The suite Under Milk Wood is often cited as evidence that not all British Jazz in the 1950s and 1960s was just a pale imitation of its US counterpart. In fact Stan Tracey – who sadly died, aged 86, on December 6th – cited Duke Ellington as his biggest influence, and while house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s from 1959 until the late 1960s provided backing for some of the biggest US front men, including Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster. (Getz was unappreciative, prompting on stage bickering, but Rollins was the opposite, commenting to the audience: “Doesn’t anyone here know how good he is?”). Despite that, in the 1960s Tracey began forging a very un-American sounding jazz, first with the New Departures Quartet LP (particularly the evocative “Culloden Moor”), and then with Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas.
It’s perhaps dangerous to make too much of the poetry-jazz connection. Certainly some joint gigs with poet Michael Horowitz encouraged the kind of improvisation-based mood pieces found on both LPs. And the prose that inspired the best known track of the suite, “Starless and Black Bible”, is every bit as musical in its effect as Thomas’s poetry:
"It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping"
But Tracey – famously a man of very few words – was dismissive of any kind of close link between the music and the literature. He first heard the audio recording made by the author himself. “I was very taken with it and thought it would be a good idea to base a suite on the characters or places”, he told Alyn Shipton. But, he went on, “you end up with the music….and you make your own pictures”. And it’s hard to hear any specific influence on the music from the rhythm of the words, as some commentators have suggested. The importance, though, is that the starting point results in a very different perspective from any US models.
Essentially an improvisation with close interplay between Tracey’s distinctive and slightly menacing piano and the lyrical playing of tenor sax player Bobby Wellins, “Starless and Black Bible” establishes an appropriately melancholy mood using the slightest of means – an initial theme and short chord sequence, followed by a series of downward scales from Wellins that soon leads to a harmonic resting point on what sounds something like the dominant harmony. Then there’s a return to the opening theme and sequence. The music has survived to this day, despite patchy availability, with Tracey in the end having to issue the piece on his own record label.
This recording first appeared when I was about 9 years old and I've finally got around to hearing it for the first time. I figure that music that you're meant to hear will reach you eventually. After being a fan of the ECM genre for many years, I'm now steadily discovering the greats of British jazz from the late 50s and 60s.
This is great stuff and I think it truly merits the title of a suite in the sense that classical music would understand. The tunes each can stand on their own but somehow make more sense when played together. There's a real range here, from boppish tunes to the incomparable and quite spacy "Starless and Bible-Black". Come to think of it, the latter has more than a hint of the ECM style that was to follow it along in a few years. I guess Stan Tracey's name is pretty well-recognized but the wonderful tone of Bobby Wellins' sax really deserves greater recognition. I was interested to find the late Jeff Clyne on drums here - I've previously only come across him in fusion bands of the 70s and 80's - Isotope and Turning Point.
If you're following the same journey of discovery as me then you really need to check this out - one of those recordings that really deserves the description of an all-time classic.
Chose the CD because of the Dylan Thomas connection. Hadn't been particularly aware of Stan Tracey before. My loss. This is my kind of Jazz. Cool, fluent, melodic and inventive. One of those musicians that don't drown you in exhibitions of technique, although that's obviously there, but concentrate on letting the music talk for itself. I'll be looking for more from Stan Tracey.
I had the original radio broadcast of the "Under Milk Wood" play (the one with Richard Burton dating from 1954) on double vinyl many years ago, and I have been trying to find a copy of Stan Tracey's jazz version, but without success - until now.
This must stand as one of the first original major works of the British jazz scene, and still sounds marvellous almost 47 years after it was first recorded. All I can say is that the music perfectly matches the characters and situations in the play. The quartet have done an excellent job, and the recording is outstanding.
I can only echo the sentiments of the other reviewers and urge anyone with an interest in British jazz to investigate this masterpiece.
Sounds just as fresh and innovative as when I first heard it I don't know how many years ago (mid-sixties, in fact). "Starless and Bible-black" is a stand-out atmospheric piece but there is so much else to enjoy from this wonderfully together quartet. Hugely recommended.