In the years following his departure from Ronnie Scott's in 1968, Stan Tracey was often heard in free music circles. His association with younger players was a natural extension of his life long interest in new approaches. At the same time he hoped to increase the expressive range of free music by combining it with the values of classic jazz but he found it hard going.
STAN : I started playing with Mike Osborne and y'know the free players who were around at that time because I wanted to bring into the free music the experience I've had with the straight ahead music, I thought I could make a marriage of the two in some way but I never succeeded so eventually I returned to my first love which was structured.
Time and changes?
Yeah, time and changes.
How had you responded to the changes in jazz?.. you know Coltrame and Ornette and the completely free things. There must have been a fare amount of that around here.
Mmm.. well I have to really say I didn't enjoy Coltrane's free period and Ornette Colman I never enjoyed. Y'can't like everybody I guess... but as I said I wanted to bring into free music a sort of a... oh I don't know. I hate to say but like a floating structure but not a structure.. I couldn't even work out what it was I wanted to do.
It's a tough one.
Yeah... but I had it in my mind it could be done so it wasn't totally mayhem because a lot of free music at that time was mayhem. I thought I could do that... and with Mike I managed to do that particularly on the album which we did from Bracknell. Got close to it then but there after it didn't really happen the way I wanted it to.
Stan tried to introduce structure in his work not only with duo's but combo's and even a big band.
I had that big band called Tentacles which I hoped I could do it with that.. but that never happened. I knew it was time to quit when I did a gig in Ealing with dear old John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Harry Miller on bass and like the whole night was double faulting mayhem musically.. and I had this crap upright piano and there was a point when all hell was breaking loose. John was really giving it one, Trevor was somewhere else, Harry was away and I'm on this totally useless instrument, and I remember during this piece I played in a very straight way, as it should be played...'God Save The Queen' and nobody ever knew I'd played it. They never knew. Finished the number.. "yeah great". I played God Save The Queen and they didn't know. I thought "wait! time to walk away from this". That end of it I didn't really enjoy.
It's funny because in the midst of this you did that album for Ben Webster
(Ben Webster's 'Dictionary').
Yes I guess I was darting about in between styles a bit there. Yeah I enjoyed making that one with Ben. People complain to me as if it's my fault that it's all ballads but the tunes were Ben's choice obviously. He wanted to play all ballads so that's what we did... but it was fun to do.
It must have made you feel like you were getting in touch with a much older more mature tradition.
Yeah back to the old values.umm.. I went over board with the harmonies on that album.
Must have been a relief being able to have harmonies.
Yeah well I never deserted time and changes. I sort of worked between the two. Ever hopeful that I could bring something into the free music that I'd acquired in time and changes but it didn't really happen.
How did it affect what you were doing in terms of your own approach. Because you made that Alone at the Wigmore which is as straight an improvisation as any of those guys. You say in the liner notes what come out comes out.
Stan's Liner Note "The Music is entirely improvised, without preparation or musical points of reference. The piece develops from the first musical thought until I feel the shape it is taking. I develop it from there to its logical conclusion. There are as many interpretations of the music as there are listeners".
Yeah that was during that period I guess. I remember I took a watch on to the stand because I knew I was going to be playing for an hour non stop and I had the watch on the piano and I kept my eye on it because it was an L.P. at half an hour a side and I knew I didn't want the music to continue y'know like a fade and pick up on the other side. So I kept my eye on the watch and after 30 minutes made that break in the music without it being a break to the audience because I knew at that point they could turn the music over. I just finished a musical sentence gave it a couple of seconds and continued. Yeah I use to do a lot of work like that y'know go on play for ever. Well that's what it sounded like. Had to do it to find out.
Was it satisfying? Did you get the same sort of buzz out of that as other stuff?
Er.. I guess at the time I did yeah. I wouldn't now. The only time I play free music now is with Evan Parker and that's once a year up in Appleby for the festival. I enjoy doing that with Evan. I do the occasional piano duo with Keith Tippett which I enjoy very much. We never rehearse, we just go on and do it. I find that the adrenalin that's created under those circumstances makes it happen for us. That's about the only two involvements I have.
What was it like playing with John Surman or was that different.
It was sort of different. We'd occasionally do the structured thing. It would be mixture of the two. Yes I enjoyed working with John. We did that album 'Sonitinas'.
Why was it called Sonitinas.
Well I think sonitinas means little pieces.
Yes, what interested me was John Surman's a very kind of organised player and Sonitinas made it seem like a classical reference the two of you were sort of building. You don't get that double forte blow your brains out. They are very carefully made pieces even if they are improvised. You do have a couple of pieces where stuff was added later. You said there were a couple ones that you knew you were going to do in the studio.
Yeah John took care of that department since he had the instruments and he knew how to work the things. It was John's idea to do it and that was fine by me. I have complete faith in his musicality.
By 1978 Stan had virtually abandoned free jazz and formed a Quartet with Art Themen and he and his wife Jackie had formed their own record label 'Steam' initially to make available an old Tracey hit.
We formed the company in order to reissue 'Milk Wood' and the next one was 'Captain Adventure'. Did the reissue of Milk Wood create a little buzz. Yeah it sold. Not a vast amount but it created a little buzz in Steams bank account but not too much outside.
So Captain Adventure was the first original that Steam did. It was also Art Themen's debut.
(Art Themen - tenor/soprano Stan Tracey - piano Dave Green - double bass Bryan Spring - drums)
Don't ask me where I met Art.. (laughs) we worked together for about 20 odd years. I remember working with him in some pub.. he just sort of drifted into the quartet, that's how it usually happens. I don't sit down and say right here's my master plan for a quartet. I like the sound of someone when they come in and they stay. But that Captain Adventure that's another funny period where I'd just come from free music and the hangover I had from that was to play time and changes but no melody. The idea was to create an instant melody which is difficult, I mean you can improvise but to try and improvise a melody over a set of chords first time is difficult.
You mean this wasn't just blowing the idea was to create just a melody on the spot.
Yeah.. the impossible dream.
Because Captain Adventure is rhythm changes.
You see I didn't care if it was a riff or what it was. I didn't want to have a first 8 and a second 8 melody with a bridge and a melody. I wanted it to be like a fresh melody and it only existed for that one time it was played. I mean that wasn't the aim but that's the way it would have been and like the out chorus presented with another melody but er... that didn't work out either (laughs) so...
Well it's very demanding.
And presumably if you'd created this instant thing if you played it again it would be completely different.
Oh yeah. That's really pure. That's what appealed to me.. like pulling it off. Actually achieving that, it gets the adrenalin going. It disturbs the grey cells and I really aimed for that at that time.
Captain Adventure has been reissued on CD by ReSteamed Records