The 80-year-old London-born British modern jazz pianist has the knack of sounding indisputably British while wearing his American influences on his sleeve. More “éminence grise” than the “Godfather” of his publicity, Tracey has been an inspirational presence at the centre of British jazz for over 50 years. As this octet gig unfolded one could almost picture London’s bustling jazz scene evolving from the ballrooms of Tracey’s big-band apprenticeship, through Ronnie Scott’s – his stint as house pianist between 1961 and 1967 was legendary – to acceptance by the arts establishment. After all, it was his landmark 1965 recording “Under Milk Wood” that brought British jazz out of the American shadow.
Tracey’s biggest pianistic influences are the waywardly percussive Thelonious Monk, and the playfully romantic Duke Ellington, and his scoring for the five brass of this octet combined both elements with an almost puckish flamboyance that belied his no-frills introductions. Titles like “Duke’s Smoke”, “Rocky Mount” – named after Monk’s birthplace – and “One for Gil”, a homage to composer Gil Evans, pay respect to this lineage while avoiding pastiche. “Pegleg Bates” and “Settle for Appleby” have a decidedly English ring, while the calypso inflected “The Cuban Connection” was more 1950s ballroom than 21st century Havana.
But these compositions are more than catchy themes that set up a succession of well-voiced solos. Linear in construction, they unfold and dart off at sudden tangents and unlikely juxtapositions – an angular coda, a duet between trumpet and bass, Tracey clanking behind sonorous brass.
The rhythm section, bassist Andrew Cleyndert and son Clark on drums, were Tracey regulars, but the five added brass were equally on-the-button, delivering the complex scores down to the last vibrato. And they didn’t let such concentration inhibit their solos. Trumpeter Guy Barker and alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock stood out for adding the slurs and bends of the blues into their multi-noted virtuosity, and trombonist Mark Nightingale for grittily balancing three creamy saxophones, but Tracey was always the highlight, rummaging for the perfect note and cascading the length of the piano.