Clark Tracey Quintet at Chichester Jazz Club

The mainstream and bebop champion played two strong sets with Art Themen, Simon Allen, Dave Newton and Andy Cleyndert

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Clark Tracey at Chichester Jazz Club, 24 May 2024. Photo by Robin Hollister

In March this year I reviewed a particularly fine CJC concert, as soulful as it was swinging and steaming, by the Jo Harrop Quintet. Another singer-led quintet date was scheduled for late May, with the young but highly rated vocalist Emily Masser accompanied by Alex Clarke (as, ts, f), Graham Harvey (p, elp), James Ouston (b) and Clark Tracey (d). But for reasons unknown to me, the personnel and hence the nature of the scheduled concert were changed. Instead of Masser and her colleagues featuring music from her recent debut album Introducing Emily Masser the music on offer was provided by master drummer Tracey and his quintet cohorts Art Themen (ts, ss), Simon Allen (as, ss), Dave Newton (p) and Andy Cleyndert (b). [Masser did appear 26 May, two days after the present gig, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House (23:25) with special election lyrics – “It won’t mean a thing if you don’t get a 10-point swing” – which might have required some preparation. – Ed]

Much as I would like to have heard the delightful music (e.g., A Sleepin’ Bee, The Man I Love and Suddenly Last Tuesday) of Introducing Emily Masser, I was knocked out by the prospect of hearing such a terrific ensemble of seasoned exponents of post-bop music. For me Tracey is a world-class musician whose mature and distinctive artistry – his own “ snap-crackle” – is right up there with the likes of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes.

Clark Tracey is also a great bandleader, able to engage both easily and warmly with audiences while offering them the most intelligently programmed music, selected from many a realm of jazz. For evidence of such catholicity, hear Tracey’s superb, diversely cast yet poetically integrated Stability from 2000: featuring pieces like Gone, Ugly Beauty and The Peacocks, the album concludes with Tracey’s lovely solo piano take on Ellington’s Melancholia, followed by a trio reading of the laid-back and moody funkiness of Tracey’s Boaz (with the composer on keyboards and vocals, Nigel Hitchcock on alto sax and Laurence Cottle on electric bass.)

The CJC concert was delivered in two cracking sets, each greeted with whoops-and-whistles enthusiasm from the packed house. Initially, we were treated to two diversely characterful pieces from Clark’s father Stan: the late 1960s Rainbow At The Five Mile Road (you can hear a great version of this on the 2022 The Legacy co-led by Clark and Maltese pianist Dominic Galea) and Euphony, from Stan Tracey’s time with trumpeter Kenny Baker back in the early 1950s. Both items revealed the combined authority and relaxation of top-quality musicians whose time spent playing together stretches back through the decades. And there was nothing dully revivalist about the music: quite the contrary.

The warm, rich-toned and rhythmically quirky Art Themen (an astonishing 84 years young!) and the now lyrical, now cooking Simon Allen made an excellent pairing, gelling creatively and clearly enjoying each other’s playing and company. Moving through a variety of gears, the first set came to feature a compelling version of Michel Legrand’s You Must Believe In Spring and ended with Bobby Watson’s bubbling and driving A Bitta Bittadose (which you can hear, as the opening track, on Emily Masser’s aforementioned debut disc). Cleyndert was superb here, his tasty range of ostinato grooves rocking the floor.

After an interval in which members of the audience flocked to speak to the musicians and Tracey happily managed to shift what looked like half a small suitcase of very reasonably priced CDs, the intelligence and soulfulness of the music continued. There were interpretations of further pieces by Stan Tracey, including the mellow and irresistible A Funky Day In Tiger Bay. “Simon’s feeling romantic tonight, so we’re going to play My Funny Valentine” volunteered the wry-humoured leader. What followed was one of the finest saxophone readings of this enduring classic that I’ve heard, with the melodic potency and overall subtlety of Allen’s soprano lines on a par with Bobby Wellins’ legendary tenor takes on the piece. Themen went to sit among the audience, the better to enjoy a performance of the rarest beauty.

“We need a blues,” said Tracey. And what did we get? A fabulous reading of Blue Monk, where the spacious interaction of Newton and Cleyndert shone as the remarkable Newton explored melody and dynamics, tonal finesse and teasing groove to delicious effect. What a player!

Finally, there were freshly cast tributes to two of the greatest (and most distinctive) post-boppers, in joyous takes on Hank Mobley’s This I Dig Of You (from Soul Station) and Sonny Rollins’ St Thomas (from Saxophone Colossus). Themen and Allen shone as always, while on St Thomas Tracey built a concluding solo of quite extraordinary rhythmic and sonic quality.

“I’ve heard a rumour that jazz is coming back” mused Tracey, with half a smile on his lips. “It never went away!” exclaimed exultant voices in the audience. Certainly, not on this glorious, life-affirming and unforgettable evening.

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Clark Tracey Quintet at Chichester Jazz Club, 24 May 2024. Art Themen (ts, ss); Simon Allen (as, ss); Dave Newton (p); Andy Cleyndert (b); Tracey (d).