Dubbed everything from ‘the British Kind Of Blue’ to ‘the best ever UK jazz recording’
Without doubt one of the finest jazz albums of all time, anyone who hears this inspired recording cannot be failed to be moved by the music.
While the album has been reissued on CD by various labels over the years, Resteamed Records have now released the music on vinyl for the first time since 1976. To mark the occasion, Jazz Views asked bassist Steve Kershaw and saxophonist Julian Nicholas to recall what the music of Stan Tracey and this remarkable suite inspired by Dylan Thomas means to them, and the impact it had when first heard.
Recollections of ‘Under Milk Wood by Steve Kershaw
My first recollection of hearing Stan Tracey’s 1965 Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”, which might be rather hazy, was in a student bar in the late 1970s. I was struck by the strange beauty of the music. It was new to me, and utterly fascinating.
I have a much-played CD copy of the suite, and am now the happy owner the new Resteamed RSJL001 vinyl reissue. This does ample justice to the excellence of the music, and so it should – a recording of such magnitude deserves the utmost sonic respect.
But if listening from the outside has been a joy, so has being part of a project to perform Stan’s music using transcription from original scores by his drummer son Clark, integrated with dramatized readings from Dylan Thomas’ famous BBC radio drama which inspired those compositions.
The words and music take us into the lives, dreams, and innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of a tiny fictional Welsh fishing village called Llareggub (‘Bugger all’ backwards), and playing Tracey’s compositions has afforded me some deeply rewarding insights into his music and its inspiration.
Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood is a beautifully constructed set of eight tunes, with an unmistakeably individual character that emerges from the first drum fills that introduce the easy-swinging opener Cockle Row. The musical setting is night-time in the village:
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.
This atmosphere is perfectly captured easy swing of a piece whose form alludes to George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, but is flavoured with some Thelonious-Monk-leaning edginess. Its slightly oblique lyricism demands that the musicians create a special combination of intense energy with seemingly totally relaxed delivery.
The acknowledged masterpiece of Tracey’s recording is Starless and Bible Black. Thomas’s play begins:
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town
Starless and bible-black.
Dark piano chords over bowed double-bass roots support a beautiful evocative opening tenor sax statement, which moves into a loose, lazy, two-chord groove. Following a truly late-night meditative saxophone solo, which on the recording showcases’ Bobby Wellins’ delicious tone, a piano cadenza leads back to the main theme.
As our live show gets underway, we play Starless and Bible Black very softly beneath the initial narration, and reprise it at the end as an instrumental piece in its own right. It is well worth playing twice.
It is the drowned sailors of Llareggub, appearing in Captain Cat’s dreams, who open the dramatic action of Under Milk Wood. The First Drowned, Dancing Williams, tells how he died: ‘I lost my step in Nantucket’. The piece of that name is a Monk-flavoured trio piece, a 12-bar blues, with a heavily chromatic theme, in which the rhythm section get their chance to stretch out and travel down some twisting alleyways of sound, before fading gently after the final restatement of the theme.
As dawn is about to break, No Good Boyo is dreaming of nothing. We find him ‘up to no good in the wash-house’ before he goes out in his dinghy, lays back, looks up at the spring sky, and says, softly and lazily, ‘I don’t know who’s up there and I don’t care.’ The piano introduction to No Good Boyo sets up a rhythmically intricate theme with intriguingly placed accents and some strong, heavily syncopated motifs.
As the 2-beat feel of the theme kicks into the driving 4-in-a-bar bridge, the underlying harmony moves back and forth in semitones, inviting allusions to Thelonious Monk’s Well You Needn’t, and possibilities for some angular improvisations. That brings Side 1 of the LP to a close.
Penpals tells the story of the charming nightly letters of love and desire exchanged between Mr Mog Edwards and Miss Myfanwy Price, which are intercepted by Willy Nilly the Postman, and read aloud by his wife. It is a languid and thoughtful composition, full of quirky but gentle kicks and accents, that demand a feeling of maximal-drive-from-minimal-effort as the piece meanders through a series of not-so-obvious keys centres.
On the occasions when I played with Bobby Wellins I was always struck by the way he captured those qualities so adeptly, and with a beautiful tone and sensitive dynamics too – exactly as he does on Penpals.
Voice of a Guide-Book speaks of Llaregub’s curious customs and the conversation of its local ‘characters’. These are gloriously brought to life in Llaregub, with its melody that is spiky, yet strangely singable, even with its wide intervallic leaps and melodic accents.
Harmonically it is another slightly twisted take on I Got Rhythm, and getting a smooth flow through chord changes that, on paper, don’t look like they move very naturally, presents engaging opportunities for the improvisors to explore the insides and outsides of Stan’s music. Wellins’ elegant smoothness creates satisfying contrasts with Tracey’s assertive dissonance as they trade ideas across the choruses, supported by Jeff Clyne and Jackie Dougan’s powerful rhythmic drive.
The title track, Under Milk Wood, gives the band the opportunity to indulge their spirituality in a lusciousl gospel-flavoured ballad. Rev. Eli Jenkins knows Milk Wood is just a ‘tiny dingle, but it is his eternal wish
To stroll among our trees and stray
In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,
And hear the Dewi sing all day,
And never, never leave the town.
As the piano and sax share their melodic and improvised statements, the ballad modulates to quite a remote key in the bridge section that is not the most user friendly on the saxophone, although it doesn’t sound that way in the recordings – another aspect of the genius of Stan’s writing and Bobby’s playing. It’s all about the tone and the subtle dynamics, an invitation to tell the gospel truth in the laziest way imaginable.
In the radio play, a cock crows in the village, and the Reverend Eli Jenkins gropes out of bed, forgets to wash, opens then front door, and looks out at the bustling activity that gives its title to the closing track, A.M Mayhem.
The feel of the music is perfectly appropriate to the title: a composition that never does the obvious, starting from an angular solo sax chorus before making a final descent into the organised chaos of a triumphant, up-tempo 12-bar blues where the band can give full rein to its improvisational chops.
Stan Tracey’s Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” is a joy to listen to and a privilege to perform. To do so with Dylan Thomas’s text, which has a unique musicality of its own, makes for an especially rewarding experience – a unique combination of words and music that is an eloquent testimony to friendship, family, and community.
Steve Kershaw (double bass) will be performing Stan Tracey’s Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” with Ewen Baird (sax), Martin Pickett (piano), Mike Goff (drums), and voice artists Tom Neil, Verona Chard, and Andrew Fettes at The Oxford Festival of the Arts on Tuesday 11 July 2023, and at South Hill Part Arts Centre, Bracknell on Friday 4 August.
The Wellins Sound by Tori Freestone
I first heard Stan Tracey’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ very early on in my time at Leeds College of Music in a jazz history class with the drummer and arranger Tony Faulkner. He’d play an album as we entered the class and then we’d sit in silence and really focus and listen until he’d finally let us know who it was and share his gems of knowledge about the album.
I found the album intriguing as it was inspired by Dylan Thomas and the influence of words and literature on music has always interested me but on listening I loved the interaction between sax and piano and it was that sax sound that really hit me and the beautiful lines, informed with so much language but also such a unique voice.
It seems that album helped to raise awareness of British jazz and as a saxophonist I feel an awareness that Bobby Wellins had an approach steeped in tradition but with his own unique accent and that sort of approach has somehow informed the sound of so many British saxophonists whether directly or indirectly, so the re issue of this album feels very apt to pay homage to some of the musicians who have helped influence and carve an identity for future generations.
Tori Freestone is a saxophonist, flautist and violinist, and is actively involved in jazz education. A distinguished composer, she won the Ivor Novello Jazz Ensemble Composition Award 2022. With several acclaimed albums to her credit, she has formed a duo with pianist Alcyona Mick and their album is die out soon.
Impressions of ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Julian Nicholas
Made the year I was born, the personnel here were still all very much in their respective primes in 1980, when at 15, I became aware that jazz wasn’t entirely the domain of New Orleans.
These musicians not only represent a significant generation of UK jazz creatives, but they were accessible as people – supportive and caring of any youngster with the curiosity to pester them at gigs at The Seven Dials /606 (606, King’s Road) /Bass Clef /Ronnie’s (£2 on a Thursday) /Jazz Café (Newington Green) / Vortex (Stoke Newington) /Edge’s, and many venues now consigned to legendary /near-mythical status.
What surprises me about this recording is its lack of ‘side’. It’s not trying to push anything on to the listener. There is a refreshing ego-lessness about the unassuming but measured virtuosity typical of British jazz of these times. However, also on display is an independence of ‘voice’ in its four proponents.
Doffing a flamboyant and well-studied cap to Monk, Stan also developed his own uniquely playful and sometimes expansive compositional style, as well as an inspiring interactive comping approach that lit the fire underneath the svelte linear and rhythmic creativity of the ever fresh inventiveness of Bobby Wellins.
We’ve heard much of Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriot these last couple of years, but they, too, were only the tip of a richly-laden iceberg.
Jackie Dougan on drums had a beautifully balanced and responsive approach. He has the capacity to keep a graceful ride going, whilst interacting in a Roy McCurdy-ish way from the snare, underpinning melody across the kit.
His untimely demise at 43 must have been a big blow to Stan, who liked to have a deeper than professional relationship with his compadres on the stand. Jeff Clyne became an evergreen presence on the UK scene – his discography a story in itself – and he generously gave of his time on the jazz courses I attended and the gigs I was to latterly encounter him on.
Stan’s compositional adroitness not only frames the quartet’s creative capacities beautifully, but also embraces the dynamics of Dylan Thomas’s dramatic genius.
The Monk-ish angularity of the lines are more than a reference to subject characters, they evoke for me the intonations and poetical speech patterns of this seminal dramatic work. It is right and fitting that the most memorable musical reflection of one of the C20th’s A-list literary works is a jazz score, and from an iconoclast and subversive.
Now we come to the most talked about element of this record: Bobby’s statement of the melody ‘Starless & Bible Black’, and the ensuing solo. Bob himself was a dramatic soul. He envisioned theatrical exchanges in his anecdotes, brought speech to life in his uniquely articulate gift as raconteur, and played the saxophone from within the theatre of the heart. Bobby’s artistic partnership with Stan had taken hold in the previous year, sparked by their co-compositional work around Michael Horovitz’s ‘New Departures’ jazz and text project.
And very quickly they set about exploring their own compositions, as well as those of Monk and Ellington and the American Songbook. ‘Starless & Bible Black’ must have been such an exciting moment for this blossoming partnership.
Dubbed everything from ‘the British Kind Of Blue’ to ‘the best ever UK jazz recording’, John Fordham also estimated it as one of THE ‘50 Moments In Jazz’ [Guardian]. The focus that forms around this particular track is deservedly hyperbolic.
The engineer’s decision to open up the reverb around Bobby’s ghostly, effervescent tenor sound – floating above Stan’s funereal minor bass-end pulses – and dry it up to zero for the tenor solo, is nothing short of radical, and possibly an historical opening statement for how jazz in the UK was soon to embrace the wave of incoming technological advances and new musical fusions: again, to its own uniquely creative outlook, rather than in any way a reductive reflection of USA values.
Originally a Columbia release, Blue Note also re-issued it on CD, and latterly Stan’s own label, STEAM, printed two runs. Clarke Tracey has diligently set about affirming once again his father’s inestimable legacy in British jazz, accompanying as this release does, his own book ‘The Godfather Of British Jazz’ [Equinox 2017], somewhat under-marketed due to the pandemic.
A British jazz journalist held his head in his hands yesterday as he recounted to me how little awareness there is of Stan’s and Bob’s work among the ‘younger’ generation of players (and some not so young now). Sonny Rollins’ ‘do they know how good he is?’ in reference to Stan, the house pianist at Ronnie’s in the ‘60s, is a more pertinent question than he was perhaps aware! Let’s hope this RE-STEAMED re-issue re-ignites interest in these giants of the art, both in the UK and further-a-field, but more meaningfully, among a younger generation of players, too woefully unaware of the British jazz story.
Julian Nicholas is a saxophonist, composer and educator currently based in Brighton. He has toured and recorded with the seminal UK big band Loose Tubes, and is now working with The Cloggz, a big band based in the south east of England and are due to tour this June.
A fine composer for large and small ensembles, Nicholas is also notable presence on saxophone, prompting Bobby Wellins to remark that “His beautiful and creative playing makes Julian one of my favourite saxophonists.