Never before had there been an album so completely original by a British jazz group and gave licence to others to believe that jazz could be created in the UK…

Resteamed Records RSJLP001

Stan Tracey (piano); Bobby Wellins (tenor saxophone); Jeff Clyne (bass); Jackie Dougan (piano)

Recorded March 1965

Is this one of the UKs greatest jazz recordings, or simply just a great jazz record? Listening to this album again and having the pleasure of hearing it on vinyl for the first time too, I’m plumping for the latter.

This recording has been listened to and loved by just about every jazz fan of a certain age, as pointed out by Clarke Tracey in his sleeve notes, and yet was wilfully neglected almost from the time of its release on Columbia Records in 1966. Despite the critical acclaim it received at the time, the label deleted it from their catalogued within a relatively short period of time.

It was up to the pianist to bring the music back into circulation when he formed his own record label, Steam Records in 1976 and immediately reissued Under Milk Wood, the last time that the music would be available on LP.

With the demise of the Steam imprint in 1989 the album has been reissued on various labels on CD including on Resteamed Records set up by Clark Tracey to release Stan’s recordings, and now more nearly forty years later with the resurgence of interest in vinyl this excellent album is once again available in its original format.

The music remains as exquisite and timeless as ever. If Tracey’s compositions over the years have remained current and durable, then this has never been more keenly felt than here. The release of Under Milk Wood in 1965 can perhaps be seen as a coming of age for British jazz.

Never before had there been an album so completely original by a British jazz group and gave licence to others to believe that jazz could be created in the UK that while taking the great American art form as its basis, could also be detached from the source and moulded in such a unique manner.

As with all great jazz the success of the music transcended all the individual parts of compositions, personnel and time and place and only when all came together did the was the total greater than the sum of its parts.

The relationship between pianist and saxophonist that had begun a year so earlier was now reaching its first maturity, and attained a dizzying height on Under Milk Wood that has rarely been surpassed.

Tracey’s idiosyncratic style at the piano was closely attuned to Thelonious Monk, but the influence of and love for Duke Ellington was even more pronounced, and it is not fanciful to think that Tracey’s writing for the quartet has the same grandeur of Ellington’s compositions.

Coupled with the wonderful writing is the playing of the quartet as a whole, and the way in which the bass and drums of Jeff Clyne and Jackie Dougan offer sympathetic support for the solos of Tracey and Wellins. Just listen to the steady and propulsive swing on ‘Llareggub’ where both the pianist and saxophonist take their most belligerent solos.

The opening ‘Cockle Row’ positively crackles with energy, and the snap and drive of the closing ‘A.M. Mayhem’ generates some real excitement.  But it is possible that the greatest performances of the suite are reserved for the ballads. Tracey’s playing on ‘Under Milk Wood’ is faultless whether in his solo or in the way he accompanies Bobby Wellins’ thoughtful tenor solo with that inimitable sound that he coaxed from his saxophone.

Even more remarkable is Bobby Wellins’ performance on ‘Starless And Bible Black’. This is saxophone playing that is nothing short of astonishing. Barely more than a whisper, Wellins blows into the saxophone and the resulting music is totally captivating.

Very few notes but played with such a beauty and clarity that conveys much, and one of those rare moments when everything else seems to stop or be suspended.

If great music is often brought to fruition in the most unlikely of circumstances this can be said of Under Milk Wood. Stan Tracey was modest to the point of almost being dismissive of his own achievements while Bobby Wellins’ was consumed with self-doubt about his abilities that they almost destroyed his career.

In such circumstances the music triumphed over adversity producing one of the very greatest of jazz albums of all time.