Monday, December 16, 2013

Stan Tracey and improvisation

Stan Tracey's relationship with the Vortex was very close. David Mossman believes that he was the first person to call Stan "The Godfather of British Jazz", a name which has stuck throughout the recent tributes to him. David said that, if ever he introduced Stan in this way, he could see the great man wince! I also think that he was probably the first musician to play at the original Vortex, and thus it is due to Stan that the Vortex is no longer just a bookshop and gallery as it was when it first opened on Stoke Newington Church Street.

Hearing and seeing Stan Tracey over recent years at the Vortex impressed on me for several reasons. First, the mental and physical spriteliness that playing music gives. As soon as he got up on the stage and started playing the years seemed to fall away.  Somehow, he seemed at least 20 years younger. One of the special things about music. One of his regular dates, just a few days after the death of Jackie, was particularly moving as this lady was not just his wife but also the drummer's mother. That also showed his mental strength, to me.

I also listen back with regularity to some of his fully improvised albums. Those with Evan Parker and Stan, but also the duo with Clark. Stan was from a generation which clearly could not separate between composition and free improvisation. And on the gigs with Evan and Clark, he gave as good as he got. The first time the three played together, I shall always remember the thrill of Clark to be playing with two masters.

The empathy with Evan clearly extended to the awareness of language and history. One of their duo tracks is called "Skeffington's Daughter". It describes a torture instrument from Tudor times which was the opposite of the rack. (Having checked this before, it helped me when I came across this in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.)

He seemed to take all the challenges for granted. The idea of arranging for and leading a big band, and then soloing too, at the Royal Albert Hall for a BBC Prom to 5,000 would be daunting to anyone. But when Stan did it, he was over 80!

He achieved a lot over the years and he has received, understandably, the adulation in obituaries and tributes justified for being "a national monument", as Alex Dutilh of France Musique has called him. (Thanks to Sebastian Scotney for that.) But actually his regular gigs were at places like the Vortex and Bull's Head to the end. Did he really do enough of the high profile gigs as someone of that description deserves towards the last days of his life?

Here are a couple of photos that I took of Stan in January 2011. The first with Evan and the second with himself (courtesy of the glass reflection from one of the painting behind him).

No comments: