under milkThe suite Under Milk Wood is often cited as evidence that not all British Jazz in the 1950s and 1960s was just a pale imitation of its US counterpart. In fact Stan Tracey – who sadly died, aged 86, on December 6th – cited Duke Ellington as his biggest influence, and while house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s from 1959 until the late 1960s provided backing for some of the biggest US front men, including Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster. (Getz was unappreciative, prompting on stage bickering, but Rollins was the opposite, commenting to the audience: “Doesn’t anyone here know how good he is?”). Despite that, in the 1960s Tracey began forging a very un-American sounding jazz, first with the New Departures Quartet LP (particularly the evocative “Culloden Moor”), and then with Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas.

It’s perhaps dangerous to make too much of the poetry-jazz connection. Certainly some joint gigs with poet Michael Horowitz encouraged the kind of improvisation-based mood pieces found on both LPs. And the prose that inspired the best known track of the suite, “Starless and Black Bible”, is every bit as musical in its effect as Thomas’s poetry:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping

But Tracey – famously a man of very few words – was dismissive of any kind of close link between the music and the literature. He first heard the audio recording made by the author himself. “I was very taken with it and thought it would be a good idea to base a suite on the characters or places”, he told Alyn Shipton. But, he went on, “you end up with the music….and you make your own pictures”. And it’s hard to hear any specific influence on the music from the rhythm of the words, as some commentators have suggested. The importance, though, is that the starting point results in a very different perspective from any US models.

Essentially an improvisation with close interplay between Tracey’s distinctive and slightly menacing piano and the lyrical playing of tenor sax player Bobby Wellins, “Starless and Black Bible” establishes an appropriately melancholy mood using the slightest of means – an initial theme and short chord sequence, followed by a series of downward scales from Wellins that soon leads to a harmonic resting point on what sounds something like the dominant harmony. Then there’s a return to the opening theme and sequence. The music has survived to this day, despite patchy availability, with Tracey in the end having to issue the piece on his own record label.