Review: Stan Tracey Octet at Herts Jazz Festival

Stan Tracey Octet.  Photo credit: Melody McLaren

Stan Tracey Octet
(Opening night of 3rd Herts Jazz Festival. 20th September 2013. Review by Alyn Shipton)

The bad news was that Stan Tracey himself was not sufficiently recovered from his recent illness to take the stage with his band at the Hawthorne Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. The auditorium is an ideal venue to see and hear music, and it was a shame that the eighty-six year old maestro wasn’t on hand to take advantage of the setting. But in the repertoire — a neat selection from the “Early Works” and “Later Works” — his presence was strongly felt through the personal stamp of the compositions, and the verve with which the band (with Steve Melling guesting on piano) tackled them.

The minimalist style of Stan’s newly released “Flying Pig” quintet album is a reversion to the old bebop structure of head—solos— head. By contrast, his scores for this larger group are more through-composed, with assorted backing patterns sliding in behind the soloists and knotty bridge passages between many of the solo outings. The consequence is a collage of musical textures with inventive voicings that make the most of the five-piece front line.

The rhythm section, with Andrew Cleyndert and Clark Tracey firing on all cylinders, had the punchy drive of the old Big Brass recordings from the ’60s, although Melling resisted the urge to parody Stan Tracey’s prodding style, and (particularly on “Fraggie Bar Waltz” from the “Bracknell Suite”) was completely himself, using the pedal, varying his touch, and creating a very distinctively different feel in the music. The arrival of trumpeter Mark Armstrong and tenorist Nadim Teimoori in the line up (in place of Guy Barker and Mornington Lockett, whom I last heard playing this repertoire with Stan in 2010 at Gateshead) has also changed the slant of the soloing, whilst retaining the big brassy punch of the collective front line. Armstrong’s neat, logical playing (notably on flugelhorn in the “Hong Kong Suite”) is a contrast to Guy’s more passionate sound, with fewer dirty tones and half-valve effects, whereas Teimoori, at the tender age of 23, was the only one of the saxophonists to leave space and openness in his solos. The maturity of his playing, and his sweet, occasionally Getzian tone, offered excellent balance to the fuller play-as-many-notes-as-you-can approach of tenorist Simon Allen and altoist Sam Mayne.

The entire second half was devoted to the “Hong Kong Suite”, written to be played at the Patten residence shortly before the last Governor handed the territory back to the Chinese. It’s vintage Tracey writing, with punning titles and echoes of oriental life skilfully woven into the music. But whereas the first set lacked Stan’s exact command of tempi, and ended up with every piece marginally either side of medium fast, the band had got into its stride by the interval and there was much more variety. What “Dragon Boats” lost in gritty intensity from the absence of Tracey and Barker, it made up for in lucid romanticism, from Melling and Armstrong (on flugel). And the closing “Crackers and Bangers” was as tight, rowdy, and explosive as any time I’ve heard it played. We all wished Stan well, and hope he is recovered for the upcoming London Jazz Festival concerts in November, but he will be relieved to know that in his absence, his music is in more than capable hands.

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