JAZZ / Counting bars, local heroes: Pubs not clubs are where it's at, argues Phil Johnson, who caught the Stan Tracey Quintet at the Albert in Bristol

In the etiquette of jazz, audience conversation is governed by rules of bewildering complexity. At Ronnie Scott's and the Jazz Cafe there are numerous signs telling patrons to shut up while the band is playing, but so constant is the noise you'd probably have to stand on your chair and scream before anyone told you off. At Bristol's jazz pub, the Albert, it's more straightforward. Stand at the back and you can normally get away with a whispered conference, but if you dare to talk during the quiet moments of a bass solo the reaction is instantaneous. First there's a sharp look from the formidably large landlord, then there's a loud shush; finally the ultimate sanction comes into play: the clip round the ear. Not surprisingly, it's an effective policy; the audience listens and the musicians love it, so much so that a while ago they named it as their favourite venue in a straw poll by the organisation Jazz Services.

Jazz in pubs is one of the great British institutions. While nightclubs get pride of place in the mythology of jazz venues, lowly, unloved pubs are where the majority of jazz actually gets played. Here, the music battles with the sounds of the juke-box and the gaming machine from the bar next door and when last orders are called, the last number is called too. Jazz promoters who sub-contract a room in a pub for gigs have to live with the hassle of unsympathetic publicans.

At the Albert, Ian Storror is almost unique in being a jazz fan first and a publican second. 'This is my front room,' he said from behind the bar earlier this month, before the night's band - the Stan Tracey Quintet - arrived. 'Having a pub means you can't get out much so I started gigs as a way of bringing jazz into my living room.' It's hardly an ordinary living room, although there is a television above the stage. There's a scattering of tables, a wall-full of jazz photographs and a chalked up list of the musicians who have played there, jostling for space with the notice-board for the darts and cribbage teams. The other walls are filled with pop single bags, (Storror's sister is a record company rep and it saves on wallpaper), allowing patrons the unusual pleasure of looking at Iggy Pop while listening to 'Body and Soul'.

Storror started putting on gigs 10 years ago and is now inundated with demo tapes from nationally known bands. He gets big names: the David Murray Quartet, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Andy Sheppard's In Co-Motion have all played in the last year or so. The gig by Stan Tracey, though, was something special - that week the veteran pianist celebrated 50 years in jazz with a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

Arriving an hour before the gig, Tracey was every inch the classic, long-suffering British jazzman, natty in suede car coat, grey bouffant and puffing cigarette. He went immediately to the piano, like a surgeon about to probe some suspected malignancy, while Storror hovered ineffectually in the background. The piano, a Finnish Hellas overstrung upright, is a sore point between them. For Storror, it's his pride and joy and, at pounds 1,500, his biggest single outlay; for Tracey, who had played a Bosendorfer at the QEH, it was a cross to bear. 'It restricts you,' he said later in the dressing room-cum-function room upstairs. 'It's the difference between driving a Formula One and a Lada. They both go . . .'

Tracey exudes the weariness of someone who has measured out his life in two-sets-a-night gigs in variable surroundings. 'You're only as good as you played on your last gig,' he says, 'and you tend to convince yourself that the improvisatory muscle gets flabby, but after the first 32 bars everything is okay. On solos you can't predetermine your out-point but there comes a time when you feel you've said all you want to.'

Once on stage and behind the errant piano, the weariness slowly begins to disappear as, head down and shoulders heaving, his face almost touching the keys, Tracey gradually begins to animate the base matter of his band into something quite magical. It raises the inevitable jazz question about whether the second set is always better because the band has drunk more, or because you have, but by the time last orders have been called, the band is really beginning to swing. Guy Barker, the trumpeter, is sounding like Wynton Marsalis is supposed to but never quite manages, slurring and sliding his way through the history of his instrument in a series of quick-witted solos. The saxophonist, Art Themen - a surgeon by day - gets looser with every breath, as near to Ellington's Paul Gonselves as any British player can sound, while Tracey brings out a closing section of crowd-pleasing Thelonious Monk covers that sends the tacky room into ecstasy.

When he ends, long after time, Storror presents him with a framed photograph of Thelonious Monk. Tracey, in a rare moment of emotion, nearly looks pleased.

Albert Inn, Bristol, 0272 661968.

(Photograph omitted)

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