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CD Review: Ben Webster/Stan Tracey – Soho Nights 2

Ben Webster/Stan Tracey Soho Nights 2
(ReSteamed RSJ 112 CD review by Chris Parker)

In his entertaining and informative liner note for this, the second of a trilogy of Ben Webster/Stan Tracey live recordings from Ronnie Scott’s (11 December 1964), tenor player Simon Spillett unerringly puts his finger on two pertinent points of interest: Webster’s approach to soloing, and the recording’s implications for the then much-debated divide between ‘mainstream’ and ‘modern’ jazz.

Spillett introduces the former theme by pointing out that the great US tenor player was ‘used to building architecturally perfect solos within the three-minute format of a 78rpm … by the early 1960s [he] had merely to play a written theme to get his point across’, and here, particularly on the ballad material (the exquisite ‘Chelsea Bridge’, a mesmerising visit to ‘Over the Rainbow’), Webster is simply spellbinding, eschewing flashy pyrotechnics in favour of what Spillett perceptively describes as ‘distilling [his] art to such refinement … [that] what remained was in essence an oft-repeated personal “variation”’ rather than overt improvisation.

On the second theme, Spillett is equally percipient, emphasising Webster’s admiration of the work of ‘modernist’ players such as Monk, Dizzy Gllespie and even John Coltrane, and pointing, for proof of this, to the cohesiveness and audible musical compatibility apparent, particularly on up-tempo flagwavers such as ‘Night in Tunisia’ and ‘Cotton Tail’, in the soloist’s relationship, not only with the ‘modernist’ Tracey, but with his rhythm section: bassist Rick Lairdand drummer Jackie Dougan.

True, Tracey’s harmonically and rhythmically adventurous solos (full of pleasantly clanging dissonance, delightfully unpredictable skipping runs and extraordinary textural variety) are striking and arresting in this context, but one only has to listen to, say, Money Jungle (Ellington’s riveting collaboration with Mingus and Max Roach) to be convinced that the borders between so-called modernism and mainstream jazz have always been porous, even downright arbitrary.

What is likely to grab 21st-century ears, indeed, is the ease and assurance of the whole affair: to listeners accustomed to hearing contemporary jazz musicians carefully and respectfully negotiating the often tricksy originals provided for them by their leaders, the breezy informality and sheer brio demonstrated by a quartet utterly familiar with (most) of their material (Laird has the odd problem with the Strayhorn piece) results in a set characterised not by stylistic incompatibility but by unrestrained, joyous exuberance, an unalloyed delight in digging into and exploring all the possibilities of favourite changes.

It’s also a (touching) treat to hear Ronnie Scott’s ‘Goodnight’, with its sardonic comment on apartheid-era South Africa. All in all, a thoroughly entertaining and valuable archive release.

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