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Bobby Wellins Obituary

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Bobby Wellins (c) Trio Records

Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite. 

 
His gorgeous and evocative solo on the track Starless and Bible Black has regularly been named as the single most memorable British jazz solo ever recorded – and his haunting, Celtic-tinged sound was undoubtedly a huge inspiration on generations of young musicians, among them fellow tenor saxophonist, composer and educator Tommy Smith who was responsible for bringing Wellins’s own Culloden Moor Suite, to life five years ago when the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Wellins recorded it and performed it to considerable acclaim. Its concert performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland exactly five years ago was electrifying and Wellins, and the band, gave a tour-de-force performance which brought the house down. 
 
Smith, who was just 13 years old when he first heard Wellins on record, says: “Bobby was a grandmaster of the saxophone, a composer of profound integrity and a beautiful guy who will be greatly missed.” Indeed, Wellins was one of the best-loved musicians on the scene; a huge talent who was extremely self-effacing and likable and still very much, as he put it, “a Glasgow boy” at heart.
 
Jill Rodger, the longstanding director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival which most recently booked Wellins in 2013, says: “Bobby was an absolute pleasure to work with and to know. He was a very humble person who made no demands – as some do – other than a packet of potato scones to take back to Bognor Regis after his Scottish gigs!”
 
Clark Tracey, the son of the late piano giant Stan, says:  “Bobby was legendary, influencing goodness knows how many saxophonists and inspiring so many young musicians over the years with his generous nature.  He had time for anyone.  His sound was unique – a commodity sought by many but achieved by a few.  His groove was innate and he had limitless invention.”
 
Robert Coull Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the Gorbals; he later lived in Carnwadric and attended Shawlands Academy. His singer mother and alto saxophonist father – the son of a Russian Jew who had emigrated from Minsch – worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.
 
In an interview with me in 2011, Wellins explained: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone.” 
 
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him to play alto sax. “My dad taught me and my sister to read music, we had to be what they called consummate musicians before they let us play for their showbiz friends at one of their Sunday get-togethers.”
 
Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.
 
That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music during his National Service – where Wellins switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. 
 
By the time he began gigging on the London jazz scene in his mid twenties, Wellins already had what Clark Tracey describes as “a highly personalised sound.” Wellins befriended saxophonist playing club owner Ronnie Scott and later credited him with helping to launch his career. 
 
Wellins said: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his club where a lot of heavy gambling went on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.
 
“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”
 
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that recording. Not only was it Tracey’s best-selling album, reissued five times after its initial release, but it put British jazz on the world map. It was, as Clark Tracey says, “something that stood up to an American release”. And that was significant during the period when British musicians were frustrated by the restrictions on them working in America and getting a chance to make their names there.
 
However, frustration and boredom for Wellins and Tracey partly led to drug habits which marred their lives for years. Clark Tracey says: “They were soon messed up pretty badly from the cheap, top quality, narcotics widely available in Soho.” Both eventually recovered, and Wellins, who moved to Bognor Regis with his family, worked with his own quartet of local musicians while recording a string of albums and writing prolifically during the 1980s and 1990s. He and Tracey always wanted to play together again, however, and they spent the last 15 years of Tracey’s life (he died in 2013) doing just that – on record and in concerts.
 
In 2011, Tommy Smith commissioned arranger Florian Ross to arrange Wellins’s Culloden Moor Suite, originally written back in 1964, for the SNJO. The resulting concerts and CD were a triumph and Wellins was thrilled with the whole experience. Smith says: “It meant a great deal to him – he couldn’t stop thanking me.”
 
Following a mild stroke a year ago, Wellins stopped playing to recoup. His death from leukaemia, however, was sudden and a shock to his family.  He passed away in hospital in Bognor and is survived by his wife Isobel and daughters Fiona and Elizabeth.
 
* Bobby Wellins, jazz saxophonist and composer, born January 24, 1936; died October 27, 2016
* An edited version of this obituary was published in The Herald on Tuesday, November 1, 2016
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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert

Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday July 24th *****
 The Queen’s Hall was a born-again church on Wednesday night as the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, conducted by Clark Tracey, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Choir staged an ambitious, 90-minute performance of Duke Ellington’s sacred music – music from three major concerts which took place in cathedrals (in San Francisco, New York and at Westminster) in the last decade of the great composer, bandleader and pianist’s life.
 
Rather than being a compilation of pieces of music from the three concerts; Wednesday’s Sacred Concert was very much an entity in its own right: this was Stan Tracey’s distillation of the sacred music (itself a blend of jazz, spirituals, classical music and blues) in to one, 90-minute performance which, inkeeping with the spirit of the original events, featured classical singers and a tap dancer.
 
It may have sounded like a strange mish-mish on paper, but it worked; in fact, it more than worked – it was a bit of a sensation, thoroughly engaging throughout and at various points utterly electrifying and extremely moving (though some of the lyrics spoken, Rex Harrison-style by the impressive baritone Jerome Knox sounded as if they had been penned by the Pythons for The Life of Brian).
 
Of course it’s always a thrill to hear the wondrous Ellington sound being channelled through a top-notch band (and that was certainly the case here), but experiencing those uniquely Ellingtonian harmonies being sung by a first-rate choir – a cappella on the exquisite Will You Be There? and Father Forgive – took it to a different level.
 
Only one aspect of the concert was weak: soprano Teuta Koko was mesmerising when in operatic mode but her voice lacked presence and depth for the swinging and/or spiritual songs.
 
*First published in The Herald, Friday July 26th

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The Good Duke & His Sacred Music

Even if this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme wasn’t lacklustre, one entry would stand out as more ambitious and impressive than the rest: the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts which are taking place in both the Queen’s Hall and in Dunfermline Abbey, and which feature this year’s incarnation of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, along with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, Stan Tracey on piano and Clark Tracey conducting.

Ellington’s Sacred Concerts were a trio of concerts spread over the last decade of the life of the legendary composer, bandleader and pianist, who died in 1974, just six months after the final concert. A unique blend of gospel music, classical music, jazz, choral music and the blues filtered through the distinctive Ellington sound prism and written for a band that included many of the great “Ellingtonians”, the Sacred Concerts were, for Duke, his “most important” work. When he was asked to present the first concert, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965, he said: “Now I can say openly what I have been saying to myself on my knees.”

For the last 20-odd years, the Sacred Concerts have also been an important part of the lives of both Stan Tracey, the great British pianist and lifelong Ellington devotee, and his drummer son, Clark. And both generations of Traceys play key roles in these first-ever performances of this music in Scotland.

Back in 1990, Stan Tracey was invited to play Ellington’s sacred music at a special concert to mark the 900th anniversary of Durham Cathedral. When he was given the music, he and Clark recognized the same arrangements he had played at an earlier Sacred Concert into which he’d been drafted at the last minute. What struck them was, says Clark, “that the transcriptions hadn’t been done right.”

Father and son spent several days figuring out “a much closer approximation of the music” by listening to records of the original Ellington concerts. Clark Tracey recalls: “It was an arduous task but it was really enjoyable too – once you get to that level; the Ellington level. A lot of it was accurate but there were a lot of really poignant, squelchy Ellington moments – those very personal voicings – and it took a while to put your finger on how he’d done them.”

Although the Tracey household had always been immersed in Ellington music, the Sacred Concert albums were less familiar than some of the other LPs. “You don’t just bung those records on, the way you could the others, so it’s always been a very special event,” says Tracey. “And to be able to perform that music is fantastic. I played on the first one Stan did, at Durham Cathedral, and we’ve since played it at all kinds of cathedrals. We did it at Yorkminster last year and that was immense, that one. We had a 250-piece choir accompanying us.”

This isn’t a concert that’s liable to get the spine tingling just once or twice: according to Tracey, it’s packed with electrifying moments. “The best bits are probably the fusion between the orchestra and the choir – when it’s done correctly, the voice is obviously one of the most moving things in any band, so to get Ellington’s voicings … Two of the pieces are a cappella, and they’re absolutely wondrous. I’ve seen grown man cry at them.”

As in Yorkminster, when the Traceys bring the Sacred Concerts to Scotland, Clark will be conducting. “That’s simply down to Stan wanting to put all his energy into just playing the piano and not having to concentrate on leaping up and conducting a band in at the right tempo.. Before Yorkminster my only conducting experience was with a string quartet and I wasn’t that amazing. It’s because I know this music inside-out, and I’m going to hit the tempos bang where they should be that he’s asked me. It’s just taken a huge weight off my dad’s mind, knowing that I’m going to be standing there instead of him.”

* First published in The Herald, Wednesday July 24 (but written for earlier publication)

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Review: Bobby Wellins Quartet

Bobby Wellins Quartet, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Sunday June 30th  ****

If the Glasgow Jazz Festival organisers thought that they were cruising on the home stretch by the last 24 hours of the event, they clearly had another thing coming when, on Sunday morning, word came through that British piano great Stan Tracey was cancelling his appearance at the closing Fruitmarket concert that night. Ill health forced the octogenarian to reluctantly pull out, but the rest of the band – bassist Andrew Cleyndert, drummer Clark Tracey and prodigal Glasgow son, tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins – came north.

What was clear from the outset was that these musicians have played together so long and know each other so well that they are completely tuned in to the workings of each others’ minds. On the stand-out number, a cheeky My Funny Valentine, the ever-inventive Cleyndert seemed to finish Wellins’s phrases – such is their rapport.

You might think that a replacement pianist would struggle to fit immediately in, but Glasgow-based Paul Harrison – said to have been personally selected by Tracey as his dep for the night – did just that. And with considerable style. His Funny Valentine solo turned into a elegant duet with Cleyndert: it was as if they were operating as a unit. On Lover Man, taken at a brisk tempo and imbued with a Latin feel, Harrison stole the show with a dynamic, colourful solo which was nothing short of dazzling.

Earlier, Paul Towndrow (soprano saxophone) and Steve Hamilton (piano) had revealed that theirs is another class double-act. Their short set featured a string of original numbers, though the undoubted highlight was a gorgeous interpretation of a classic ballad, The Very Thought of You.

First published in The Herald, Tuesday July 2

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Under Milk Wood – Again

Under_Milk_Wood

It’s 20 years since I covered my first jazz festival – the 1993 Glasgow Jazz Festival, and 20 years since the  Old Fruitmarket was opened as the main venue for that same festival. This year’s event opens and closes with musicians who played in the Fruitmarket in its first festival. Here’s the article I wrote in 1993 about a couple of them….

To begin at the beginning. In 1965 the English jazz pianist Stan Tracey wrote and recorded with his quartet his Jazz Suite: Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s eponymous radio play. Now, 28 years later, what various critics have described as the best British jazz record ever made has just been reissued on CD on the jazz label, Blue Note. [2013 note: it’s now available on the Trio label.]

According to the original sleeve notes, Tracey played over to himself the dramatised recording of Under Milk Wood before he began to compose his themes. So how much of a resemblance does the Jazz Suite bear to the Thomas play, and does it really matter?

Being completely unfamiliar with both the Under Milk Wood works seemed to make me uniquely qualified to listen to it for its own merits before trying to make sense of its connection with the play.

As performed by Stan Tracey (piano), Glasgow’s own Bobby Wellins (tenor saxophone), Jeff Clyne (bass) and Jack Dougan (drums), the suite is a collection of eight tracks – each distinctive in character but linked by a bluesy feel and some of the best playing I’ve ever heard.

The opening two tracks are wonderful: the first is the instantly hummable Cockle Row, a groovy number that introduces the splendid Tracey/Wellins partnership. Starless and Bible Black is a complete contrast, laidback and beautiful.Wellins’s breathy sax breezes over a repeated series of haunting minor chords on the piano, bearing echoes of Eric Satie.

Another personal favourite is Penpals, with its catchy theme, funky beat, and changing moods – happy to sad, then back again, like an exchange of letters. But for me the loveliest example of this ensemble’s work is the track based on the play’s title, Under Milk Wood.

The melody – far more optimistic this time, but tinged with yearning – is carried by Wellins, clearly under the influence of that other great Stan, the late Mr Getz. Tracey’s piano is flawless, a perfect complement to the evocative lyricism of his sax man.

The play itself was a revelation. Having absorbed the Tracey suite, I was all set for a sad romantic melodrama. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood covers a day in the life of a lively Welsh village peopled by characters with such inspired names as Organ Morgan (the organist), Willy Nilly (the postman), and the fisherman, No Good Boyo. Despite the apparently everyday nature of the town in question, all – including its name, Llareggub – is not what it seems.

We know this because we are privy to the thoughts  and fantasies of the superficially normal villagers – like Mrs Ogden-Pritchard, who sleeps between the ghosts of her two nagged-to-death husbands and makes them chant in unison household rules such as “I must blow my nose in tissue and burn it after.”

I listened to the 1963 BBC radio dramatisation of Under Milk Wood, narrated by Richard Burton – probably the same version that inspired Stan Tracey, and it would be easy to see why. With its oddball characters and rich range of voices, its vivid tableaux of village life and poignant black humour, there is enough in this superb play to inspire a few more recordings.

And so to the connection between the Dylan Thomas and Stan Tracey masterpieces. No doubt Tracey was moved by the play to write some music for a jazz quartet, but there was little in the dramatisation that reminded me of the music. The only specific evidence of the link is the titles of the individual compositions: Tracey’s LP is really a collection of highly personal impressions of phrases (“starless and bible black”), characters (No Good Boyo) and places (Llareggub).

It could equally have been called Eight Eccentric Aunties from Edinburgh. But who cares, when the results are so outstanding?

(First published in The Herald, Friday July 2 1993)

* Under Milk Wood is the subject of a Classic Album Sundays listening session at the City Halls Club Room on Sunday June 30 at 6pm, and the Stan Tracey Quartet, featuring Bobby Wellins, plays the Old Fruitmarket at 8pm that same night. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk for full details.

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Bobby Wellins: The Scottish President

He may be well into his seventies now, but the British tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins shows no sign of slowing down. At least not if his latest CD – Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is anything to go by.

Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the once- infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow. His mother, a singer whose stage name was Sally Lee, and alto saxophonist father worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.

Wellins recalls: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone. My sister and I always went with them when they were working. As a matter of fact, they forgot about us one night – we were locked in the Argyle Cinema. When they got home they realised they’d left us there and they had to rush back in. The two of us were fast asleep in the front row seats.”

It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him the alto sax. Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.

That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music – where he switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. “All the guys from the various bands who were married and wanted to have holidays would ask me to dep for them. It was a fantastic three years – the best foundation you could ever have.”

One highlight of Wellins’s own big band era was a trip to New York with Vic Lewis’s band and, in particular, a chance encounter with one of his heroes. Wellins recalls: “I ate just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish which I loved – it was a bit like mince and totties – for $2. I suddenly saw this tall figure in a dirty raincoat and a pork-pie hat, standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young’. I couldn’t help myself, I just shot out across the road and shouted ‘Lester!’  I said I was with a British band and asked if I could buy him a drink.

“So we went in and sat down and of course as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me and I’d see this look on their face of disbelief and they’d come over and I’d introduce them. ‘Oh nice to meet you man’  [Wellins goes into female impersonator mode as he imitates Young’s squeaky voice]. We sat there for ages. We talked about everything, current affairs, New York – I told him I was too excited to take it all in . ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’  he said. He invited me along to a recording he was doing the following week, but we were flying back home so I couldn’t go.”

There’s something of Lester Young’s melancholy sound in Wellins’s own playing, as well as a yearning which critics often describe as a Scottish quality. Does he detect something quintessentially Scottish in his music? “Well, I do sometimes think to myself: ‘This is terribly Scottish-sounding.’ I once played a 6/8 or 12/8 piece entitled Dreams Are Free at Ronnie Scott’s when Dizzy Gillespie was there. When I came offstage, he said: ‘That piece you wrote, it was very African.’ I said: ‘No, it’s Scottish.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘sounds African to me.’ Dizzy was very mischievous, mind. I said: ‘No, it’s definitely Scottish.’ ‘Ah, okay then.’

“So about six months later, there was a phone call at about three in the morning. The voice said: ‘It’s John Birks Gillespie here.’ Of course, I thought: ‘who the hell is John Birks Gillespie?’. Then I realised it was Dizzy. He said: ‘I’ve just been to a Scottish pipe band parade on 42nd Street. You’re right. That composition of yours is Scottish.’ And that was it. He hung up!”

Ironically, the composition with which Wellins is most strongly associated is not one of his own. Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite, which was recorded in 1965 and is widely regarded as the best British jazz album of all time, was effectively the product of a musical partnership which began within the Tony Crombie band and blossomed at Ronnie Scott’s club.

Wellins says: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his first club where a lot of heavy gambling used to go on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.

“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”

In characteristically self-effacing style and with typical Glaswegian frankness, Wellins concludes: “Let’s face it, most people wouldnae know who I was if it hadn’t been for Under Milk Wood.”

* Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is out today.

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