Two gigs on successive nights at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell firmly into the category of “orchestral jazz”.
The first featured the Martin Kershaw Octet. Well, they started as a quartet in the first half, Kershaw on saxes joined by Paul Harrison on piano, Doug Hough on drums and Calum Gourlay on bass; for the octet they added Graeme Stephen on guitar, Chris Greive on trombone, Sean Gibbs on trumpet and Adam Jackson on alto. All the music was inspired by the writer David Foster Wallace (about whom I know nothing!): the first half was older material, tunes prompted by passages and characters from Foster Wallace’s works; the second a large scale orchestrated suite, Dreaming Of Ourselves.
The suite was very impressive in its conception, scope and execution: ambitious and challenging, it demanded attention from both musicians and listeners. The arrangements brought to mind Charles Mingus’ larger scale works. At times the musicians seemed a little stiff, as if they were still settling into the piece. I came out wanting to hear it again, maybe when the musicians were slightly more familiar with the music.
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The next night was even more ambitious: two original suites orchestrated for twenty three musicians, written by bassist Mark Hendry, still a student at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, as were apparently many of the musicians in his Large Ensemble. This gig was one of my wild cards: I’d not seen Hendry before, but a friend suggested it sounded like my kind of thing. Had I known the scale of the works being premiered I might have dismissed it as hubris. But Hendry pulled off his vision superbly.
The orchestra comprised classical strings – violins, cellos and double bass – with jazz brass – trumpets, trombones and saxophones – and a rhythm section of Hendry’s bass, Fergus McCreadie on piano and Stephen Henderson on drums. (The orchestra weren’t introduced, so apart from Harry Weir on tenor, I’ve no idea who they were!) The arrangements brought to mind Gil Evans – curiously, since I can’t recall Evans using strings. There is always a danger that strings add syrup to an arrangement, making it sickly and sticky. Hendry’s use of strings avoided this completely, instead using therm to add texture and depth.
I thought the first piece, inspired by endangered species (with a section named after each of five animals) worked a bit better than the second, based around the novel 1984. But that’s quibbling: it was a highly successful evening: Hendry has accomplished something remarkable, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the young musicians coming out of the RCS and Scotland’s thriving, youthful jazz scene.
(I picked up a copy of Hendry’s recent CD Esperance. It too is excellent!)