It would make an absorbing blindfold test to present a panel of interested listeners with a track from this disc and one from the same pianist’s Little Klunk trio session for Decca, 40 years ago, and invite them to decide which one’s played by the 71 year-old. Not that the early record didn’t sound as fresh, witty and jostling with clamorous harmonies and sidelong melody as Tracey has done for most of his life, but that the later one is, miraculously, fresher still. If there’s an obvious difference it’s that Tracey, striking out for an identity in the crowded piano-jazz world of the late 1950s, performed originals on Little Klunk and delivers moving tributes to absent heroes and personal guiding spirits like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk here. But, as always, Stan Tracey is a restlessly exuberant embodiment of the axiom that his role as a jazz artist is to make a song sound, not like itself, but like himself. There’s enough evidence of that here to make confirmed Tracey fans stand up and cheer, and unconfirmed ones give the response some serious attention. His work has rarely sounded more positive, expansive, varied and open.
‘I could appreciate what was involved in all the rest of bebop piano playing’ Tracey said to this writer way back in 1973. ‘But it seemed so limited – once you’d got to the way of doing it, you knew what was coming. There was very little opportunity to bring into use the things that the piano can do better than anything else.’ If Stan Tracey has devoted his life to a single project in jazz, it’s the art of playing total piano – giving all the instrument’s inner voicings, percussive effects, orchestra-like shouts, quick horn-like runs and reverberant sliences humming with overtones, an equal place in the rich tapestry of his music.