INTERVIEW/ PREVIEW: Ben Tracey (Under Milk Wood 50th anniv perfs. – Gateshead Apr 10th / Ronnnie Scott’s Apr 14th)

Stan Tracey with Ben Tracey, overlooking the battlefield at Loos in Northern France
whereStan’s father was wounded in WWI.
After this visit, Stan wrote the Loos Suite (The Flying Pig)

Ben Tracey, the grandson of Stan Tracey, will be doing the narration for “Under Milk Wood” in performances celebrating the work’s 50th anniversary in April and May. Sebastian interviewed him about the prospect of performing a work which has been part of his life for  as long as he can remember, and about Stan’s two last major works “A Child’s Christmas,” which was written with a speaking role for Ben, and “The Flying Pig”: 

LondonJazz News: Can you remember how old you were when you became aware of “Under Milk Wood” and when you first heard it live?

Ben Tracey: I suppose it must have been sometime between the ages of seven or eight that I was first made aware of it. Some of the individual tracks I can’t be so sure of – I’d probably heard them ‘from the egg’, as it were.

LJN: Who did the narration ?

BT: That would have been the late Philip Madoc, a distinguished television and radio actor.

LJN: And you were aware of  Philip Madoc from TV?

BT: I’m a bit of a Doctor Who fan, and so I was aware of Madoc from the several appearances he’d made in that programme. I remember being a little bit star-struck when I met him at first.

LJN: What were your first reactions when heard it

BT: Well, Dylan’s words are, first and foremost, a pleasurable experience to hear, to listen to. There’s a wry, knowing streak of almost black comedy which runs through the narrator’s observations in Under Milk Wood; and its accessibility when I first heard it was aided enormously by Madoc’s reading. I remember getting the giggles right in the front row.

LJN: And you only came to appreciate the depth of the piece later

BT: I love the English language. I think it’s clear Dylan Thomas did too; as I got a bit older, I read the script for the Under Milk Wood play, and was introduced to more of Thomas’ work, his prose and the like.

LJN: And what aspects of the poetry appeal to you now?

BT: His spectacularly unapologetic run-on sentences, for one; there’s also his propensity for ‘tongue twisters’ like: ‘the sea-shelled, ship-in-bottled, shipshape best cabin of Schooner House’

Thomas could appropriate phrases and apply them as metaphor in ways which compel one to take pause at their beauty, and then only a few lines later he’s done it again. I could go on and on.

‘(…) into the Davy dark where the fish come biting out and nibble him down to his wishbone’

‘It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black (…)’

LJN: And Bobby Wellins’ sound is something special…

BT: A good example, for me, is Bobby’s playing in the beginning of ‘A.M. Mayhem’ which (in the context of the story) is meant to evoke the flurry of activity as a whole town begins a new day; Bobby’s melodic handle on the tune lures you in and then grabs you by the neck, dragging you along into the frenetic swing of it all. His phrasing is as unique as a fingerprint, especially with the Milk Wood suite.

LJN: But you also know other recordings ...

BT: Back in 2012, Grandad and I went through a lot of recordings of ‘Under Milk Wood’ the play, deciding between us what approach I should take with the spoken word sections.

But the main pleasure for me was finally listening to the 1976 version, featuring the Stan Tracey Quartet from ‘Captain Adventure’, with Donald Houston’s narration.

That was always one of my favourite line-ups (Stan Tracey – piano, Bryan Spring – drums, Dave Green – Bass & Art Themen – saxes) and to hear the different take on certain parts… for instance, Themen’s version of A.M. Mayhem, was brilliant.

Houston’s take on things was likewise intriguing, if only because of my own unfamiliarity with it, though I’ve definitely taken more cues from the 2001 Madoc version. There are certain passages which, to me, can’t be read in another way than the way he did. To try would feel unnatural. Grandad and I thought that recording (the 1976 one) missed a trick in its narration, in regards to some of what Stan wanted from it, which was the ‘sometimes dark, often risqué’ vein.

LJN: Your first  appearance with your grandfather was in “A Child’s Christmas”. What’s the story of that

BT: It was a pretty organic process. I think it stated as an Under Milk Wood (UMW) idea, since the anniversary of the original recording was only a few years off. Grandad wasn’t that enthused about it. It’s not as though he was tired Milk Wood, or wasn’t proud of it, but he was more interested in new things. (I imagine for Stan it was a bit like how it must be when people tell Stephen King how much they loved ‘Carrie’. Yes, it’s still good, but it was also decades ago.)

Between my dad, his wife and Stan there evolved an idea for a completely new suite, a spiritual sequel, if not successor to UMW, based on another Dylan Thomas piece:’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales’.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is a short book my dad introduced me to when I was young, as it had similarly been given to him. I think I once chose to ‘review’ it for a homework assignment back in primary school. it’s almost like the suite was sitting as a kind of unexploded mine, just waiting to be noticed, because pretty soon, Stan was writing again. The honour (for me) was that they wanted me to narrate it.

LJN: He had talked about retiring from compositon….what did you think about that?

BT: I never thought it would really stick; though I believed he’d slow down if he said he would. He wasn’t overfond of the process of writing, the laboriousness of the minutia. I know he couldn’t’ve helped himself but write if he had something to express. We’d be watching the telly during that time (writing ‘A Child’s Christmas’), and he’d have to excuse himself abruptly and go next door where he kept the upright piano, or I’d hear him working on a particular part when I went off to make the tea.

After ‘A Child’s Christmas came ‘the Loos Suite’ released as the 2013 album ‘the Flying Pig’. As it turned out, they were his last few compositions. I think they are among his best.

Under Milk Wood, Herts Jazz Festival, 2012.
L.-R. Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins, Andy Cleyndert, Clark Tracey, Ben Tracey
Photo credit: Melody McLaren

LJN: You did Under Milk Wood just once with your grandfather . When where how was it? 

BT: That was at the 2012 Herts Jazz Festival, in Welwyn Garden City’s Hawthorne Theatre. It was also the first time I had performed Under Milk Wood at all. When it was booked, we were still doing the ‘Child’s Christmas’ gigs, so the festival loomed distantly on the other side of the calendar, giving me ample time to get used to the idea.

With ‘A Child’s Christmas’, there was a certain security for me in the knowledge that I was setting a standard for how the narration worked in that suite – I wasn’t following Madoc, Houston et al. That was not the case with UMW… It felt very different to start the process of that, given the history of the suite. This was the record which ‘put British Jazz on the map’, which I’d heard since the cradle.

It felt humbling if eerie getting used to that; to picture sitting across from Bobby and Stan, Andy Cleyndert, and my dad (Clark Tracey), and saying the words. It was something I tried not to dwell on much, almost on a superstitious level for a while.

Time came, and it was like lightning in a bottle, a perfect collision of elements. It was a truly great gig. I never took up an instrument, but it was a strange epiphany to realise that I’d had the privilege to share the bandstand with both my father and grandfather anyway. That’s no hyperbole, it was a numinous feeling.

It continues to go down well, as since Stan’s passing the group has done more Under Milk Wood gigs, this time with Steve Melling – in my opinion, the only man who could fill grandad’s chair – on piano. Steve’s a fantastic artist I’ve been listening to for years, and his interpretation of the suite is a treat.

LJN: Apart from the performing what other directions is your life taking?

BT: My background is illustration, and I’d like to get further in to writing at some point, though it’s the performing and vocal work which has really taken my interest recently. I also work as a cook in a pub kitchen occasionally.

LJN: Where are the next performances than people can attend?

BT: The next performance of Under Milk Wood is at the Sage, Gateshead on the 10th April, which will be the first gig of a tour celebrating the UMW’s 50th anniversary.

Following that, the tour includes Ronnie Scott’s (April 14th), Southampton (May 12th), Dorking (May 14th) & Welwyn Garden City (May 17th).

Under Milk Wood at Ronnie Scott’s
Under Milk Wood at Gateshead
The recording of Under Milk Wood with Donald Houston and Art Themen is available on Resteamed Records

Chris Parker’s 2011 review of A Child’s Christmas from 2011
Richard Williams writes about The Flying Pig

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. Until I read this article, I had no idea that the 2012 Herts Jazz Festival gig was the one and only time that Ben, Clark and Stan performed Under Milk Wood together. It was funny, powerful and incredibly moving, and I had tears in my eyes as Ben's beautifully-spoken narration combined so well with Stan's music. As Stan introduced Clark and Ben to the stage, he quipped that “Nepotism begins at home….”. Its memory now brings goosebumps and another tear.

  2. Looking forward to seeing this in Southampton. I have been lucky enough to see Bobby Wellins and Art Themen play this in the past. A jazz classic with the superb Dylan Thomas words.

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