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The Stan Tracey Quintet

Haunting echoes of the war to end all wars

The Stan Tracey Quintet

The Flying Pig

(Resteamed RSJ 113)

There seems to be a carefully wrought meaning to the first track of Stan Tracey's album The Flying Pig, dedicated to the octogenarian pianist's father Stanley Clark Tracey (1897-1957), who was wounded and captured on the slaughterfields of Loos at the age of 18 in 1915.

Its mood is ironically self-assured, almost cocky, a portrait of a million betrayed young men with an undertow of deep pathos created by the Tracey Quintet.

Simon Allen's alto saxophone and Mark Allen's brass convey what Rosenberg called the "wild honey" of a whole generation's youth, their apparent innocent energy and jauntiness betrayed by those who ruled and commanded them no matter where they were from - Britain, France, Germany, the far reaches of the empire.

This amalgam of sonic sensibilities I have only heard the like of once before, and that was at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, London E15 at the second night of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War in 1962, the most moving night that I have ever spent at the theatre.

The songs and grim jokes of ordinary soldiers in their stygian trenches hearing the bells of hell ceaselessly tolling find their centenary echoes in Tracey's tunes, named after the nicknames of enemy artillery, together with the very personal and affecting Ballad for Loos.

Stan writes in his sleeve notes that he "was not wishing to be too sombre about his tunes, and the sounds of conscripts' humour, courage and humanity burnt into the blood of all his father's erstwhile comrades, burst through this haunting unity of notes.

Stan visited the Loos battlefields with his drummer son Clark and Clark's on Ben so The Flying Pig is definitely a family event as well as a powerfully convincing work of art.

Stan's long-time bass player Andy Cleyndert completes the quintet and his deep strings ring out the beats of hosts of plundered hearts.

Bouncing Bertha the opening track's called, the name the British soldiers coined for the German 42cm Morser gun which killed so many of them.

Yet there's nothing remotely doom-filled about this tune and its performance. The two horns enjoy a jovial colloquy and Stan's solo is cheerfully poignant above Clark's clipping drums, the opposite of militaristic volleys.

A Weary Willie was how the tommies described a safely passing German shell. Slower and more ponderous as if provoking homeward thoughts, Allen's alto sounds like a truly lonesome voice, picking up snatches of loved songs and leaving the trench to a watchful Stan who delves into the French earth with his patterns of Monkish sound, while Clark's relentless spadework burrows continuously until Cleyndert's solo thudding seems to expose the vulnerability of this trench ensemble forged a long century later.

When Armstrong's awaited trumpet finally enters, you hear it with a similar wonder to the soldiers hearing the precious larks that sang from no-man's land - read Rosenberg's Returning, We Hear The Larks.

The French trench phrase of the "poilus," "il n'y a plus" - there is no more - was corrupted by British soldiers to Narpoo Rum, and Stan's solo is a riposte to stillness, throbbing with life and movement while Armstrong's horn seeks the stars like many a soldier's upward glance.

Allen's solo is pure song-making, each note a word of hope so that when the next tune, the title tune, begins - named after a British mortar - the sense of human optimism in its notes is ripe, defying its subject as the two horns tell their stories of spirits kept vital and full of hope with the power of improvised music, of soldiers whistling or humming, or creating a song forged from the midst of an all-encompassing destruction and chaos.

And on to Ballad for Loos, never before a part of the soundscape of jazz. Slow, but not a blues, more like a threnody for all those thousands who fell or whose lives were changed forever, introduced by Stan's almost hushed piano, Clark's quite rhythm and Cleyndert's downward twangs.

When Armstrong begins his solo and Allen joins him, it is as if these two trench poets are testing their metaphors in the morning air before the mortars crush their images.

Finally it is Silent Percy, named after distant, almost out-of-earshot artillery. A fast bass accompaniment, briskly blown horns, Stan comping furiously, Clark drumming melodies and a summative Stan volley makes an ensemble where a son and a grandson remember a father and grandfather's struggle, along with all those with whom he marched away.

Never again.


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