44. One night at the 100 Club

Doin’ it for Art. From Stan Tracey Quartet, The Return of Captain Adventure, 1975.

I heard Art Themen, recently turned 80, play live last week and he was on good form. But perhaps not quite as good as on this night at the 100 club forty-something years ago. No criticism there, because the recording preserves a pretty spectacular night’s playing by all concerned.

I’ve always had a particular affection for this line-up – the best of Stan Tracey’s many quartets I think – Art on tenor and soprano, the redoubtable Dave Green on bass, and Bryan Spring, one of the finest drummers the country has ever seen. And I especially love this live set. I was there on the night, as it happens, and the band generated the kind of musical excitement 20 year-old Jon hadn’t encountered that many times: the kind that stays with you, and keeps you going out for more live music. And 1975, living in a student hall at one end of Oxford Street, meant I could – The 100 Club, Seven Dials, The Phoenix were all a walk away. Good times.

So naturally I acquired the LP when it came out on Stan’s own label. I played it to death: still know every note I think. Each time, some part of me would think: “yes, that’s how it was – I remember”. Fast forward 30 years, and Clark Tracey’s Resteamed label put out a double CD, now on youtube although no-one seems to have found it, with another hour of music that I had no recollection of at all. Memory is an interesting construct in the age of mechanical reproduction.

It’s all glorious, anyway. The piano style was distinctive, and still is. As Stan once related to John Fordham (a couple of years before), he got most from Monk “I could appreciate what was involved in all the rest of bebop piano playing but it seemed so limited – once you’d got that way of doing it you knew what was coming… [and] there was very little opportunity to bring into use the things the piano can do better than anything else.”

I didn’t know that back then though it seems true to me now, and I have always loved Stan’s percussive, rhythmic but also – people sometimes don’t mention – brilliantly melodic playing. And he’s a freer improviser than Monk, I think (if not an actual stone cold genius like Thelonious, I just about concede). And there’s a great deal of piano on this session – the solo from 4 minutes in on See Meenah is maybe the choicest example.

Then there’s Doin’ it for Art, which begins with some Tracey balladry (more chords, fewer percussive trills), leading in to a sumptuous tenor solo. Simon Spillett’s sleeve notes for the reissue suggest it is “arguably Themen’s finest recorded moment”. No argument from me there. For me the whole thing is the equal of the Bobby Wellins and Tracey track that everyone knows, Starless and Bible Black. That’s a composition that pairing were able to revisit after Wellins’ come back, but this one as far as anyone knows appeared just the once. Spillett quotes Art to the effect that this was the first time they had played the tune, and he’s not sure they ever played it again. You wonder why. Still, lucky to have been there in that case. And, memory being what it is, even luckier that the crew were there to record it.

Why the No 44? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (with a different track from Stan).

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