Comparisons can be frivolous as well as odious. To charge Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite, his homage to Dylan Thomas, with being less about Thomas and his play for voices than about jazz and Stan’s musical persona is a bit like expecting a painting inspired by a piece of music to be accompanied by a hidden but audible soundtrack.
Tributes are paid in one’s own medium and Tracey’s was jazz of quirky freshness, an imaginatively British take on Americana, albeit with Stateside influence. The eight movements of the Under Milk Wood suite, whether the listener gets it or not, is Stan the jazzman’s response to what Thomas wrote. This would not have been lost on the quartet his son Clark brought to Abergavenny to perform the suite almost 70 years on from the day the play was first broadcast on 24 January 1954 (its première, on stage, was in New York in May 1953, the year of Thomas’s death).
The event at Black Mountain Jazz was extra-special in that Clark (drums) and Simon Allen (alto and tenor sax) were members of Stan’s last quartet before he died in 2013. It would have been three, but bassist Andy Cleyndert couldn’t make it and Bristolian Al Swainger deputised. Bruce Boardman took Stan’s hallowed place at the piano and Stan’s grandson, Ben (Clark’s son), read extracts from the play – and some.
Jazz’s provenance being co-existent with the invention and development of recording, the release by Columbia in 1965 of the album titled Jazz Suite Inspired By Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was de facto the work’s unveiling. The quartet then was Stan, Bobby Wellins (tenor sax), Jeff Clyne (bass), and Jackie Dougan (drums). BBC Music Magazine consistently gives the album a five-star rating and an official poll included it in the 100 most influential albums in jazz. If the time of its appearance was not the UK’s golden age of jazz, it glistered brightly.
The instrumental-only album of 1965 acted as a template for subsequent live performances of the work by Stan, with tunes following the narrative. The Abergavenny version was the one Stan always favoured.
So, the Clark quartet’s performance was thus the first- and second-generation filial homage to a homage. Comparison with the original would be pointless if it were not essential to reproduce the quality of Thomas’s conception that Stan revealed – in his own way, of course. The quartet at this gig twice brought that connection closer: by devoting the first half to a performance of Stan’s second Dylan Thomas project, A Child’s Christmas suite, based on Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales. It was even more a family affair when the album was recorded in 2011, as the Tracey, Allen, Cleyndert and Tracey Jr band added Ben as narrator of Thomas’s text.
Maybe there should have been a narration to the Under Milk Wood suite in 1965. What was striking about A Child’s Christmas at this gig was how Ben’s expressive way with Thomas’s wit and nostalgia segued into music that revealed Stan’s love of the story and how it registered with him musically. In other words, the music was an extended flowering. The live version of the suite, with Ben bringing Captain Cat, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, The Reverend Eli Jenkins, Polly Garter et al., to life, therefore worked in the same manner. The instrumental conclusion underlined Thomas’s fantastical and moving take on humanity’s myth and memory, not the shake-up provided by the rollicking A.M. Mayhem of the 1965 original.
Allen was at his most brimmingly inventive, Boardman evoked Stan’s eccentricities in a spirit of quiet reverence, Clark gave another master-class in how jazz drumming is at bottom part of its melodic structure, Swainger showed how depping can in the circumstances be seamless – and, thanks to Ben, Stan Tracey and Dylan Thomas were ever yoked together in the room and in Wales.
Clark Tracey Quartet with Ben Tracey at Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Theatre, Abergavenny, 28 January 2024