“Spirit of Light”: Tommy Smith & the SNJO. Edinburgh, December 2017.

It is now several weeks since the SNJO premiered Tommy Smith’s new piece at three concerts across Scotland over the weekend before Christmas, each in a large cathedral. But I’m still trying to work out what I thought of it; it certainly made me think, and keeps returning to my thoughts. At this distance, and on only one hearing, the specifics may be lost but the impression remains.

At over two hours, Spirit of Light is a major undertaking for jazz orchestra – augmented by several guests – and choir. As guest vocalist Kurt Elling said as he introduced the piece, it is a challenging work. Smith’s accomplishment must be applauded: his ambition and vision to create the piece are remarkable.

The music fell somewhere between jazz and classical: the choir – Capella Nova – and Elling were singing fixed words, their vocal lines written; but elsewhere there was ample space for improvisation. Smith’s own playing was superb (he seems to get better and better – and he started off pretty good). The trumpets and trombones were also given their chance to shine.

But the writing also seemed to constrain the jazz side of the project: they were rarely let off the leash. On the few occasions they were able to let rip and swing – and with the rhythm section of Calum Gourlay and Alyn Cosker setting the pace, they certainly know how to swing – but then they were quickly brought to heel. Knowing what the SNJO can do, they seemed underutilised.

Elling explained that the pieces were being played slowly so that we could hear the words. For me, the words took presence over the music: it was almost too wordy. The music felt like it was written to fit the words, rather than the words being cut to flow together with the music. It meant the pieces didn’t feel like songs, but poems accompanied by music – which is what they were. But those poems which had a more song-like structure, such as Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, worked much better for me. There were several poems by Rainer Maria Rilke which didn’t necessarily scan well: it seemed like musical lines were extended to fit Rilke’s text, which must have made them hard for Elling to sing.

I’ve been impressed by Smith’s writing for classical orchestra in the past – I really liked Modern Jacobite which he composed for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – and it was interesting to hear him incorporating classical instrumentation into Spirit of Light. The inclusion of harp and his writing for percussion both worked well.

There was a certain theatricality to the show. Smith entered St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral slowly processing down the nave, blowing a heartfelt, Coltranesque solo whilst the choir entered with him through the aisles. The cathedral was dramatically lit (Smith thanked the lighting designers from Black Light), making much of the space, and the sound took advantage of the space too.

But it was also fiercely cold. A cathedral in Scotland, in winter? Who’d have guessed? Well me, frankly, glad that I had worn an extra fleece layer. Still, after over two hours I was still feeling the chill. I had expected the new piece might fill the first half, giving the second over to more typical Christmas jazz fare – the SNJO have played several Christmas concerts in the past.

Filing the whole concert with new music may have reduced its appreciation, and taking it slowly – giving priority to the words rather than the music – made it at times ponderous and heavy: it felt neither bright or light to me.

For some in the audience, it was too much: several people left in the interval. Of those that stayed, a very many of them loved it: they gave Smith and the orchestra a standing ovation. A friend who was at the same show as me described how she felt immersed in the sound.

I felt more ambivalent: whilst there were several sections I thought were great and there was much to admire, I didn’t think it worked as a whole. But it has clearly stayed with me, demanding further consideration.


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