INTERVIEW/FEATURE: Clark Tracey (8th Herts Jazz Festival, 5-7 October)

Clark Tracey and the Festival Team in 2016
Photo credit: Melody McLaren

With just under two weeks to go until this year’s eighth Herts Jazz Festival, Clark Tracey reflected on this year’s programme, and shared a real sense of excitement and anticipation. Interview feature by Sebastian:

“It doesn’t have to be one style of jazz, the criterion is quality,” says Clark Tracey. This year’s festival, at a new location, the Broadway Cinema & Theatre in Letchworth has as ever struck a balance between putting on shows with popular appeal, knowing the tastes and preferences of Herts Jazz’s loyal audience, while also wanting to show an appealing cross-section of some of the best of the jazz scene in the UK, in all its variety.

As one listens to Clark Tracey, it is astonishing how vividly he conjures up the prospect of each gig. There is a sense of him relishing the creativity; all the possibilities. He brings home the excitement of what might happen. We started off by talking about the opening night, the Jazz at the Philharmonic tribute. It just came to life as he spoke about it: “We want a Friday night to be a big one and always try to get something that has a wider appeal.” It will be “a great festival feature; everyone likes a jam session,” says Tracey. And what is the format? “It’s not like a sit-down big band but a kind of stand-around big band,” quips Tracey. With three trumpeters – Mark Armstrong, George Hogg, Steve Waterman –  there will be a three-trumpet feature… there also will be some “linked-up ballads.” And then he starts to imagine it…. with a few more thoughts: It will be an “open book….no music in sight …. see what happens.”

Tracey is also excited at the coup of having lured Joey DeFrancesco’s quartet for their only UK date this year (see separate interview) but that comes at the end of a fascinating day, starting in the morning with Gareth Williams accompanying the 1924 Buster Keaton film Sherlock Jr. Clark: “You’ll have one of best jazz pianists in the country improvising and spontaneously reacting to what he sees on the screen.”

And the rest of the Saturday line-up has bands from all kinds of styles and crossing the generations: Herts Jazz’s Patron Art Themen, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Robert Mitchell and Alan Barnes. BBC Radio 3 will also be in attendance for some of the performances. For one of the afternoon gigs Tracey has given Alan Skidmore carte blanche to invite a band, which will have Skidmore working with Paul Dunmall’s Sunship Quartet who are Howard Cottle on reeds, Olie Brice – bass and Tony Bianco – drums. Tracey has fond memories of hearing bands involving Paul Dunmall at the Appleby Festival in years gone by, and admires Dunmall: “He is one of the best guys doing what he does.”

As regards the Sunday, the screening of the documentary film about Bobby Wellins, a close collaborator of Stan Tracey for decades, brought a poignant reflection: “It’s a shame we couldn’t get Bobby on at the festival more than we did. He’s one of those guys who you think is going to be around forever.”

We then mentioned Jean Toussaint, and his name sparked some vivid memories: Clark Tracey’s band was usually booked as support for the Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when they visited Ronnie Scott’s and it was in that context, when Toussaint was the “new kid” in Blakey’s band that the two first met. “I later learnt Blakey asked for us to appear opposite him,” said Tracey. The fact that Toussaint has gone on to develop bands with younger musicians is no accident, and also strikes a chord with Clark Tracey, who has followed in Blakey’s footsteps.

Seeing the Jazz Messengers at such close quarters was a hugely formative experience for Tracey. He reflected on the opportunity he had, being taken into his father’s band at the age of 17. “I have always felt I can relate to having had that opportunity and platform, knowing what the Jazz Messengers went through. “The band members’ names would be well-known throughout the world within a couple of months.”

Tracey is particularly excited by his current quintet, who will not actually be performing at the Festival but there is a new CD by them about to be released entitled No Doubt. He described the quintet of saxophonist Sean Payne, trumpeter Alex Ridout, bassist James Owston and pianist Elliott Sansom as among the best bands he has ever led, and clearly looks forward to every gig with them.

A nice appreciation of the vibe of the festival came from one of its stalwarts – she has been to every one as photographer – Melody McLaren. What strikes her as the vibe of the occasion? The audience, the supporters feel intimately connected with the festival. The team has grown but it still feels like a genuine, intimate family event to which everyone is welcome.” (pp)

“It still feels like a genuine, intimate family event”
Clark Tracey (with Ben Tracey) drawing the raffle winner
Photo credit: Melody McLaren


Friday 5 October

8-10.30pm A Tribute To Jazz At The Philharmonic
Pete Long – clarinet; Art Themen, Dean Masser, Simon Spillett – tenor saxophones; Sam Mayne – alto saxophone; Mark Armstrong, George Hogg, Steve Waterman – trumpets; Ian Bateman, Callum Au – trombones; Harry Sanke – guitar; Nick Dawson – piano; Steve Rose – bass; Clark Tracey – drums.

Saturday 6 October

10.15-11.00am Film (Screen 4) Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton, 1924)
Live musical accompaniment by Gareth Williams.

11.30am-12.30pm Art Themen ‘New Directions’ Quartet
Art Themen – tenor/soprano saxophones; Gareth Williams – piano; Arnie Somogyi – bass; Winston Clifford – drums.

1-2pm Misha Mullov-Abbado Sextet
Matthew Herd – alto saxophone; James Davison – trumpet; Sam Rapley – tenor saxophone; Liam Dunachie – piano; Misha Mullov-Abbado – bass; Scott Chapman – drums.

2.30-3.30pm Paul Dunmall’s Sunship Quartet plus special guest Alan Skidmore
Paul Dunmall, Alan Skidmore, Howard Cottle – reeds; Olie Brice – bass; Tony Bianco – drums.

4-5pm Robert Mitchell Epiphany 3
Robert Mitchell – piano; Tom Mason – bass; Saleem Raman – drums.

6.30-7.45pm Alan Barnes Octet
Alan Barnes, Robert Fowler, Karen Sharp – reeds; Bruce Adams – trumpet; Mark Nightingale – trombone; Dave Newton – piano; Simon Thorpe – bass; Clark Tracey – drums.

8.15-10.45pm Joey DeFrancesco Quartet
Joey DeFrancesco – organ/keyboards/trumpet/vocals; Troy Roberts – saxophone; Dan Wilson – guitar; Michael Ode – drums.

Sunday 7 October

10.15-11.15am FILM (Screen 4) Dreams are Free (Gary Barber, 2013)
Documentary on the life and career of Bobby Wellins

11am-12noon Herts Youth Jazz Ensemble – Bernstein & Beyond
Directed by Duncan Fraser

12.30-1.30pm Claire Martin/Dave Newton
Claire Martin – vocals; Dave Newton – piano

2-3pm Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet
Nat Steele – vibes; Gabriel Latchin – piano; Dario Di Lecce – bass; Steve Brown – drums

3.30-4.45pm Gareth Lockrane’s Grooveyard
Gareth Lockrane – flute; Alex Garnett – tenor saxophone; Mike Outram – guitar; Ross Stanley – piano; Dave Whitford – bass; Tim Giles – drums.

5.15-6.30pm Jean Toussaint’s Young Lions
Jean Toussaint – tenor saxophone; Mark Kavuma – trumpet; Ashley Henry – piano; Daniel Casimir – bass; Ben Brown – drums

8-10.30pm Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames
Georgie Fame – vocals/organ; Alan Skidmore – tenor saxophone; Guy Barker – trumpet; Anthony Kerr – vibes; Tristan Powell – guitar; Alec Dankworth – bass; James Powell – drums

The Festival is being supported by Arts Council England, J Samuel Pianos and Cambridge Drums. 


Tickets can be booked online at the Broadway Theatre site or the Herts Jazz site
Telephone bookings at 01462 681088
Book in person at Broadway Cinema & Theatre, Eastcheap, Letchworth Garden City, SG6 3DD

Categories: Features/Interviews

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