I reviewed this show for LJN: a solo performance by Tommy Smith followed by a one-off show by alumni of the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, the TSYJO All Stars. And all stars they were: it was a really exciting performance.
I reviewed the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival for LondonJazzNews; here are some more photos of the Tommy Smith & Fergus McCreadie Duo.
Another gig by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Another blinder. Sometime I’ll be disappointed by an SNJO performance, but not it wasn’t this time.
The first half was a performance of Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite. Commissioned by the SNJO early in their existence, twenty years ago, and they played it with Wheeler taking the flugelhorn part. I hadn’t discovered SNJO at that point. Which is a shame, because the music is tremendous. Eight sections but played without a break, Wheeler’s writing is full of depth and nuance – there were a lot of dynamics at play.
And the excellent music showed off musicians as well as expected. The SNJO were joined by Laura Jurd who played the flugel beautifully – every note clear and full of emotion. Jurd is familar with the SNJO – she played the trumpet part in Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain a year ago (and was similarly impressive). The vocal parts in Sweet Sister Suite, originally written for Norma Winstone, were taken by Irini Arabatzi: her vocalese (including some long, long notes) felt spontaneous and exciting, and those sections with words were witty and moving. There were moments of intense quiet and moments of loud, exuberant swing.
Alyn Cosker couldn’t make the gig (he’s touring with his own band) so Tommy Smith called on Sebastiaan de Krom to fill the drum stool: this meant that the SNJO’s rhythm section contained all of Smith’s regular quartet (with Pete Johnstone on paino and Calum Gourlay on bass). Johnstone played some powerful solos, as did Smith.
This was a tremendous performance: the SNJO was on excellent form. And we got to take it home, too: earlier in the year the SNJO recorded the piece with Jurd and Arabatzi (but not de Krom) for release in the near future.
The second half comprised the music of Mary Lou Williams, spanning about fifty years of composition. Using her own arrangements, this seemed more standard, swinging big band fare. Another guest (and regular collaborator) Brian Kellock took over the piano stool, and Arabatzi came back for a couple of numbers, including a very light hearted In the land of Oo-Bla-Dee (written for Dizzy Gillespie).
Between mid December and the end of February, I saw Tommy Smith play in four – well perhaps three and a half – settings. I’ve seen Smith play many many times over the last thirty or more years, but four gigs in little over two months seems a bit excessive even for me.
The first was his huge work Spirit of Light, a composition for jazz orchestra and choir, which I’m still trying to get my head around; then his quartet tribute to John Coltrane, a completely different affair. Next a solo gig on a very wet night, not as immediately exciting as his Coltrane show as he settled into a more ethereal, contemplative mood, but rewarding nonetheless.
And lastly, another SNJO gig: jazz arrangements of Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint Saën’s Carnival of the Animals. Where the orchestra had been a bit muted in the December show, here they were at full power. And they swung.
Smith’s arrangement of Peter and the Wolf opened the show. And frankly he did an excellent job: the music was full of depth, with a sprinkling of Ellingtonian flourishes. Smith’s writing continues to impress: he knows this orchestra, and how to get the best from it.
The one downside was that, as with Spirit of Light, the words took a precedence, determining the structure and reigning back the band at times. However this cloud had a lining – not so much a silver lining as a whole treasury of jewels. What words! The text had been reworked by Liz Lochead and narrated by Tam Dean Burn. Lochead rendered the text into (I think) Scots, and it was delivered with passion and humour. It took a little while to ease into the dialect, but then it just flowed. Hugely entertaining.
The special guest for the evening was pianist Makoto Ozone, and he had reworked the Carnival of the Animals. This was, if anything, even more successful the Smith’s adaptation of the Prokoviev. Ozone has worked with the SNJO before (they released a record of Mozart’s Jeunehomme (piano concerto 9), arranged and featuring Ozone) and he clearly knows the orchestra well: his arrangement was full of wit and allowed the band freedom to stretch out.
His playing in both pieces was excellent. As well as being an accomplished classical performer, he has played in Gary Burton’s sextet (with Smith, I think) and has led his own jazz bands. He fitted perfectly within the SNJO.
Tommy Smith had a busy January: a duo gig with Brian Kellock (broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz Line Up), a string of sell out shows with the SNJO at Ronnie Scott’s, and Judy a couple of days later, he brought his quartet back to Edinburgh to play music from their album, “Embodying the Light”. They’d played a gig last July based on the same repertoire – an exciting, storming show that was one of the best concerts I saw last year. Which meant this show had a lot to live up to.
The first set didn’t quite make it: good though it was (and it was), it lacked the punch of last year’s gig. That was partly because in contrast to July’s sell out show, the much larger Queen’s Hall was only half full, and the acoustics weren’t as good. The quartet were playing without amplification, and at times Calum Gourlay’s bass was drowned out. (They were recording the show for video, and the instruments were miked for that, but they weren’t using the PA system.)
The second half was something else, though: I don’t know if the band had warmed up a bit, or the audience had warmed up, or may it was only me who had warmed up – but it felt like they had gone up a gear. In part it might be that they made more space – Smith played a solo piece early in the second set, using the piano as a resonator, which provided a change of dynamics.
The band were superlative. Sebastiaan de Krom played an amazing drum solo in the second half, and seemed to get better and better as the show continued. Pete Johnstone on piano was inspired and inspiring; he listens very attentively, even when he’s not playing – the look on his face showed how exciting he finds this band, and he creates genuinely exciting music as a result. And Calum Gourlay’s bass playing hits the mark.
After each solo from the side-men, I thought “that’s the real star of the show!”, each one bettering the previous. And them Tommy Smith would play, and put them a little in the shade: push them further, and they pushed him. Collaborative rather than competitive, it resulted in a truly exiting evening of jazz.
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.
As opening statements go, it was pretty definitive: a short introduction from Calum Gourlay’s bass and then the whole quartet roared into the Resolution, the second part of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Many people consider A Love Supreme to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century – me included. It is a work of passion that communicates a deep spirituality. It is a piece that is rarely played by other musicians, despite it being hugely influential: it seems almost sacrilegious to do so.
So for Tommy Smith and his quartet to start their concert celebrating Coltrane with Resolution, full of energy and passion themselves, controlled and forceful, clearly marked the territory.
On the hottest night of the year, the theatre was full, and sweltering. On stage, the band wore suits and ties, buttoned up, and kept their high energy approach going the whole time. Like many (most?) tenor players, Smith has long been influenced by Coltrane: as a young artist, he recorded Giant Steps on his first album, and he regularly included numbers by Coltrane in his live sets. He directed, and played tenor (together with Courtney Pine) with, the SNJO playing Coltrane a few years ago. He has an affinity with Coltrane’s music.
Playing with a line up guaranteed to bring to mind Coltrane’s classic quartet, and on this night apparently playing entirely acoustically (no mikes to be seen – though I’d be surprised if the bass wasn’t miked), Tommy Smith made a glorious sound. The band were superb. Peter Johnstone, a relative youngster, must have been channeling McCoy Tyner, laying down thick chords and searing solos. Sebastiaan de Krom was both light and loud, letting rip enough to do Elvin Jones justice; and Calum Gourlay, in the fourth gig I’d seen him play in four days, just gets better and better.
Smith explained that they were playing music from their latest CD, Embodying the Light – and I think they played the whole thing: three compositions by Smith, five by Coltrane, and ‘Trane’s arrangement of Summertime. It was powerful music – pure Smith, but pure Coltrane too. It was hugely exciting – exhilarating, even. It was a full blown experience, a bit of a roller coaster – aside from Naima, it was all pretty full on – and every bit as exciting. Wonderful stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mingus, in 1976.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.