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The English Monk: the Stan Tracey Trio with Ron Holloway at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, June 13

June 14, 2010
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Stan Tracey (by William Ellis)

English pianist Stan Tracey is a giant in European jazz circles, but if he’s known at all to most American listeners, it’s because of his collaboration with Sonny Rollins in 1965-’66, two live albums and the Alfie soundtrack. So it makes sense that the last time Tracey played in the mid-Atlantic area, at the British Embassy in 1998, it was with Maryland tenor saxophonist Ron Holloway, a Rollins protégé.

“We’re going to pick up where we left off,” Tracey told the crowd at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church Sunday, as he brought Holloway onstage after three tunes with his British trio. A dozen years had gone by since they’d seen each other and at age 83 Tracey had even less of the speed and power he enjoyed in the ’60s and ’70s. What he had instead is an unerring ear for short melodic inventions that he phrased with lean elegance and framed with careful pauses.

A short man with combed-back salt-and-pepper hair and a pink shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Tracey hunched over the Yamaha grand piano and stabbed at the keys with surgical precision. Sometimes his left hand crossed over his right to help with a tricky variation; sometimes the two hands splayed across the keyboard to construct knotty seven-note chords.

In the early tunes, such as Duke Ellington’s “Great Times” with the trio or Freddie Hubbard’s “Byrdlike” with the quartet, Tracey played with the spare classicism of the late-period Hank Jones, always swinging but never fussy. Tracey’s rhythm section—his son Clark Tracey on drums and the even younger Andrew Cleyndert on upright bass—supported him with the same surefooted minimalism.

Holloway, though, pushed the band out of its comfort zone by unleashing one robust tenor solo after another. He was the saxophonist in Dizzy Gillespie’s last quintet, but he has also toured with Gil Scott-Heron and Susan Tedeschi. As a result he can negotiate bebop changes at ferocious tempos but can also sustain the buttery, vocal-like tone that pop music demands. With moon-round face surrounded by a dark afro and graying sideburns, Holloway played a gorgeous version of “Body and Soul,” seeming to croon on the chorus and then stretching the theme like taffy. He then counted off “How High the Moon” at a brisk pace and lifted the familiar tune into a higher octave with a burst of perfectly pitched, perfectly timed, piercing squeals.

That inspired the pianist to grow ever more adventurous in the voicing and phrasing of his concise statements. Suddenly one could hear why he was considered the Thelonious Monk of England. Tracey heard the same thing and called for “Bolivar Blues,” which Monk had written for and recorded with Rollins. This caught the band off-guard and there was an early stumble, but soon they righted themselves with a muscular attack on the infectious theme and its possibilities, with Holloway growing more abstract expressionist in his solos and Tracey more cubist. That led to the exhilarating set-closer, Monk’s “I Mean You.”

It wasn’t a perfect show. Because the band was obviously under-rehearsed, Tracey did not get a chance to showcase his remarkable compositions. And the Mount Vernon Church, while a handsome setting with its golden organ pipes and its carved stone balcony behind the band, is not a comfortable place on a steamy June afternoon. Halfway through the set, Holloway’s purple-striped shirt was soaked with perspiration, front and back, from his shoulders to his waist.

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