When Stan Tracey died last December, he left a musical legacy steeped in the wry, sharp-witted spirit of postwar Soho. Tracey rooted himself in the music of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, but the influence of British culture, from dancehalls to Play for Today was equally strong, and gave his music a distinct local flavour that swathed its sardonic bite in a cloak of optimism.
Tracey was a prolific composer, and expanded his piano style into major works for small group, octet and big band alike, and it needed this celebration’s two pianists, three ensembles and several generations of top UK musicians to capture Tracey’s music fully. As the evening unfolded through velvet saxophone, shouting brass, quirky themes and odd juxtapositions, Tracey’s originality and strength of character were abundantly clear.
The programme opened with Ronnie Scott’s musical director James Pearson leading a piano trio through the 1959 composition “Little Klunk” – written, we were told, four months before Ronnie Scott opened his first club – and closed with the big band shout of “The Sixth Day”, taken from The Genesis Suite, a commission for the Christadelphians written in the 1990s.
In between, young drummer Shaney Forbes swung silkily, backing sax veteran Bobby Wellins on a set of standards that Tracey liked to play. A sax-heavy octet, led by Tracey’s son Clark on drums, swaggered through “The Cuban Connection” from the Amandla Suite and later featured Art Themen and Don Weller battling it out on the blues number “Cuddly”. The big band delivered selections from Alice in Jazzland, as well as recently discovered big-band scores for Tracey’s small-group masterpiece Under Milk Wood.
For three hours, sharp angled lines sprang out of upbeat themes and jaunty riffs came with a discordant clang. Inspired soloists included on-fire alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock and, in the encore, blues-laced baritone saxophonist Karen Sharp. Impressively, the two pianists captured Tracey’s angular rhythms and sense of space, though it took saxophonist Wellins to remind us of Tracey’s taciturn persona. Asked whether Tracey ever talked about the American stars he supported as Ronnie’s house pianist in the 1960s – such as Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Ben Webster – Wellins said: “No, there was no time to talk. It was a period of indulgence.” And it was clear that he wasn’t talking about the music.