey at the Fleece, Kersey Mill 17 October 2008

“Does anyone here know how good he is?” said Sonny Rollins after working with Stan Tracey on the soundtrack to the film Alfie in 1966. Er, yes – they do now!

This was a blistering set from an extended Stan Tracey Trio with special guests Guy Barker on trumpet and Dutchman Benjamin Herman on alto sax. I thought Barker was a revelation – endlessly inventive, powerful playing that underscored his status as one of the finest trumpeters Britain has produced. Herman is just a youngster in this company and his playing initially seemed to lack confidence but by the end of the first set he had established himself as an integral part of the group. Clark Tracey has had nearly thirty years playing with his dad – and it shows. His tiny drum kit belied the power and scope of his playing and the obvious empathy with Tracey senior was apparent in every texture.

What about Tracey himself? Well, the piano playing of the godfather of British jazz (now 81) is as dynamic and vibrant as ever. This was a largely Thelonius Monk set – understandable as Monk and Ellington have been the biggest influences on Tracey. He plays with the quirkiness and odd time signatures of Monk but his arrangements (most notably in the classic Under Milk Wood suite from 1965) have the sweep and scope of the Duke. It’s a great mix, and at this intimate venue you got a chance to see how Tracey creates these rich chords, sudden darting percussive runs and Monkish stabs at the keyboard – left hand crossing over his right with dazzling accuracy.

The tunes tonight included Well You Needn’t, Pannonica, Blue Monk and – unexpectedly – a fabulous interpretation of I Want to Be Happy. Now if only this was available on a CD….

Tracey’s backstory is amazing and worth repeating briefly here. In the 1950s he played on cruise liners, knew Tony Hancock and toured with Cab Calloway. In the 1960s he was the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s (where he obviously picked up some of Scott’s dry wit as well as a debilitating heroin addiction) and so he backed visiting jazz royalty including Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins. In the 70s his fortune waned and he retrained as a postman but by 1978 he was supporting Gil Evans in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

More new commissions for large group suites followed and he started the quartet with son Clark that would form the basis of his current group. By 2008 he was an OBE and CBE – a rare honour for any musician – let alone one from the world of jazz.

This Suffolk show was something special with the constant feeling that you were in the presence of unassuming greatness. A real joy.

Watch Tracey playing with Ben Webster here:

And check out his own comprehensive website at where you will be greeted by the opening chords of Starless and Bible Black from the magnificent Under Milk Wood suite – a house favourite here at Cosmic Jazz.

Try out Benjamin Herman’s MySpace site here and listen to a great tune called Bootlicker featuring Stan Tracey.

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