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EASY Band at Scarborough Spa; image by Adrian Riley

Adrian Riley reviews the Clark Tracey Quartet and the E.A.S.Y Band at Scarborough Jazz Festival

'Generations' is a regular theme in the jazz world. Jazz history is generally grouped around generations who pioneered new styles - swing, be-bop, hard-bop, fusion... And whilst many jazz musicians stick with the style with which they made their name while the music continues to evolve, jazz also has a tradition of mentoring new talent which then goes on to take things to the next level. Although the pace of innovation has slowed somewhat since the breakneck evolution of the 50 & 60s, there is still often an anticipation of 'a new generation' who will take the baton and push improvised music on fresh journeys of discovery.

The first time I saw Clark Tracey play he was the drummer in a group led by his father, the British jazz piano legend Stan Tracey, which answers the question of whether it's a good idea to take your offspring to jazz gigs. Clark was somewhat older than my 10 year old son, Dylan, who I've brought along today but as a fellow drummer I thought he might enjoy seeing one of country's finest at work.

The Spa Grand Hall is by far the busiest it has been so far in the festival, possibly because this is the first half of the Saturday evening session which will be headlined by violinist Nigel Kennedy. If booking Kennedy is an attempt to give the festival some crossover appeal then there's a suspicion that Tracey has been programmed as the first half to add some solid no-messing jazz credentials. And this is certainly what the quartet delivers.

Clark's current group is dedicated to playing what he calls 'British Standards' - these musicians having already recorded two albums of material by British composers that span seven decades. That said they cheat slightly on the first number, a recent composition by pianist Gareth Williams titled 'Not Quite A Blues'. It's a curious choice to start with, blues often being saved for later on in a set once a band have loosened up and want to have some fun, but as the evening's performance gets more fiery this opener beings to make more sense with Clark providing an almost lazy slow swing, as if gradually easing into playing. The rest of the quartet hit the ground running with inventive, committed solos that hint at what is to come.

The quartet are great to watch, not least for the clear enjoyment in what each other is playing - everything is performed with relish as if they don't get chance to play together often enough and are determined to make the most of this opportunity. When Tracey stands up after each number to announce the next he regularly throws a broad smirk at the rest of the band, often beginning his announcement with a slight shake of the head and a chuckle as if utterly bemused at what they just created.

Tunes by Tubby Hayes, Victor Feldman and Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile' (no, I didn't realise he wrote that either) follow the opener but the real showstopper is Ray Noble's 'Cherokee'. Tracey admits they pretty much stole the arrangement from Wynton Marsalis, but instead of trumpet it is a torrent of sax from Brandon Allen that starts an improvisation that for the majority of the tune is just a duet with Tracey until Williams finally steps in to play a skewed version of the familiar melody and round it off.

If you were to cast a jazz musician in a late 50's period movie Allen would surely be your first choice, and for all the right reasons. For one he looks the part in dark suit and jet black forelock falling in front of his forehead as he screws his eyes shut mid solo. He is full of intensity, storming away from the microphone after each solo as if consumed with equal parts satisfaction and utter frustration. He regularly disappears offstage, probably just to adjust a reed but one imagines he's in the wings sneaking a cigarette muttering to himself, his head whirring with ideas before dashing back on stage to blow them out of his horn just to see what they sound like. When he trades solos with Tracey he whirls round to face him as if challenging him to match his own urgency. Tracey catches his gaze with another of his smirks that might possibly be peppered with a hint of panic before concentration blanks his features and his hand movements become a blur.

"Too much sax! It's like there's no tune!" is Dylan's verdict before flopping down into his chair with his hoodie over his face like a balm for treating over-exposure to bop. The impeccably-behaved audience meanwhile are prompted to shouts and whistles albeit slightly cautious ones as if not wanting to risk making eye contact with the sax player just in case. The last tune finishes with Allen still playing a long note as he crouch-walks across the stage bent double, his bandmates already stood up taking a bow. If I hadn't seen him relaxed and smiling outside the Spa a few minutes later I'd swear he just carried on playing in the dressing room, the toilets, out back, anywhere just so he could try and resolve the passionate conversation started on stage.

We're no strangers to performances by the E.A.S.Y Band, Dylan playing in one of the younger ensembles at Scarborough Area Music Centre where this youth jazz ensemble are based. There are two opportunities to hear them today, both are in the Spa Sun Court (completely living up to its billing in the glorious September sun), the first being a masterclass with Robert Fowler & Steve Brown - saxophonist and drummer respectively who are performing at the festival. The E.A.S.Y Jazz Orchestra are festival regulars but as far as I know this is the first time the masterclass has taken place in public as the two experienced musicians take the band through their paces.

A swinging 'Family Guy' is the first tune they try out, surprisingly sprightly for this early on a Saturday morning. They repeat some of the sections to tighten up particular passages under Robert Fowler's guidance whilst an appreciative audience drink coffees in the sun, often applauding at the end of numbers. Next a wash of Kenton-esque saxes and cymbal announce a big band arrangement of a Pat Metheny ballad featuring a very accomplished guitar solo. Pharrell Williams' 'Happy' sees solos being coaxed out of initially reluctant young saxophonists.

By the early evening performance there isn't a hint of reservation. Soloists are confidently stepping up to the mic, the brass section are hitting punchy accents without worry and Dylan is jigging along in his seat as are many in the audience, this free gig having drawn a noticeably more varied crowd than has been seen at the rest of the festival.

When not conducting, Fowler takes solos alongside the other saxes while Steve Brown sits in on congas as part of a solidly grooving rhythm section. The potentially ponderous Charles Mingus composition 'Fables of Faubus' causes no problems and swings along beautifully with some playfully exuberant baritone sax and tuba solos bringing smiles to other members of the band. The concert finishes with a rollicking rendition of the big band classic 'Jumpstart' with a particularly joyous trombone solo. Dylan later rates the gig as the most all-out enjoyable performance of the day, no doubt thinking that at some point in the future he might be up there himself - Scarborough's vibrant music scene is richly populated by former E.A.S.Y band members.

The variety of rhythms are impressively handled - from pop to funk to swing, even a New Orleans second line groove that dances along delightfully, and the audience lap them all up. Band leader Ralph Alder points out the age of the band members (all at school or sixth form with a couple of teachers and university-age alumni helping out) and says that this is where professional musicians start out. But judging by the audience response, a good number of whom are passers-by who wandered in out of curiosity and stayed to listen, this is possibly where future jazz fans start out too. 

 

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