Forty years ago, a young British pianist called Stan Tracey was lying in bed, thinking of themes for the new album he'd been asked to record with his quartet, when Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood came into his mind.
Forty years ago, a young British pianist called Stan Tracey was lying in bed, thinking of themes for the new album he'd been asked to record with his quartet, when Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood came into his mind. Having recently heard a production of the play in New York, Tracey, then the house pianist at Ronnie Scott's, said he'd been "quite knocked out" by it.
Taken by the idea, he got out of bed and settled down to re-reading Thomas's original script, playing the recording he had of the original performance at the same time and noting down ideas. "By the time I'd got to the end of the play," Tracey later wrote, "I'd got all the ideas worked out, and just went on from there - writing for the title and for the characters."
Tracey's "Jazz Suite: Under Milk Wood" has since become one of the most celebrated compositions by a British jazz artist, its name rarely appearing unaccompanied by the adjective "legendary". Last Friday, its 40th anniversary was marked by a performance at the Mermaid Theatre in London, in an evening hosted by Clare Teal and featuring the original saxophonist from the 1965 recording, Bobby Wellins, alongside Stan's son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass, and the actors Ruth and Philip Madoc and Victor Spinetti. (The readings were added after the original recording; performances can be of either version.)
The music is terrific, of course, from the jauntiness of the opening "Cockle Row", the gorgeous, balsa-light texture of Wellins's tenor in "Penpals", and the album's masterpiece, "Starless and Bible Black", whose brooding piano intro and lonesome, querying tenor solo are still spine-chilling today - as they were last Friday.
But what is it about the album that leads it still to be talked of with such reverence? Sometimes, no doubt, there's an element of lazy shorthand referencing going on. Mentioning Under Milk Wood can make the speaker sound familiar with a decade or two of British jazz, which it is then taken to sum up, even if said speaker is less than conversant with Tracey's contemporaries.
There were other fine musicians around in the Sixties, and great recordings were made by bands such as the Don Rendell-Ian Carr quintet and Graham Collier's groups, although until Gilles Peterson put together the recent Impressed! compilation albums, most of them were to be found only by the lucky truffler in obscure second-hand stores. By many they were forgotten, and by many they were never known.
So, as good as Under Milk Wood is, it was not, and should not be seen as, the only tree growing in an otherwise barren musical landscape. And even this landmark album suffered a fate all too familiar to jazz musicians: that of going out of print. The current edition of the original recording had to be remastered, by Clark Tracey and Georgie Fame's son Tristan Powell, from an old LP because no one knew where the original tapes were.
Tracey's bassist, Andy Cleyndert, agrees that there are other recordings of the period that are also of merit. "I'm just about to re-release another album Stan did with Bobby in 1968, With Love From Jazz," he says. It will appear on Cleyndert's Trio Records label.
But he still thinks there was something different that marked Under Milk Wood out on its release. "By that stage, Stan was a world-class musician, and that album stands up against anything, including anything coming out the United States, at that time," Cleyndert says. "It was not seen as second best. That was important, as so many people were just trying to copy and catch up with American jazz."
Cleyndert has an interesting theory about where the album's Britishness comes from. "The American scene was very aggressive and competitive, and that's where the energy in their playing came from," he argues. "Whereas here, there wasn't the same sense of competition." As an explanation for the different feel of Under Milk Wood it's a slightly odd one, as Tracey is known for being a pounder of keyboards.
But, although there's a forcefulness in Tracey's playing, it's twinned with a great sense of ease that emanates from Wellins's horn and the perfect placing of Jeff Clyne on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums. Harmonically, too, there's something waywardly and eccentrically British about the combination of chromatic fifths and a shuffle beat in "I Lost My Step in Nantucket".
"It's a truly unique sound," Cleyndert adds. "There's something really going on." Yes, something was going on; something that was different enough to justify the album's passing into legend.
The Mermaid Theatre concert will be broadcast on Monday 2 May at 8pm on BBC Radio 2Reuse content