Blue Notes by Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:24pm

July next year will see the centenary of the start of the first world war and in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has compared his government's £50 million (HK$618 million) commemoration plans to Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee celebrations.

These plans have provoked much adverse comment on the grounds that you do not celebrate a catastrophe, but the anniversary is clearly going to leave its mark on 2014.

Fortunately, there are some, more thoughtful, reflections on one of the most tragic conflicts of the 20th century.

The inspiration for two of them is The Wipers Times, a satirical magazine published during the war by British soldiers who had found an abandoned printing press. "Wipers" was a common mispronunciation of "Ypres".

A television drama telling the story of the publication was screened earlier this year, and now jazz pianist and composer Stan Tracey has released a new Quintet album, The Flying Pig, comprising six new compositions, five of which take their titles from the contents of a book compiled from back issues of the magazine.

Tracey, 86, is one of the most important figures in British jazz, both as a composer and as an instrumentalist.

Sonny Rollins, when Tracey was playing behind him as house pianist at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London, once famously asked: "Does anyone here know how good he is?"

Tracey is not one to rely on past glories, considerable though his achievements are, and over the past decade he has made a series of fine small-group and jazz orchestra albums. The Flying Pig is well up to his always exacting standards.

During the first world war, as recorded in The Wipers Times, The Flying Pig was the name of a British heavy mortar.

Of the other titles, Bouncing Bertha was a nickname for any German artillery; Silent Percy for artillery positioned so far behind the lines that its discharge was inaudible from the trenches; and Weary Willie, as Tracey puts it, was a "German shell passing safely, albeit rather slowly, overhead". Narpoo Rum derives from another corruption from the French: " Il n'y en a plus" means there is no more.

Tracey composed the music after a visit with his son, drummer and bandleader Clark, and his grandson Ben, to the battlefield of Loos in northern France, where his father, Stanley Clark Tracey, was wounded and captured at the age of 18.

The old soldier died in 1957 aged 60, and the album is dedicated to him. The track which does not take its title from The Wipers Times is Ballad for Loos, and that is, grimly, a pun. Loos is pronounced "loss".

Tracey said he read the old Wipers Times content to keep from being too sombre while writing on the war theme, and intended the pieces to be a tribute to the spirit that allowed the soldiers to find "humour in the midst of a terrifying war".

The music certainly is spirited and swinging, and uplifting rather than depressing to listen to.

Clark plays drums, Andy Cleyndert bass, Mark Armstrong trumpet and flugelhorn, and Simon Allen saxophone. The rhythm section is a well-established unit, and plays with easy swinging confidence, while Armstrong and Allen play freely and inventively as soloists, and tightly together as a horn section.

Take Three

Given his stature, Stan Tracey's discography on CD is a mess, which the Tracey family-owned ReSteamed label is gradually tidying up. The label is handling releases of new and previously unheard archive recordings, as well as re-releasing acknowledged classics. These three CD sets will enhance any jazz lover's collection.

  • Under Milk Wood Jazz Suite (1965, ReSteamed): a landmark album and a high point of British small-group jazz, inspired by the Dylan Thomas radio verse play. Thomas died 60 years ago yesterday. The music is performed by Tracey's quartet of the time, featuring Bobby Wellins on tenor saxophone, Jeff Clyne on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums.


  • Alice in Jazzland (1966, ReSteamed): Tracey sticks with a literary source, but this time turns to Lewis Carroll, and composes for a big band, once again featuring Wellins on tenor saxophone, and also Ronnie Scott. The composer wears his Duke Ellington influence on his sleeve for an album which is, nevertheless, distinctively British in its sound.


  • The Later Works (2010, ReSteamed): a two-CD set featuring The Amandla Suite, composed for a British trade union, and The Hong Kong Suite, commissioned by a former chairman of the British Conservative Party. Then-governor Chris Patten was taken to see Tracey at the old Jazz Club in Lan Kwai Fong, and at the end of the night asked him to come up with a piece to mark the 1997 handover.