Stan Tracey, With Few Peers


A facile formulation I could employ to qualify pianist Stan Tracey‘s stature would be to call him the Sonny Rollins of British Jazz. This would capture his sturdiness over a career almost equal in duration to that of Rollins. This would also provide intimations of other similarities, but one would have to be familiar with those shared qualities, such as virility, the magnitude of their sounds, Tracey on the piano, and Rollins–of course–on tenor saxophone. And this formulation would also be suggestive about their shared artistic integrity and different yet uncompromising artistry. All of this is stretched over close to sixty years, with both men, once and long ago, being attentive students in the school of be-bop.

I’m dissatisfied with the formulation. It measures music but seems unhooked from the one factor that separates the two, for Rollins is well known as the nonpareil tenor titan, whereas Tracey is at best well known as the greatest jazz pianist Great Britain has yet produced. And, therein rears the problem of context that weighs down my formulation.

The fact is, to the best of my experienced reckoning, even vigorously committed jazz fans in the U.S. may have never spent much or anytime with Tracey’s music, would probably be unaware of Tracey’s place in British jazz, and, would not be able to leap with my formulation to its vaunted estimation, both Rollins and Tracey are true masterly lions.
I may be wrong, but I believe I read somewhere that Tracey has been to the U.S. less than a handful of times, last fall being one of those times. I am more secure in pointing out that in my own collection of forty or so Tracey recordings, two were released here in the U.S. That all the others were released in the UK, only, diminishes yankee opportunity, only. Otherwise, Stan Tracey simply has been one of the world’s greatest jazz artists for the better part of his almost sixty year long career. And, as a leader for over fifty years, he’s been documenting on LP and CD his extraordinary findings as one of the foremost masters of the School of Duke and Monk.

I was soon enough astounded in 1980 when I checked out one of his recordings on Steam, a solo piano date Hello old Adversary (1979). I was inspired to do so by a review, perhaps in Cadence, that tossed off an accolade, ‘Great Britain’s answer to Thelonious Monk.’ This was the only association I needed. The record arrived, I slung it on the mat. Dropped the spike.

And, I was blown away. At that time, solo piano in my world was Tatum, Monk, Keith Jarrett, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim,) and McCoy Tyner. Where had this Tracey guy been? I had at the time the same feeling I had the first time I heard Pee Wee Russell, which was: how could music this good have escaped me?

I went out and blew a paycheck at Northcountry and bought a copy of every Stan Tracey Steam record in their stock. Maybe it was four or five records. I grabbed by friend Thorne, and we had a session and we were both shocked, hooked, and, all of sudden, paying close attention to this titan. He was so at the time, in the British scheme of things. Without going into the many details of our discographical journey over the next fifteen years, the two of us bacame Tracey’s foremost fans in Vermont! I suppose this all one can say.

The thrust of our affection was aimed at taking in the only Tracey we could touch, those Steam Records. We learned early on Tracey was not coming our way. The appeal of Tracey’s series of records, made for the label he was compelled to start to document his work, is straight-forward. Ranging from solo to duo, (especially with another British piano legend, Keith Tippett,) to four-five-six-seven-eight-orchestra, every single record is an exercise in onrushing modern swing, intense exploration of the flux of melody and rhythm, and, it’s all moved by a seemingly volcanic urge to etch a musical voice without compromise.

I wish I could tell you Tracey’s music is sort of like this or that, yet it seems to be to transcend comparisons. Tracey melds his forthright and propulsive chords-into-shards piano style with his immense book of original compositions to forge a sound that is utterly unique. His music doesn’t sound like that of Mingus, yet it is, similarly, absolutely earnest, ferociously direct, and resolute in its travels along Tracey’s distinctive bluesy, folkloric trajectory. I guess, one apt comparison, along a shared quotient, one with energies aimed to evoke joy, would be with Don Pullen and George Adams.

Tracey also leads a big band, and its own attractions are equally invigorating. Well, this provides another case of wanting to hear every note. I’ve never heard Tracey lead even close to a mediocre recording session. Tracey turns 85 at the end of this year. He’s been recently prolific, having issued brilliant dates with Evan Parker, with the young saxophone star Simon Allen, Bobby Wellens, Guy Barker, with his trio, octet, and orchestra–adding up to eleven new dates in our new century. In different ways, every darn time out Tracey astonishes.

Clark and Stan Tracey
Clark and Stan

Tracey has been playing with his son Clark, a drummer, and Andrew Cleyndert, bass, for a long time now. For Tracey’s new record Sound Check, Cleyndert is present for the fine trio disc. It’s sterling and equal to Tracey’s other trio recordings of the last two decade. However, the second disc is of duos with his son Clark is the staggering main course. (Wait, it’s the first disc–maybe a minor miscalculation of sequencing, but I put the trio disc in the player first, as it should have been.) Yes, their musical relations are seemingly telepathic. Son Clark, who for me squares the traditional mellow vigor of a drummer like Billy Higgins, with the uncanny organic feel of drumming in the vein of Ed Blackwell and Billy Hart, is on equal footing here with his father.

And, I mean equal. The percussive back-and-forth, with Clark all over the kit, and using it surgically, partnering with Stan at his punchy, ducal best, comes of as dance; dancing. This is Clark’s best outing, among a lot of great work, on record. What a great idea, to wax one of your very best records in a six decade recording career with your own son! The piano-drum duo is always the rare bird of formats. Here, on what is simply a spectacular record, the Clarks have made one of the most engrossing records of this or any year.


1-Ripped Off In Bogota 7:28
2-Sam Loves Mary Loves Sam 10:55
3-Mule Rules 7:25
4-Louis at Novara 5:19*
(various radio recordings/*Louis Moholo-Moholo-drums))

Stan Tracey’s home on the web

Clark Tracey’s home on the web

Resteamed Records; also the provider of many of the classic Steam recordings.

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