Jazztracks 03 – Stan Tracey/Starless and Bible Black (1965)

under milk woodThere’s always been discussion about the perfect pop single – usually two or three minutes of magic in which the synthesis of melody and rhythm is honed into one precious moment. Jazz singles are rare because improvisation doesn’t lend itself to finely tuned, carefully produced music for a specific market although there have been exceptions – Stan Getz’s Desafinado, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, – and more recently Miles Davis’ Time After Time.  It’s a thin market though and something we haven’t seen much of since the 1960s.

Starless and Bible Black would never have made a good single: it’s too dark, brooding and introspective – as befits a miniature tone poem with the subject of night over Dylan Thomas’s fictional Welsh village of Llaregub.  But there’s no doubt that it is the equivalent of that elusive pop moment – because it is simply three minutes and forty five seconds of jazz perfection.

Of course, Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite is already a justifiable jazz classic, full of the pianist’s Monkish stabbing chords, fine solos from tenor Bobby Wellins and strong support from longtime bass partner Jeff Clyne and drummer Jackie Dougan.  In 1965 Tracey was in the middle of his residency as the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s Club.  His compositions here memorably capture characters created by Dylan Thomas, with I Lost My Step in Nantucket sounding like a very healthy meeting between Thelonious Monk and Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther.

But for me Starless… stands head and shoulders above the rest of the tracks.  Like few other short pieces of jazz I can think of,[1] Starless… creates the mood of a tone poem, evoking a sense of welcoming darkness as Tracey’s sombre chords are punctuated by the aching clarity of Wellins’ tenor.  The track belongs to Wellins though – Tracey sets up the melody with a series of dark tones, Wellins plays it through and then the magic begins.  Like Miles Davis, he doesn’t take the obvious option of playing a variation on the theme but instead starts somewhere else altogether and runs through a series of tiny liquid phrases that drip into the mind like the slow sparkle of stars over Llaregub.  Then it’s back to the melody and before there are thoughts of another solo, Tracey brings back the opening chords and it’s over.

Nothing could be changed to improve this music.  There’s not a moment you want to add or take away.  There’s just a Welsh saudade left in the memory – a strange thing to happen when a Londoner and a Glaswegian get together – but sometimes magic happens in the most unexpected places.


[1] There is one – and it won’t be easy to get hold of.  On Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite (1975) recorded for JCOA and not available on CD, there’s a 90 second meditation which similarly features piano and saxophone – this time the alto of Carlos Ward.

Appropriately this miniature is called Desireless – and that’s just what it is.  Ward plays an achingly simple melody which induces a feeling of longing but lifts the heart too.  Is this the musical equivalent of what the Portuguese (and Brazilians) call saudade?  Impossible to translate, but something like a longing for both the past and the future, an understanding that one will never return and the other will never be known.

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