The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played a concert dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie the other week. It was fiery stuff – hearing the big band run through the bebop charts was impressive.
It was familiar music: these were tunes I grew up listening to (even if I didn’t enjoy them at the time!). I saw Gillespie play several times in the seventies – small group settings at the Nice jazz festival (mmm… nice) – his trademark upturned trumpet horn to the fore. I have more versions of A Night In Tunisia than any other tune, I think – three by Gillespie in various combinations, a couple by Bird, a couple by Art Blakey, another by Tommy Chase, one by Sonny Rollins, and I must have missed some too; so this is familiar fare.
The SNJO make a habit of this kind of thing: pulling an artist’s music out of the archives, bringing the familiar repertory back to life. In the past few years, they have toured the music of Ellington, Mingus, a good few Miles Davis/Gil Evans sets, and many more – they were down in London recently playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They do one or two tours a year; they are well rehearsed, the different sections melding well – and the rhythm section pushing them forward. Lead and conducted by Tommy Smith, he lets the band shine – he plays relatively few solos given his stature in the music and in particular in the Scottish jazz scene: instead, it is the orchestra that he frees up to excel.
The first set seemed quite brash – even without amplification, they were loud. They got the crowd-pleaser A Night In Tunisia out of the way early on – it was the second number, after the opener of Shaw Nuff, with Ryan Quigley taking the trumpet honours to Martin Kershaw’s take on Bird – though Kershaw and Paul Towndrow vied on alto. It was very much the trumpets’ night, though: Quigley and Tom McNiven sharing out the solos, both excelling at hitting the high notes and performing pyrotechnics with their horns. The orchestra seemed to be taking the numbers quite slowly, maybe a little hesitantly.
After A Night In Tunisia, Smith compared Gillespie’s tune to Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. Many years ago, I remember someone pointing out that Norman’s tune was really a bebop solo slowed right down, and Smith illustrated this – the tune of A Night In Tunisia fitted James Bond exactly.
The second set seemed much better; I don’t know if this was me relaxing into the sound, or the band losing their nerves. Either way, it just seemed to flow better – it seemed like the band were enjoying it more. The set opened with a blistering Manteca, Quigley and McNiven joined by the third trumpet of Paul Newton down at the front, the three of them exchanging lines as the excitement built; and the orchestra blew their hearts out in the riffing of the theme. This was brilliant, exciting music, powering to a crescendo of trumpets. Wonderful.
They closed the evening with the onomatopoeic Salt Peanuts, starting as a drum feature – usually I find drum solos inordinately dull, but Alyn Cosker – who had been a little subdued earlier in the evening – shone here. The band played this a lot faster than some of the other numbers – I had wondered if the music was just too complicated for a big band to take at the speed it had been written for (the trumpeter and critic Benny Green once wrote of how he got the sheet music for Gillespie’s tune Bebop to find out what all the fuss was about; he didn’t get it – there was nothing hard to play in the dots; and then he heard the original recording, taken at about four times the speed Green had been practicing it). Quigley and Kershaw, and then McNiven and Towndrow, bounced phrases off each other, having an old fashioned duel, each pair upping the stakes. And then, with the orchestra shouting an ecstatic Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts! and a final bomb from the bass drum, they were done.