Stan Tracey at the Bath Festival

Neil McKim enjoys an afternoon of performance and film

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Stan TraceyIt’s fitting that one of Bath’s former cinemas, now the Komedia Club, is a Bath Festival venue. I went along on Monday to see a performance by the legendary British jazz pianist Stan Tracey – which followed the screening of a film about his life. On this, the big-screen grainy black and white shots of London’s Soho underlife, blended atmospherically with Tracey’s best-known tune ‘Starless and Bible Black’.

The 2003 documentary, Stan Tracey, Godfather of Britsh Jazz, gave a perfect introduction to the highlights of Stacey’s life – from him starting on the accordian, his army years, and his years (in the 1960s) working as house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, accompanying the best international jazz names such as saxophonist Sonny Rollins or multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And there was even mention of the players who were more difficult to get on with: ‘Stan Getz. He’s the sort of guy who washes his hands before he goes for a piss,’ recalled Tracey. The documentary revealed how much of Tracey’s 1965 masterpiece album Under Milk Wood, was written on a night bus because he could never afford a taxi home from Ronnie Scott’s. The problems facing jazz musicians – the poverty and the drugs (Tracey had to give up playing at the club to allow his health to recover) were covered, as well as the challenges of changing tastes as ‘free music’ took over the jazz scene in the 1970s.

The Bath venue certainly carried it off as a jazz club. Given that it was a lunchtime, with Jubilee festivities going on outside, the former cinema’s lack of windows and subdued lighting, combined with its bar and tables, made this an ideal setting for the duration. Tracey (now 86), along with his son, drummer Clark Tracey, delivered a set of six improvised pieces. With each taking the lead from the other, Stacey revealed just how percussive his piano playing can be, as he created drum roll-effects or roaring interludes on the  Steinway (one of several brought down from London for the festival). As he traversed myriad jazz styles, sometimes haunting, and always creating a sense of tension, I just kept thinking about what a privilege it is to see a player who has accompanied so many of the jazz greats.

The Bath festival runs until Sunday 10 June. For more information click here.