Kurt Elling & SNJO. February 2014.

I have an admission: I don’t really like jazz singers. There are exceptions – some, like Billie Holliday, are so emotional, so raw, that I find it hard to listen to them – but others – most, I reckon – are so anodyne that they reduce songs to a syrupy lowest common denominator. For me jazz is about improvisation, and for most singers, improvisation is out – because a song is all the words.

But I saw video of Kurt Elling singing with the SNJO, tackling Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme, and sounding brilliant, so thought I’d give them a chance when they played in Edinburgh a few weeks ago.

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SNJO have been playing a lot recently – and I think they always sound brilliant: lively, forceful, full of great musicians and always apparently up for something special. They are busy right now. They did a few nights with Branford Marsalis at the end of last year, a tour with Jacqui Dankworth (which I didn’t catch), then this tour with Elling, and the end this month they back with Courtney Pine, paying homage to Coltrane. I reckon that’ll be special, too.

When the SNJO started out, they were very much a respiratory* repertory orchestra: they performed orchestral jazz classics, providing a hugely welcome opportunity to hear well-loved music live: they played full concert versions of the Miles Davis / Gil Evans collaborations Miles Ahead, Sketches Spain and Porgy & Bess; Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and Far East suite; Basie’s The Atomic Mr Basie; and an orchestration of Mingus’s Ah Um. There was something truly magical about hearing these great works brought to life.

But more recently, they have changed they way they work, focusing as much on the guests as the repertory – and commissioning new arrangements to match the guests. As well as Branford playing the music of Wayne Shorter, they’ve worked with Arild Andersen (playing arrangements from the ECM catalogue), Dave Liebman, and John Scofield. (The concert I saw with Sco was one of the very few – perhaps the only – time I was disappointed by an SNJO gig; but then loving Sco, and loving SNJO, I had high expectations!)

They seem to commission the same arrangers for each off their projects – composers of the calibre of Geoff Keezer, Florian Ross, and Bob Mintzer. Each arranger sounds different, but they all sound just like the SNJO, and they capture the voice.

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And this gig with Elling didn’t disappoint. Opening up with a fast scat, the band set a rollicking pace, driven by Alyn Cosker’s drums. Elling bought energy and verve to the interesting selection of tunes. Tommy Smith’s arrangement of Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, a tune Smith has worked with before, stood out, as did Geoff Keezer’s version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere”. (I think Keezer had become my favourite arranger from SNJO’s stable – lush arrangements that have a real feel of Gil Evans.)

It was a fascinating mixture of tunes – a couple from Wayne Shorter (with lyrics added by Elling), traditional Scottish (a gorgeous rendition of the Loch Tay Boat Song, arranged by Florian Ross) and so on.

The orchestra sounded superb, and Elling appeared to enjoy listening to them much he enjoyed singing. The only problem with the band seemed to be the wealth of talent: I wanted to hear more solos, from everyone. Tommy Smith seems to get better and better, which is saying something, and there were also great sax solos from Konrad Wiszniewski and Martin Kershaw. The trumpets blew fast and high, the trombones moody and low.

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Behind it all was the solid, swinging rhythm section. For a couple of numbers the band dropped out, leaving pianist Steve Hamilton, bassist Calum Gourlay and Cosker as a trio backing Elling, and they were very good.

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This gig showed SNJO to be consistently good – and proved that sometimes I do actually like singers!

*Unfortunately instead of writing “repertory”, my computer thought I meant “respiratory”; when it was pointed out, I reckoned respiratory might be an apt description of the brass section…”

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