JJ 07/69: Stan Tracey’s Under Milkwood at Camden Jazz Festival

First published in Jazz Journal, July 1969

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Stan Tracey’s suite ‘Under Milkwood’ interleaved passages from Dylan Thomas’s brilliant prose fantasy with explicit musical readings of the poet’s moods.

Tracey has bitten off quite a chunk here, and it proves indigestible. Programme music presented in conjunction with its inspiring matter must take the measure of poetry’s aura on the spot, a near impossible task. And here we find Tracey gallumphing in his clog boots after Thomas’s bright but elusive naeads of the mind. Strangely enough, he damn near catches a few.

The format and solos quickly palled: eight minutes of a simple head with all solos in perfect order cannot capture the rich colours and implied music of a dozen lines of Thomas. It needs more controlled writing, careful ensemble colours, constant tension and release, occasional joke, explosion, tears or pratfall.

And Tracey was not on his toes all the time either: the last two scenes called for a bar-room brawl and a lazy afternoon in the sun fading into a placid little prayer by the local vicar. Both were taken at a complacent, flapping medium trot. That’s blind. If you’re putting Thomas to music, rich shading and delicate nuance is a must.

Maybe Thomas created his own music immutable. Tracey at least deserves credit for a noble failure: ‘We are not wholly bad nor good/who live our lives under Milkwood.’
Fred Bouchard