Album review

The Stan Tracey Quartet: ‘Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (Resteamed, LP, rec. 1965)

The Stan Tracey Quartet: Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood

(Resteamed RSJLP001LP. Album review by Phil Johnson)

This very welcome LP reissue of a canonical classic of British jazz returns the title to vinyl for the first time since its release on the Tracey family’s Steam Records in 1976. Recorded on 4 March (Wiki says 14th) 1965 at London’s Lansdowne Studios by Adrian Kerridge with Denis Preston as producer, and released on EMI’s Columbia, the album was a critical hit whose literary associations commanded respect at a time when jazz itself did not automatically do so. Heard now, with the pleasing gap between side A and side B restored, the album feels less of a tribute to Dylan Thomas’s rumbustious radio play – a recording of which Jackie Tracey owned – than to Stan Tracey’s genius as composer, pianist and bandleader.

And what a band: the Scot Bobby Wellins on tenor sax is in absolutely inspired form, swinging hard but retaining a distinctively lyrical, interiorised quality to his playing, never more so than on the justly famous ballad ’Starless and Bible Black’. It is twinned by Side B’s title track, where his tender tenor melody is followed by a delicate Tracey solo of exquisite sadness. The rhythm section is all cool elasticity, with the masterful underplaying of Jeff Clyne on bass partnered by the spiky bebop measures of drummer Jackie Dougan, their contrasting ice and fire allowing Tracey’s thoroughly naturalised Monk-isms and heavy block-chording to really wail. The suite’s closing track, ’A.M. Mayhem’, is a hard-swinging marvel. This band was also relatively short-lived, Greenock-born Dougan emigrating to Australia shortly afterwards and dying there in a road accident in 1973.

What holds the whole thing together – unlike many a ’suite’ where disparate tunes are lumped in with little regard for continuity or aesthetic balance – is the quality and variety of Tracey’s writing. This is signalled right from the off, in the stately opening of ‘Cockle Row’, where a positively Ellingtonian elegance and sly rhythmic bounce inaugurate the high standards that are maintained throughout. Dougan’s drum break which announces the tune is also key to the whole: this is going to be proper unbowdlerised modern jazz, whatever it’s inspired by. And there really is no filler, a rarity for any album.

A historical context is relevant too: this is music from Harold Wilson’s first Labour government, when the Beatles were topping the charts and British jazz was at a unprecedented high point of modernist creativity. Tracey – no patrician, he – began writing the music for his masterpiece on the night bus home to Streatham from his job as the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s.

The new reissue is in stereo, unlike the first release of the original recording (whose title also had an extra s in Thomas’s) and it sounds great, remastered by Clark Tracey and Tristan Powell and cut by Caspar Sutton-Jones at Gearbox Studios. The cover image reproduces the profile drawing of Dylan Thomas and Stan Tracey by Margaret Parker from the Steam reissue of 1976 rather than the photograph on the Columbia original, and there’s a nice new liner note by Clark Tracey, Stan’s son, who takes pains to credit the contributions of all the musicians. The pressing is to be limited to a thousand copies worldwide so get it while you can.

LINK: Under Milk Wood on vinyl at Restreamed Jazz

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