Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

The pianist Stan Tracey is currently on a bit of a roll. His back catalogue is being systematically reissued, he can pick and choose his gigs and he’s playing better than ever.

At this gig, the first night of a short residency for the 80-year-old, he augmented his regular trio with the high-calibre horns of the trumpeter Guy Barker and Benjamin Herman on alto saxophone. Good as they are – and they are very good indeed – Tracey’s trademark touch and composer’s sense of form just seemed to cap whatever went before.

Tracey’s two-set programme started with a blues, ended with a high- octane “Autumn Leaves” and had lashings of Thelonius Monk thrown in.

Like Monk, Tracey has a percussive touch and a wayward streak. His solos dart off at angles, and he likes to truncate an already asymmetric run with a sudden silence or a well-placed thump. But it all hangs together brilliantly. Partly, this is because he lets the melody speak for itself – no matter how tangential his musical ideas, you can always follow the script. But it is also because he stamps his authority on everything he plays, and it is this that really lifts him out of the rut.

Avoiding the obvious, Tracey filled Billy Strayhorn’s bittersweet composition “Chelsea Bridge” with warmth and affection, and made the songbook trivia of “Sweet and Lovely” bittersweet. He seemed most relaxed at the fastest tempos – “Autumn Leaves” an unusual choice, his oblique introduction a highlight – and most animated on the autumnal stroll of “Lullaby of the Leaves”. Even the three featured Monk compositions were lifted above homage, the essence of the style maintained but recasted.

Tracey’s regular trio of his son Clark on drums and the bassist Andy Cleyndert provided exactly the right springy support to indulge Tracey’s foibles and still maintain their own personality, while the extra horns seemed to spur him on. Both are fluent improvisers who balance harmonic virtuosity with melodic purpose, and both played with commitment and fire.

Barker has added a rootsy edge to his playing of late, the occasional split note revealing the risk involved in his melodically adventurous pathways, a nifty contrast to Herman’s fleet-fingered delivery.
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