Given this direct and practical drummer’s roots in the bop and swing traditions of Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, it isn’t surprising that this ambitious disc doesn’t represent any tearing up of the jazz past. But if it’s a celebration of the most widely recognized virtues of orthodox jazz, it’s a heartfelt and a remarkably independent one. For a recording about two thirds devoted to swinging jazz, Tracey could hardly have done better than to sign up the repertory company of sidemen he did the saxophonists are Andy Sheppard, Tim Garland, Tommy Smith, Iain Ballamy and Nigel Hitchcock, with Guy Barker on trumpet, Christine Tobin on vocals, plus a sophisticated rhythm section and periodic visits from a string quartet.
The project could still have been an uneasy supergroup posing party in which the participants’ big shadows just obscured each other. But though you might raise an eyebrow here and there at the dangers of delivering Gone, the Miles Davis Porgy and Bess tour de force, in an arrangement so close to the definitive one, or at the faintly clunky lyrics of the title song, for instance the variety and quality of soloing all through this set is a tribute both to Tracey’s vision and to the resourcefulness of the contemporary UK jazz scene.
As an overture for the soloists, the opening Porgy and Bess track Gone is a procession of powerful improvisations after the theme’s exclamatory horn riffs and answering clamour from the drums. The fluidity and fresh phrasing of Andy Sheppard on tenor, Guy Barker’s firecraker trumpet lines, Tommy Smith in his Coltranesque manner of early years, a deviously inventive Iain Ballamy and a soulful Nigel Hitchcock all impart a distinctive stamp to a classic. Tracey’s enthusiasms for Duke Ellington are audible in the arrangement for the smoky Black Coffee, with its deliciously lazy Tim Garland tenor solo. Iain Ballamy and the pianist Gareth Williams are riveting on the insistently tickling Lounge Blues, and the poignant melody line of Jimmy Rowles’s The Peacocks gets a Tommy Smith tenor interpretation of whispering delicacy appropriate to the Locrian String Quartet’s first statement of the theme.
Though the lyrics of Stability, the only vocal, are hardly a threat to Sondheim ("Carousels and clowns taught me how to dance across your ups and downs"), Christine Tobin, sounding like a straighter Annette Peacock, does wonders with it, and there’s even an unprecedented Clark Tracey piano solo on Ellington’s Melancholia.
An unexpected class act, and for all its idiomatic and instrumental border-hopping utterly without affectation.
John Fordham - The Guardian (London)