Tag Archives: SNJO

SNJO & Arild Andersen Play Mingus. Edinburgh, September 2016.

Arild Andersen joined the SNJO a bassist for the night, playing Mingus. The band have played Mingus before – back in 2003, Tommy Smith said – and I loved it then, and I loved it now. And it seemed like they loved it, too. Andersen has played with the orchestra several times, but this time he was (more or less) just the bassist – the music was the star. A special guest bassist, true, and he played some great solos – but then they were celebrating a special bassist.

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The first half was brilliant. They warmed up with Song With Orange, not a tune I’m familiar with. An extended solo from Andersen lead into the bass riff to Haitian Fight Song and then it all kicked off. The synchronised riffing from the saxes, trombones and trumpets, band members hollering in between riffs, and some fast and furious solos. Fables Of Faubus followed, more riffs backing the soloists.

Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen played Goodbye Pork Pie Hat largely as a duet. Smith’s solo was remarkably powerful. I’ve been seeing him play regularly since (I think) 1984 (a fund raising gig for his studies at Berklee and a small residency in a bar in Bruntsfield, if you’re interested), and somehow he gets better and better. It’s too easy to take musicians for granted, but once again I was reminded what world class musicians we have in Scotland.

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Not just Smith, mind. Soloist after soloist made their mark: Tom McNiven and Tom Walsh in the trumpets, Chris Grieve and Phil O’Malley in the trumpets and a whole slew of saxophonists – Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow on altos, with Kershaw also on soprano, and Konrad Wiszniewski belting out bluesy chorus after chorus.

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The first set was remarkable: exciting, high energy music. The second set felt a little more sedate, though only in comparison. It opened with Moanin’, a feature for Allon Beauvoisin on baritone. Apart from the ballad Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, the other pieces were less well known. For the encore, though, the band were back to full on hollering form for Ecclusiastics. The high point was Wiszniewski and Smith trading choruses, each excited by the other’s performance (Smith a bit cooler, perhaps), until they joined together in a real tenor battle.

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A great evening, full of exciting music and solos. And a reminder if one were needed of the compositional skill of Charles Mingus: one reason his tunes work so well in a big band context is that he wrote for a large ensemble, but could only afford small groups. So he just made them sound big, instead.

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Mingus, in 1976.

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Mike Stern and SNJO. Edinburgh, February 2016.

I didn’t have high expectations of this gig. I saw Mike Stern with Bill Evans a couple of years ago, a very enjoyable gig, but I couldn’t imagine how his electric-jazz would translate to a big band. I mean, I thought it’d be fun, but nothing special.

So much for my lack of imagination. Because this gig was very special indeed – just amazing. If I see a better show this year, I will feel myself very lucky indeed.

The band sounded just brilliant. No surprise there. But they worked perfectly with Stern’s electric guitar. Drummer Alyn Cosker was given free rein – I think he’s better jazz-rock than swing drummer (though he didn’t have as much freedom as during the SNJO’s outing of Coltrane material). Bassist Calum Gourlay played electric bass as fluently as he does his acoustic.

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The soloists stretched out, but it was the band as a whole that sounded so good. I think a lot of that must be down to the arrangers, too – Geoff Keezer and Florian Ross are regular contributors, but I think there were some new names among the arrangers, as well. Either way, they turned Stern’s tunes into highly crafted big band pieces, showing off the SNJO at its best.

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And Stern sounded brilliant, too. He appeared to have a deep respect for the band, a huge understanding, never overshadowing them. He spent most of the evening with a joyous smile on his face.

But perhaps the best moments were the three or four duets he played – short pieces, just Stern and another soloist. They were just magical.

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Aside from Marcus Miller’s Splatch, which features Stern on the SNJO album “American Adventure”, I have no idea what tracks were played. I mean, I could copy the list from the programme, but not knowing the music I couldn’t say which is which. Neither Stern nor Tommy Smith said anything between the tunes, as if they didn’t want to waste time talking when they could be playing. One tune flowed into another, Stern playing throughout, as happy accompanying as soloing.

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As he left the stage at the end of the second set, Stern exclaimed “well, that was fun!” Yes, Mike, it was. It was very fun indeed!

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SNJO & Eddi Reader: “Alba: Songs of Scotland”. Ullapool, June 2015.

The first time I went to Ullapool, sometime around midsummer in 1988, I was fortunate enough to catch a concert by Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Ullapool village hall (though I’d say it is more of a town than a village, even thirty years ago). I wasn’t very well informed about classical music back then, but it was a remarkable concert. I have no recollection what was played, but the way the audience reacted the music, and the way the musicians reacted to the audience, was memorable. The hall was packed, the audience and the orchestra pushed close together. I was in the front row, and I was close enough to turn one violinist’s music. The atmosphere was amazing, the locals excited that one of Scotland’s major ensembles was playing for them, the orchestra excited to be playing for such a grateful audience in the long summer evening amongst the tall mountains (though less pleased by the midges). The partying went on long into the night.

So when I saw that SNJO were going to be playing one of their gigs on their tour of the Highlands and Islands, performing with Eddi Reader singing “Alba: Songs of Scotland” when I was (relatively) nearby, it seemed obvious to extend my stay by a day to catch the gig. If those sings work anywhere, it would be here.

Things have changed a bit. Instead of the village hall (which itself seems to have undergone at least one modernisation in the interim), SNJO were performing in a well equipped theatre, part of a school complex.

Like my previous musical experience in Ullapool (though I have visited the town many times since, just not for any concerts!), it was full, people grateful of the opportunity to hear a big band on their doorstep. The guy behind me hadn’t been to a jazz gig before; others clearly knew their stuff. (I think SNJO regularly play in Inverness, a ninety minute drive away.)

Whilst not as intimate as the SCO decades before, and a bit more formal, this was a very enjoyable gig. Reader released an album of Robert Burns’ songs several years ago, and the repertoire in this gig was heavy on the Burns – but they’re good songs, and deeply engrained in Scottish culture. If you’d asked me if we really needed another arrangement of Auld Lang Syne, I’d probably have said “of course not!” Hearing Pino Jodice’s arrangement, it would be a resounding “YES!”

Good songs coupled with SNJO’s knack for working with great arrangers continues to pay off. Florian Ross contributed several of the tunes – Ye Jacobites was particularly moving, and Charlie Is My Darling was rousing. Martin Kershaw’s fun adaptation of Brose and Butter, sung lasciviously by Reader, had the as ever excellent Alyn Cosker stomping away on drums.

Amongst the non-Burns titles were two arranged by Paul Harrison, the gentle opening number of Tommy Smiths’ setting of Edwin Morgan’s poem “Glen of Tranquility”, and a traditional piece that Reader remembered from childhood, which she called Glasgow Barrowlands. As well as a great singer – she has a powerful voice, a fair match for the thirteen piece band – she is a good storyteller, and her introduction to this number aptly described Glasgow’s (in)famous dancehall. Her description of growing up in Ayrshire – “there was sectarianism, some people had a picture of the pope on the wall, some people a picture of the queen. My parents had a picture of the king: we were Presleyarians!” – explained where she was coming from.

Burns was from Ayrshire, too, and Reader’s empathy with the material was evident. Her pleasure at singing with the orchestra was also clear, as she high-fived band members and danced behind soloists. It all worked really well, the musicians seeming to have as good a time as the audience. Which was very good indeed.

And then it was out into the bright evening light of the longest day in the far, far north. I’m sure they were partying long into the deepening twilight, late into the night.

SNJO Play “The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn”. Edinburgh, February 2015.

I have seen the SNJO play many times since they started twenty years ago. I like what they do. And I love the music of Billy Strayhorn. So they would have tried very, very hard for me not to enjoy this gig.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Though they did work hard, it was a joy. Working from Strayhorn’s original charts – and including many recently found tunes and scraps of tunes – and covering the whole of Strayhorn’s career to celebrate the centenary of his birth, this was the SNJO in repertory mode.

They started with “Take the A Train”, the first of Strayhorn’s charts for Duke Ellington, a more restrained performance than their concert of Ellington numbers a while ago, and over the course of two long (but two short!) sets took us through to Strayhorn’s last composition, “Blood Count”, written when he was having treatment for leukaemia (and recorded after his death on Ellington’s memorial to Strayhorn, “…And His Mother Called Him Bill”). “Blood Count” was beautifully elegaic.

The playing was subtle and refined, the charts leaving little space for extravagant histrionic solos. At times it seemed like the band were channelling the greats from Ellington’s bands: altoist Paul Towndrow had Johnny Hodges’ tone down to a tee, trumpeter Tom McNiven stretching for Cat Anderson’s high notes and, had I been listening with my eyes closed, I would have sworn the clarinet was coming from Jimmy Hamilton rather than Martin Kershaw.

With Kershaw leading on clarinet he had to double on tenor, and the second alto was filled unusually by Konrad Wiszniewski, leaving Tommy Smith as the only lead tenor player. He naturally filled that role perfectly, with beautiful solos on “Isfahan” (played as a duet with Brian Kellock on piano) and “Lush Life”.

SNJO have got a busy year ahead as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary. with Kurt Elling singing Sinatra in May, a June tour of the Highlands & Island with Eddi Reader (I have half a mind to catch them in Ullapool…) and autumn tours featuring firstly the music of Benny Golson and secondly Glenn Miller. I wonder if they do requests?

SNJO and Courtney Pine Play Coltrane. Edinburgh, March 2014.

There’s been a bit of a stushie after a critic criticised the Cure for playing three hour long sets. Well the SNJO and Courtney Pine would have given them a run for their money, playing for well over three hours in this tribute to John Coltrane.

There has been a bit of criticism about that too, suggesting that Pine was somewhat overindulgent. Quite possibly. But then so was Coltrane – he famously didn’t know how to stop once he got going (to which Miles Davis is supposed to have said “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth“…)

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In the past I have sometimes tired of Pine’s pyrotechnics, but here the stream of consciousness flow of notes, together with an extreme display of circular breathing seemed fitting. Some critics described Coltrane as trying to play every note at once, which gave rise to the description of his playing as creating “sheets of sound“, and Pine did the same. His playing was fast and intense, and the audience loved it.

True, I think the audience would have loved it whatever: a combination of SNJO, who always get a good crowd at her Queen’s Hall, and Coltrane, who still seems to inspire devotion amongst his fans, nearly fifty years since his untimely death, seemed a guaranteed winner.

It was interesting to hear how such loved music translated from Coltrane’s small groups into a big band setting. Extremely well, I felt. With the band taking on much of the work done by McCoy Tyner, pianist Steve Hamilton was less to the fore and a bit lost in the mix, but Alyn Cosker more than held his own on drums in inevitable comparisons with Elvin Jones. He was in cracking form, especially when the band dropped out leaving Cosker and Pine to duet – or battle it out.

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Of the ten pieces, only one didn’t work for me, Joe Locke’s reimagining of the almost cliched ballad Naima – and even then Locke should be applauded for doing something different with his material.

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The rest of the material was faster – sometimes much faster. They started off with a ripping Impressions, with Pine blowing furiously from the start, and kept going. And going. And going! The arrangements generally stuck close to the originals, the band providing the support to allow Pine and the other soloists to blow. It was of course a night for the saxes, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski contributing on tenor, and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow soloing on alto. Pine alternated between tenor and soprano. There were also a couple of trumpet solos from Tom McNiven and Lorne Cowieson, and a trombone solo by Chris Grieve. My one quibble from the evening was that with so many great soloists the band, it is a shame they got little opportunity to show their chops.

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I think my favourite piece of the night was a storming version of Afro Blue – but then it’s one of my favourite Coltrane numbers. The only piece in the evening not penned by Coltrane (though the programme didn’t credit Mongo Santamaria), hearing the full band play the central riff for several choruses was exhilarating.

They bravely honoured Acknowledgement and Resolution from A Love Supreme, music which is so loved that it is rarely tackled by other artists. Resolution was arranged by Towndrow, and also featured his alto solo; Impressions was also arranged by an SNJO member, Ryan Quigley, though he wasn’t in the band on this occasion. Tommy Smith contributed The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost, which closed the show. It is very pleasing to see the SNJO using home grown talent as well as their roster of international arrangers.

Smith and Pine battled on the closer, sometimes with just Cosker powering along behind them. A more free piece which I didn’t know, and apparently minimal arrangement – Smith taking a break from his soloing to direct the band – this worked really well, building up to climax after climax. I think it had to be the last number: after three hours, I don’t know how they could have kept going!

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All in all, an evening of wonderful music, and it was great to hear Pine playing the music of one of his major influences so fluently. Marvellous.

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…”

SNJO and Branford Marsalis Play Wayne Shorter. Edinburgh, September 2013.

Back in September, Branford Marsalis joined SNJO to play the music of Wayne Shorter. It was a fascinating gig – it made me listen to Shorter’s music in a different way.

I have seen Shorter play many times, but I have been growing away from his music. The last time I saw him play with his quartet, maybe ten years ago, I left before the concert’s end: the music seemed so abstract that it didn’t say anything to me; it was as if it was always just about to get going, without actually making it. (I must say that I was in a very small minority: the rest of the audience clearly thought it was a superb gig, and it was very well reviewed.)

But I love the Shorter’s earlier music – such as the classic Blue Note albums from the early 1960s; and I love Marsalis’ playing too. And I was very curious to the how SNJO – or, more precisely, their arrangers – would approach tunes written for much smaller ensembles.

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Firstly, I was in luck: the bulk of the tunes which made up this concert stemmed from a short period in the early and mid-1960s – Shorter’s Blue Note recordings plus his time with Miles Davis and Art Blakey.

Secondly, the arrangements were excellent. This wasn’t a surprise – the SNJO commissions great musicians around the world to arrange for them, and they regularly use the same arrangers who know what works for the band.

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But thirdly… My favourite tune from the evening was the only tune that fell outside the 1960s, Geoff Keezer’s arrangement of “Virgo Rising”. I thought this was really beautiful. It might be because my familiarity with the older material meant that I thought I knew how the tunes should sound, and hearing them played differently was disorienting.

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The band did their usual great job with complex arrangements, and Branford was superlative: his empathy with the music was evident. He and Tommy Smith did some sax-jousting.

There is a lot of pleasure in hearing a full-on jazz orchestra playing music one loves: and this was very pleasurable indeed.

(Here are the SNJO’s programme notes.)

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Wayne Shorter, London c 1988.

Bach to Bite. October-November 2012.

At the end of October and the beginning of November, it felt like I was practically living at the Queens Hall: I went to four concerts there in two weeks.

First up were two jazz gigs: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played a concert of Ellington pieces, and a week later I saw Tommy Smith’s Karma. (Smith is also director of SNJO.) The Ellington gig started off a bit delicately, as if the repertoire was more important: it felt very much like they were reading rather than playing, the dots being a bit precious. But they stretched out at the end of the first set with a great version of “Rockin’ in Rhythm” which laid the foundations for a roaring second set. They played tunes from the whole of Ellington’s (and Strayhorn’s) career – from “Harlem Airshaft” through to some tunes from The Queen’s Suite, the Nutcracker Suite and the Peer Gynt Suite. “Single Petal of A Rose”, from the Queen’s Suite, was a gorgeous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock, pianist for the night (who was on great form all night). They closed the second set with storming “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, with Smith blowing chorus after chorus in the role made famous by Paul Gonsalves.

I last saw Smith’s Karma quartet in last year’s London Jazz Festival when they played a single, truncated set. I had felt a bit ambivalent about the band, so the opportunity of seeing them play a full gig seemed interesting. I am still ambivalent: the playing was superb, particularly Steve Hamilton on keyboards, but every time they got going, the rhythm or the tempo would change. It felt like 1980s prog, as if they couldn’t let their playing alone long enough to get on with the music. Very fiddly.

A few days later, Angela Hewitt played a concert of solo piano pieces by Bach. The second half was taken up with (I think) twelve pieces from The Art of Fugue. It was exquisitely beautiful and at times quite jazzy, but despite Ms Hewitt explaining that bits were improvised, it also felt formulaic – inasmuch as it was clear what would happen next. Programmed music, perhaps.

The last concert of my self-curated series was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the (erm) wackiest. I have been aware of Matthew Herbert‘s role as a big band composer for a long time, though I only have one of his recordings, and he has recently got a new job, so when I saw his show “One Pig was coming to Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to see it. It was – well, hard to describe. Musically, the nearest experience I have to it was a concert of “industrial music” created by chainsaws and sledgehammers that I saw in one of Edinburgh’s cathedrals about 30 years ago. (It might have been Test Dept; which, I read, were founded by Alistair Farquharr, who went on the form NVA who produced “Speed of Light“. A definite feeling of connectedness…) “One Pig” was music, but of a strange, different kind. It was even danceable, but – well, noise.

There wasn’t much to look at: a drummer sitting at a kit of electronic drum pads (Tom Skinner, who I’d seen playing avant garde jazz before), an electronic keyboard player, and two people (including Herbert) operating computers. The fifth member, Yann Seznec, stood in the middle of the stage enclosed within what looked like a boxing ring: this was what Herbert called the “sty-harp“, created by Seznec. (This post describes how you could make one of your own.) Seznec pulled on the strings to interact with the sounds: much of the sound in “One Pig” was sampled from the pig; its bones used to make percussion instruments, its skin used as the head of a drum. The sty-harp as well as the computers and samplers operated by Herbert changed the sounds coming from other sources – the drums and the keyboard. It was difficult to tell what was actually making the noises – there was little to connect the musicians’ actions to the sounds they created.

Towards the end of the piece, a chef appeared behind the musicians and started to cook some pork (not the one pig, I hope – that was slaughtered some months ago), the sounds from the frying pan sampled and used in the music.

But the strangest effect came at the end: the noises stopped and Herbert sang a simple song, accompanied by an untreated piano. It was startling and jarring. A most curious concert.

John Scofield in trio and with SNJO. London, November 2010.

Monday night at LJF was one where my high expectations weren’t fully met. It started with John Scofield in a trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, his regular rhythm section. (Last time I saw Swallow play, it was with Andy Sheppard…) They played a mixed set of standards and Scofield’s tunes – a couple of their standard ballads were exquisite – and all three were excellent. The disappointment came with the second set, which matched Scofield with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – and only because I was really looking forward to it! Playing arrangements of Sco’s tunes and some from his time with Miles Davis, it felt at times as if Sco and the SNJO were pulling in different directions – as if Sco’s loud guitar was fighting with the orchestra. Knowing both Sco and SNJO’s music, this seemed like such a waste: Sco’s record Quiet has some beautiful, haunting brass arrangements, and those commissioned by SNJO didn’t really match up.

There were some great moments – Ryan Quigley on trumpet, Martin Kershaw on alto and Alyn Cosker on drums all played good solos, and Tommy Smith, SNJO’s director, was on his usual fine form, but this was just a good rather than great gig.

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